It seems like ancient history to think of getting online news only through proprietary providers like Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online. But that was life not so long ago during the gestation period for new media.
It's been 10 years since news started being produced for the nascent World Wide Web. In September 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois released a beta version of Web browser Mosaic. Within a month, the University of Florida's journalism school launched what they believed was the first journalism site on the Web. Around this same time, O'Reilly launched the Global Network Navigator as the first e-zine to map the Web, and the White House launched a Web site.
By 1994, Wired magazine's online arm, HotWired, was running the first banner ads, and newspapers started to post content on Web sites. The gold rush was on.
In an effort to gauge how far online news has evolved, OJR selected a diverse panel of early online journalists and pioneers to express their views on where we've gone and where we're headed.
All panelists were given the same set of questions via e-mail and answered without knowledge of the other participants' answers. We've edited and excerpted their answers here. Feel free to add your own thoughts by using the forum that runs alongside this column.
This week's participants:
John Battelle is director of the business reporting program at the University of California, Berkeley, founder of The Industry Standard, and co-founding editor of Wired. A columnist for Business 2.0, Battelle is at work on "The Search" (Viking/Portfolio, 2004), a forthcoming book on the implications of search engines in business and culture.
Ana Marie Cox's resume is littered with corpses from the dot.bomb explosion. She was an editor at Suck.com, Feed.com, Mother Jones and Inside.com. She now lives in Virginia and works for a large multinational corporation and writes The Antic Muse Weblog when her bosses aren't looking.
Bernard Gwertzman is a longtime New York Times correspondent and editor whose last job for the Times was as editor-in-chief of nytimes.com (1995-2002). He also served in Moscow as bureau chief, in Washington as diplomatic correspondent and in New York as foreign editor. Gwertzman retired from the Times in 2002, and has been serving as a consulting editor for the Web site of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he does a regular column, "Gwertzman Asks the Experts."
Craig Newmark founded craigslist.org, a modest site where people can find a job or a place to live, or can address other everyday needs. He really did grow up wearing a plastic pocket protector and thick glasses taped together. Craig is currently predicting that the next presidential election will be determined by what people do on the Internet.
Dave Winer started the Scripting News Weblog in 1997, the longest currently running Weblog on the Net, and has written the online DaveNet column since '94. He was named an InfoWorld Top Ten Technology Innovator in 2002 and is founder and CEO of UserLand Software, the maker of Radio UserLand blogging software. He currently is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.
OJR: What's your first memory of using your computer to get news? How has that experience changed over time?
Battelle: It was HotWired, 1995, when we were prototyping news and just about everything else on the Web. Unless of course you count Nexis/Lexis, which would date me back to about 1990 or so, or, wait, AppleLink in 1987 or...wait...The WELL, in the mid-80s. I guess I got news from The WELL in the mid-80s -- news of Dead shows, and the like. But not formal news, more word of mouth...
Newmark: First, I think it was '94. I was volunteering at the Exploratorium Multimedia Playground, using wired.com and showing it to people. I also remember hearing alternative news from the WELL in the early '90s, and that started me thinking that there's a lot we never hear about from the usual media. Nowadays, it's easier to find alternative perspectives.
Cox: On my junior year abroad in Costa Rica, I would use the university's computer lab to read SunSITE's info about the then-imminent 1992 election. I don't remember precisely how I managed to know do this, I believe my father sent me the FTP address in an e-mail.
In the ensuing 10 years, online news has gotten much, much prettier. Also more abundant. I don't know how much of an improvement slide shows and streaming audio are over simple text on a white screen, though I am happy that there are more choices of where to get information.
Gwertzman: My first experience in using my computer to get news was while I was foreign editor for The New York Times (1989-1995) and used the AP wire, which was on CompuServe, which was then in text format. In 1994, when newspapers began to appear on proprietary services (Prodigy, AOL), I looked at them with interest, since computers had been my hobby for years. When I first was able to see the World Wide Web in operation in 1994, I was utterly fascinated when I realized the potential for breaking news on computers. And I am still fascinated.
I proposed to the executive editor of the Times, Joseph Lelyveld, in 1994-1995, that I be assigned to the fledgling electronic news division of the Times. From 1995-2002, I was the editor of nytimes.com, and have always been excited by the progress made in the field.
Winer: I used CompuServe in the '80s to get news, but that was not really that memorable -- but I do remember it. The thing that blew me away was Pointcast, although it was disappointing when I installed it. The most significant event was when, in 1999, I got my first RSS [Real Simple Syndication] aggregator running. Before that, getting the news meant going to News.com and seeing if there were any new stories about once an hour. Most times, there would be one or two, that didn't interest me. As soon as I was getting my news through RSS, I'd check every hour and get dozens of stories, and usually one or two that were right up my alley. Since then, it's gotten much better. I subscribe to over 200 feeds. I expect much more of news, and I could still subscribe to more feeds without overload.
OJR: How important are Weblogs in the history of journalism, and how do they differ from personal home pages?
Winer: Weblogs drop the cost of publishing to near zero, making it possible for anyone with information or ideas to publish them. It's a huge change. Before, I used to get quoted occasionally by reporters, and they'd select the sound bites that were important to them, not me -- and they'd often mangle the quotes. It never served to get the ideas out that I wanted to get out. Now I can do it myself and have been since 1994. A lot of other people do it too now. About being different from the personal home page, geez, Weblogs are the personal home page. The difference is that Weblogs change and old PHPs were cute, and maybe a little snazzy, but never changed.
Battelle: Weblogs are quite important, I'd wager, in the way desktop publishing was in the late '80s. They democratize the printing press for the Internet medium. As to the second part of the question, the intent of a Weblog publisher seems, for the most part, quite distinct from that of a personal home page. Weblogs are updated frequently and content-driven, whereas personal home pages, at least in the past, have been "brochureware" for the most part.
Newmark: I think that they've started to provide first-person, really honest news, and some, like MetaFilter, are collecting news in serious ways that mean something. The good aggregators provide a good collection of trustworthy items, something personal home pages never do.
Cox: I don't know how important Weblogs are to the history of journalism. I certainly don't think that Andrew Sullivan brought down Howell Raines, if that's what you're asking. But there's an echo-effect at work right now that has made Weblogs seem influential, largely because traditional news organizations have bought the idea that they are.
That said, I think what's really revolutionary about Weblogs isn't their content, but the way that Weblog software has enabled technically unsophisticated people to produce aesthetically pleasing, well-organized Web sites. This is how blogs are different from personal home pages, and why blogging software could be to online journalism what PageMaker and Quark were to magazines: It may allow blogs to have the same effect on traditional journalism as zines did. Which is to say, a few big-name blog authors will get hired by major media publications to zing up their lame output. They will then become disillusioned and leave to write extremely mannered, hugely popular memoirs based on the experience of raising their orphaned little brother. (Is Glenn Reynolds destined to become the Dave Eggers of blogging? Discuss.)
Also, as it was for the short-lived zine revolution, the simplicity of the new technology has enabled some talented people without formal training to be recognized for their intelligence and wit. I am for this; the rewards of reading something great are well worth the hours of slogging though warblogs, moblogs, etc. Two of my own favorite blogs -- The Major Fall, The Minor Lift and (excuse the language) Dong Resin -- are put together by proudly unprofessional journalists. I find their content much more reliably informative and hilarious than pretty much anything published by people who get paid to do so.
OJR: Should information online be free, or should publishers try to squeeze out money from consumers?
Battelle: The model of publishing is not very different online or off: one way or another, the publisher needs to be paid for the service and information they provide. Advertising, search, or paid, it depends on what the content and context are -- but someone has gotta pay.
Gwertzman: I have gone back and forth on this. When we started nytimes.com in 1995-96, our intention was to charge subscribers, and in fact from mid-1996 until the summer of 1998, nytimes.com charged overseas subscribers $35 a month, and we averaged about 5,000 customers. But we dropped the fee when we realized that unless our competitors -- like the washingtonpost.com -- charged, we would not reach the mass of readers we wanted.
But I have come to change my mind, and I believe that now the Times and other publications with large subscriber bases should charge a fee, even if that means the number of viewers may drop. Otherwise there is no way to earn enough income to expand the online newspapers into solid news publications in their own right.
Newmark: There's plenty of room for both. I think the grassroots aggregators will start providing great services while making a living.
Cox: I don't think of newspapers (or other commercial media organizations) charging readers as a moral question. Government information should be free, publications funded by the public should be free, and as someone who reads a lot, I would like it if more commercial publications were free.
As a writer, however, my feelings on the subject are mixed. On the one hand, free online publications tend to pay writers just a little more than what they charge readers. On the other hand, publications that charge readers (and pay writers well) tend to not exist. Salon, of course, is an exception: It charges readers to subscribe and still pays writers poorly. It also may cease to exist soon.
The question of whether Internet publications can get away with charging readers and survive has, of course, been hotly debated since there were such things as Internet publications. I think I'm voicing some fairly conventional wisdom when I say that people will pay for content when content gets good enough to pay for -- and when acceptable free substitutes are no longer available.
The ideal online media business model is a mystery to all of us still -- it's clearly not a print model, it's less clearly not a cable TV model. I can't imagine paying a subscription for just Slate, just the NYT, just my favorite blog, or just any one of the dozens of publications I read online. But I might pay to access all of them. (This would be akin to a satellite television model, maybe.)
OJR: What's the most exciting new development in online journalism, and why?
Winer: RSS. Because it levels the field. On the same page I read reports from BBC, The New York Times and my favorite Weblogs. I'm not more impressed by Glenn Fleishman, for example, when he writes for his Weblog, or when he writes for The New York Times. It makes online journalism more competitive and it desperately needs more competition.
Gwertzman: The ease of browsers receiving news, and the smooth insert of multimedia into the news coverage. The advent of broadband everywhere means that it is so easy to receive news that it is revolutionizing the news business.
Newmark: Some of the group blogging and discussion mechanisms, like MetaFilter and Slashdot, but they're all in their infancy. I do agree that image-enabled mobile phones will become important, but filtering is the biggest deal in this area.
Cox: This space left intentionally blank.
Battelle: The resurgence of advertising revenue to the Internet content model. It will allow journalists to once again innovate online.
OJR: What will it take for people to trust the news they read online?
Gwertzman: Consistency and knowing the source of the news are important. The nytimes.com benefits of course from working closely with the Times paper publication, but I think for it to be really successful it will have to develop over time its own staff, and that will require payment by subscribers.
Winer: Time and triangulation. More time to get to know the people who are writing, and triangulation means seeing the same events through the eyes of various people, so I can learn how they tend to interpret things. Trust is made out of experience.
Battelle: I think we're there for the most part.
Newmark: I'd like an RSS aggregator that would go to my favorite sites, with a little filtering on top of that.
Cox: Well, I think lots of people believe what they read online now -- even when they shouldn't. My mother, a very smart and capable woman who's been online for five years, still sends me warnings about nonexistent viruses and Bonsai kittens. But people probably trust the Internet more now than they did five years ago because publications they recognize are on it, and I think people will always trust brand names -- again, even when they shouldn't.
But I do hope that the instability of online information teaches people a certain skepticism about all news organizations (online or offline). ... To the extent that having a blog emboldens non-journalists to investigate major media claims for themselves, I'm very pro-blog.
OJR: If you could have an ideal experience with online news and information, what would it be? What would it look like and feel like?
Battelle: Hmmm. Something like Google News with unlimited access to archival stories, video, and the dark Web for nickels per access. ...
Gwertzman: It is what I felt during the "crises" that developed, ranging from 9/11, to Princess Diana's death, to JFK Jr.'s death. The surge of traffic to the site, the need for people to get news quickly and accurately, without the time to wait for the printed paper.
Cox: I think it would look and feel like a combination of the Wall Street Journal and porn. Seriously. I think it would have unobtrusive advertising -- I actually prefer Salon-style interstitials to the ads that either bump into or even interrupt the text on most commercial sites (and sometimes make for inappropriate juxtapositions). It would have a low-bandwidth option. There would be a way to contact the authors of the content directly (I'm a big fan of e-mail addresses at the end of articles). A user could choose to have links open in the current window. There would be a way to mark up the text (marginalia, underlining) and a way to save the marked-ups and the text.
It would in no way resemble the hilariously incomprehensible "newspaper of the future" described by David Gelernter in the Weekly Standard recently, the crowning feature of which is the replacement of "one longish piece" with "five short ones," or as he also puts it a "string of aphorisms." I have a (diminished but extant) faith in people's attention spans and am not ready to give up on text on the Web. I think the "unreadability" of long articles online has less to do with the articles being long than the optical standards of today's computers: When tablet computing/smart paper becomes cheap and up to the challenge, the people who want to read long articles will read them online. (They already do, sort of -- they print them out.)
OJR: What's your least favorite thing about going online for news?
Gwertzman: Particularly in the early days, the clunky technology and the slow download times made reading online an onerous task.
Cox: Ads, trying to find something worthwhile in the sea of crap. (These are the same problems I have with finding news offline, of course.)
Newmark: It's just so hard to find sources to trust.
Battelle: The lack of shared grammar for contextual importance -- but we'll get there.