USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





For Pioneers of Web Journalism, the Future Is Still Full of Surprises

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Roundtable panelists discuss the value of blogs, business strategies for pricing content and what professionals and consumers alike should look forward to. This is the second of a two-part series. 

Last week's first installment of the virtual roundtable drew a lot of interest from other online pioneers. Boston Globe technology editor DC Dennison thanked me for including Global Network Navigator (GNN) in my capsule history, and suggested adding Dale Dougherty for the next installment. Done. PaidContent.org's Rafat Ali suggested I talk with Slashdot founder Rob Malda. Done.

And from across the pond came a note about Emigrant Online, from content manager Noreen Bowden. "I thought it might interest you to know that I work for a company producing what we believe was the first online source of national news in the world." Sure enough, the service started in 1987, when Liam Ferrie sent a weekly summary of Irish news to about 15 colleagues at Digital Equipment Corp. through DECNET. Now it's one of the leading providers of news to Irish people in 142 countries.

Keep those stories coming, and feel free to post your thoughts on the origins of news online using the forum that runs alongside this column. So without further ado, here's the second part of our virtual roundtable, asking the same questions to a new panel of nine online pioneers.

Christopher Barr was the founding editor in chief of CNET Networks in 1995 and left in 2001. An online dinosaur, Barr was at PC Magazine in 1986, where he ran the bulletin board and later the online service that would become ZDNet.

Merrill Brown has a long history in print, broadcast and online journalism. He has worked for the Washington Post and Channels magazine, helped launch Court TV and was a consultant in the early '90s to Time Inc., NBC and others. He was the founding editor in chief for MSNBC.com in 1996, and served as senior vice president at Real Networks from August 2002 to August 2003.

David Carlson is the Cox Foundation/Palm Beach Post professor of new media journalism and director of the Interactive Media Lab at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. A pioneer in the development of interactive newspaper services, he has more than 20 years of experience in print journalism. At the Albuquerque Tribune he was founding editor of The Electronic Trib, an interactive newspaper launched in 1990.

Dale Dougherty is vice president of online publishing at O'Reilly & Associates. He has been instrumental in many of O'Reilly's most important efforts, including founding O'Reilly & Associates with Tim O'Reilly. He was the developer and publisher of Global Network Navigator (GNN), the first commercial Web site launched in August 1993 and sold to America Online in 1995. Dougherty is also the developer and executive editor of the "Hacks" series of technical books.

Glenn Fleishman is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to the Seattle Times, The New York Times, InfoWorld magazine, MacWorld magazine, the O'Reilly Web sites, and other publications. He edits the Weblog Wi-Fi Networking News. Fleishman didn't study journalism as a career, but his four years as a college newspaper editor in the late '80s eventually resurfaced and took over what he thought was his career as a Web site developer.

Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda is the creator/editor of the popular "News for Nerds" discussion site, Slashdot.org. He lives in Holland, Michigan, and has worked in a grocery store bagging groceries and developed Web sites for The Image Group. He started Slashdot while he was in college; the site was later bought by Andover.Net in '99 and is now part of the Open Source Development Network.

Jim Romenesko maintains the respected Romenesko media hub for the Poynter Institute. He started the site as MediaGossip.com in May 1999. Romenesko also runs The Obscure Store and Reading Room, an offshoot of Obscure Publications, a print newsletter covering the fanzine subculture published from 1989 to 1999. He was an editor at Milwaukee Magazine for 13 years and covered the Internet for the St. Paul Pioneer Press from '96 to '99.

Scott Rosenberg is co-founder and managing editor of Salon.com and has also served as Salon's senior vice president for editorial operations since October 2000. Before joining Salon, he was the San Francisco Examiner's movie and theater critic for nearly 10 years. He won the George Jean Nathan Prize for his theater criticism and started a column covering digital culture in the early 1990s.

Doug Weaver helped set up the New York office of Wired Magazine in 1994 and sold and implemented many of the Web's first advertisements for HotWired. He is now the president of Upstream Group, a consultancy, and was a founding board member of the Interactive Advertising Bureau and received the organization's first Lifetime Service Award. His online newsletter, The Drift, is read by more than 4,000 industry decision makers.

OJR: What's your first memory of using your computer to get news? How has that experience changed over time?

Barr: On January 28, 1986, the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. At PC Magazine, where I was working freelance, we used MCI Mail to communicate. An editor in the cubicle next to mine saw the headline and we gathered around her amber monitor to read the wire stories as they came in. It was chilling and thrilling at the same time. We were chastised when the bill came in the following month because the cost of reading those stories was extremely high in 1986.

Carlson: It was a Friday afternoon in 1982, and I was a newspaper bureau chief covering the environment in rural New Mexico. My boss called to tell me there was a package waiting for me at the bus station 30 miles away, and I should "start using it Monday." The package contained a Radio Shack Model 100 portable computer. When I opened the box, I learned that it had something inside called a "modem" and it was extremely fast, 300 baud! I also found, even in 1982, an offer of 10 free hours on CompuServe. That night, I set the Model 100 up on the kitchen table. It was about 2 a.m. when I finally managed to make the thing dial the phone, and I logged on to CompuServe for the first time. Shortly afterward, I found that I could get the AP wire on CompuServe.

That was my epiphany. I was struck with the idea that this was the future of newspapers. I was so excited that I started dancing around the kitchen, yelling and screaming. The commotion awoke my wife, who was asleep two rooms away. She came into the kitchen, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She looked at the Model 100's little 8-line by 40-character screen, looked at me, shook her head at my craziness and went back to bed. I spent the next few months telling all of my colleagues at the paper about this experience and waxing poetic about the future of newspapers. Pretty soon, they got so sick of hearing about it that they stopped inviting me out for beers.

Fleishman: I'm an old-timer, and was reading news in some form online as long ago as 1979 on CompuServe. Some publications made some of their content available at a fee. I was young and ran up big bills on the service, so there was a gap until about 1986, when I went off to college, and discovered BITNET (Because It's There, Because It's Time Network), a parallel cousin to ARPANet, which eventually was subsumed into the Internet. BITNET had a variety of discussion areas and newsgroups, and news was certainly spewed into it.

Rosenberg: I suppose it depends on how you define "news." I started on the WELL around 1990 and found that to be an incredibly useful grapevine-style source of information, but it didn't become a regular habit until around 1994. In August 1994, I wrote a column for Computer Life chronicling an experiment of spending a week not reading the newspaper and instead getting all my news online only; the Web was nascent at that point, and my sources were AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. It was a disaster, between the pathetic limitations of those services in those days and the inevitable parade of technical problems.

In November 1994, we put the San Francisco Free Press online (you can still read it here) -- that was my first experience with delivering news online myself -- and once I did that it felt absurdly obvious to me that the Web was the only future for online news. Since then the story has just been one of continued success in figuring out how to present the news online and (mostly) continued failure in figuring out how to support it as a business.

Romenesko: I recall reading some publications -- not major newspapers -- using Gopher in the very early '90s. I used Prodigy in '92 or '93 to read Newsday and the Los Angeles Times. I used AOL about the same time, I believe, to read The New York Times and Time magazine. Just before the Mosaic browser came out, I read the Wall Street Journal with some proprietary software that came and went in a flash.

Brown: My first memories come from the early days of AOL when I recall scanning headlines and reading a few wires stories. Obviously, my personal habits have changed significantly. Today, when I sit down for a few minutes, I scan multiple sites, view videos, glance at updated personalized topic features, look at sports and financial data, and scan through e-mail news and entertainment material from columnists and sites whose work I enjoy. The two experiences are as different as imaginable, as different as say viewing TV in its early days, mid-20th century, and sitting at a satellite-fed large monitor today.

OJR: How important are Weblogs in the history of journalism, and how do they differ from personal home pages?

Brown: When a particular blog is really working, the engagement level of both the writer and the reader is unlike anything else around today. There's a real-time type of communication, an immediate sharing of perspectives and an intimate level of creative thinking that doesn't compare to other forms. I think that with blogs now moving quickly into the mainstream, their form will evolve quickly and will change how information is gathered and how journalists, pundits and the public communicate on fundamental levels.

Barr: Weblogs, or something very similar, were dreamed up more than 100 years ago by Jules Verne. In his 1890 futuristic "A Day in the Life of an American Journalist in 2890," he predicted that instead of being printed, every morning the news is spoken directly (IM'd?) to subscribers, who, from interesting conversations with reporters, learn the news of the day. Each subscriber owns a recorder (hard disk?) to gather the news if he doesn't want to listen to it himself.

Although he was off by 890 years, Verne accurately predicted that people would want to get the news as unvarnished as possible. Weblogs are good devices for encouraging conversation, although they are still in very early development and usage. I expect to see them become more useful and more sophisticated in the next decade.

Rosenberg: Blogging software transforms the personal home page into a potential news delivery device. The improvement in blogging tools has meant that the person who used to update his personal home page every few weeks or months can now pretty easily update every day or hour or minute, and that turns the personal home page from a static "advertisement for myself" style site into a dynamic environment.

Enterprising individuals, inside and outside the profession of journalism, have seized this development and run with it in all directions. Link those people together with good tools like Google and Technorati and you have something more like what people thought the Web was going to be nine years ago -- a true informational ecosystem. That's pretty important. Blogs are evolving as a sort of parallel universe in symbiosis with mainstream journalism. How that plays out will continue to be fascinating.

Romenesko: Too early to say. In an all sub./reg.-required world, Weblogs will really suffer. I suspect they'll have more commentary and less linking.

Malda: Where journalism starts fitting into Weblogs is when humans start making editorial decisions. There are millions of Weblogs out there; nobody can read all of it. A person using an RSS headline aggregator is an editor of their own personal newspaper. As the tools become smarter, new levels of human participation will make it possible for journalists to fill in the cracks -- attaching insightful and intelligent Weblogs together, and editing them to tell a story.

Fleishman: There are a handful of Weblogs which, by reason of their prominence -- however they reached it -- have an effect on people's opinions, actions and other news sources. There's also a mass effect, which is examined by Technorati, Daypop, and Popdex, which is that any subject that enough bloggers discuss often boils over now into a serious examination in the non-online world. Sometimes, it takes one blogger, but more often, it takes many. The question there is: How much is revealed information that's new, that's based on reporting, and how much is just the blogging community (any subset you choose) acting like a dog with a rag doll in its mouth, shaking and shaking it?

Dougherty: In my view, Weblogs expand upon two features of newspapers -- the op-ed section and the "Letters to the Editor." I don't think they are a substitute for what I'd consider to be the bread-and-butter tasks of journalism, which is doing research and talking to people in pursuit of a story. Weblogs are vital in helping to create conversation in a community...Weblogs will probably be less significant as their use by more people expands, just as Usenet became less interesting as the number of people grew.

Weaver: I'm hoping the Weblogs signal the reemergence of the online news personality: "I'll collect the news, sort it out, and then offer you some context in which to view it." There's the potential that a handful of bloggers can become the DJs of news and information. If you think about it, it's the classic opinion leader syndrome on steroids.

OJR: Should information online be free, or should publishers try to squeeze out money from consumers?

Carlson: I'm not sure it's reasonable for consumers to expect everything to be free, but I'm also not sure it's reasonable for publishers to expect to get the same percentage of income from circulation they have received historically. We also need to recognize that there is more than one type of information. There are state, national and international news, which have basically become commodities like peanuts or porkbellies, and there is niche news that is available from only one source. Niche news is a larger category than you might think. It includes everything from The Wall Street Journal and Consumer Reports to local news, in-depth information about sports teams and what I believe will be next, personalized news.

Brown: Some information should be free and some information should be purchased. Mass circulation sites are in a position to serve millions of customers by providing advertising and sponsorship opportunities that make sense for those businesses. The core products of those sites should be free today and should stay free. Every one of these sites, however, should be devoting significant resources to developing content and applications that would rely on subscription or per-visit revenue models. Multimedia content that isn't repurposed, columns that are original to the Web from newspaper writers, alerts, personalized services and other features should move away from the free model. And sites or blogs serving smaller audiences or niche markets should be aggressively moving to find non-advertising revenue streams as well.

Rosenberg: The model we are finding growing success with ourselves at Salon is a good basis for a broader answer to the question: A mixture of paid-only and free content still makes a lot of sense. Some stuff needs to be free to keep a publication as a participant in the broader dialogue of the Web; some stuff needs to be paid because advertising alone won't pay the bills -- and also because, when readers pay for something, they actually care about it more.

Barr: If the information is of value to you, then you should chip in to pay for it. It takes an investment to produce compelling, useful, trustworthy content and people who benefit should contribute to that investment.

Dougherty: If you believe as I do that users are getting the majority of their information online, then as a publisher you have to be committed to figuring out how to make money online. You can't ignore it and you can't necessarily force success, either. You have to experiment and try different things. It's important for publishers to try and understand what people want and what they are willing to pay for. We have our books available online in Safari, a technical library that is a subscription service. It is doing surprisingly well.

Weaver: The problem with free news is that it's never actually free at its source. Some individual or news organization is spending money to get a reporter close to the news. Someone along the way will have to help them recoup that cost and make at least a modest profit, whether it's the consumer, the advertiser or a syndication customer.

The big networks have been starving their news divisions for years and one result is a pathetic level of actual reporting. This is why they all snapped up the Pentagon's cynical "embedded" assignments in Iraq. Unless we have a free, fair and profitable press, we're not going to have quality news gathering. We'll see the news quickly devolve into nothing but press releases, rumor and reporters interviewing other reporters.

OJR: What's the most exciting new development in online journalism, and why?

Barr: The worldwide growth of the Internet. This ubiquitous backbone is making it possible for more people to contribute news and views than ever before. Ten years ago who would have imagined we could read such visceral accounts of the war in Iraq?

Brown: I think the most exciting development in online journalism is the increasing amount of multimedia content being distributed by the Web and produced in original fashion for the Web. ABC News, CNN and MSNBC, among others, are all doing very creative work in creating a new form of multimedia journalism and an Internet video aesthetic that will separate this medium from those that have preceded it. We have only started creating Internet video journalism, and as consumer broadband skyrockets, this decade the range of material that will be produced and its scale, functionality and utility will grow as well.

Carlson: I wish there were more to be excited about, but I guess I would have to say two things: wireless devices and "Flash journalism." Flash and similar technologies allow us to tell stories in new ways, and it is finding new ways of telling stories that, to me, has always been the promise of online media. We should be able to use the digital realm to eliminate most of the weaknesses of traditional media while capitalizing on the strengths.

Rosenberg: I'm fascinated by what will happen as the Web continues to expand its dual role as (a) the locus for feverish political debate and investigation by partisan writers and (b) the critical organizing tool in the hands of campaigns like Howard Dean's and lobbies like MoveOn.org. At some point we will realize that we do not have any clear dividing line between participant and observer.

This all seems neatly foreshadowed in the strange little incident where The New York Times' front page Dean analysis quoted a blogger's description of the Dean cause as more of a movement than a campaign. Later the paper had to post a correction, saying that it wasn't the blogger's description at all -- she had actually been quoting a writer for the American Prospect. It's getting to be a great big blur out there. This is healthy insofar as it reflects a rebirth of political excitement and engagement and indicates that the political dialogue is widening; it will be unhealthy as people try to exploit the blur by planting disinformation and cloaking their motives.

Malda: The real-time nature of it all. Watching a story unfurl itself, not at the whim of a TV reporter or paper writer, but rather seeing it happen as thousands of readers take in the information, and expand it in many directions at once. Some directions will be bad. Others will be good. The future of journalism is figuring out how to sort it all out in such a way that everyone who wants to speak can, but also allowing users to choose who they listen to.

Weaver: I recently heard CBS News President Andrew Heyward describe this generation of news consumers as "information impressionists." Today's consumer is putting together a patchwork quilt of data and insight on each topic. Take what they heard on Jay Leno....add the e-mailed news article a friend sent them....a short blurb on the radio...the headlines they saw on the Yahoo home page....it all adds up to a remarkably accurate picture of what's actually going on. If e-mail, blogs, the Web and -- pretty soon -- wireless weren't here, this wouldn't be happening to the degree that it is. Watching how news organizations really adapt and become horizontal and media agnostic in their approach to the news is going to be the real revolution in the business.

Fleishman: The introduction of vernacular reporting filtered through high-visibility sites. The idea that someone can use a phonecam to take a documentary picture and have it spread across the planet is the best defense against tyranny, distortion, and executive authority abuses.

OJR: What will it take for people to trust the news they read online?

Brown: What it will take is the passage of time and a level of frequency of use that isn't there today. The biggest challenge online news faces is the fact that the research suggests sadly disappointing frequency. When more people make daily visits to their favorite sites with that usage level will come the appropriate level of credibility.

Dougherty: Trust develops over time. One of the unheralded attributes of a good publisher is consistency. You make a promise to a reader and you try to live up to it every day. Readers recognize the commitment and they learn to trust you because of it.

Carlson: Credibility. We need to stop "overblowing" news, online or off. All of our media now are way too sensational. We need to tell the truth, not hype what we have to sell. I believe that people have always been able to tell the difference between the National Enquirer and the Los Angeles Times, and they can tell the difference online, too. What we journalists have to do is remember the oldest adage of our business: "Get It First, But First Get It Right." Then we need to tell it like it is instead of the way we think it will attract the most pairs of eyeballs.

Rosenberg: I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all level of trust or distrust of news we read online any more than there is a catch-all level of trust in news we read on paper. The medium isn't what conveys the trust, it's the provider. Readers of The New York Times or Wall Street Journal Web sites trust what they get as much (or, in some cases no doubt, as little) as they trust the versions they read on paper. The Weekly World News shares the Times' delivery platform but that doesn't make it as trustworthy. The perennial issue online seems to be continuing to educate readers to be aware of who is producing/writing/editing/paying for each page that they call up in their browser. Knowing that is the only way you can arrive at a level of trust.

Malda: I don't know what makes anyone trust TV or newspapers. Is it logos and advertising? Is it simply knowing that a corporate entity can be sued if they lie in their paper? I don't think anyone should arbitrarily trust any source of information simply because of the medium by which it is delivered. Readers should make decisions for themselves. And content providers should be honest about their biases when applicable. Online, this isn't as obvious. Reading ABCnews.com hyping the latest Disney movie, it might not be totally obvious to a reader that there is a bias there, too.

Weaver: I recently saw a great quote by William Gibson: "The future is already here...it's just unevenly distributed." For everyone born after about 1975, there isn't much of a question about whether to trust online news. It's just there...it's always been there. There's a statistic out there -- I'm not sure of the source -- that says 60% of Americans under the age of 35 didn't read a single newspaper last year.

When it comes to trust and the future of their franchises, the big networks and big news organizations have an interesting two-headed challenge. On the one hand, they have to transfer the trust they've built among older (35+) consumers into the new media they consume....because even Dad is spending a lot more time on the computer, so the Wall Street Journal and ESPN and The New York Times have to be there for him. For younger consumers, they really need to start building a relationship from scratch.

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?

Malda: It would be similiar to an e-mail client, except that instead of e-mails, I would get stories sent to me. I would choose what sites provided me with content. And I would choose what subject matter I would read and what I would ignore. Every piece of news would have a discussion forum, and lists of other places I can go to get more information on the same, or related, subjects.

Barr: To paraphrase the Supreme Court, "I can't describe it but I'll know it when I see it." It's still way too soon to be thinking about an ideal experience. The enabling technologies -- bandwidth, wireless, IP2, protocols, content management systems, browsers and operating systems -- are still too nascent. And I'm getting tired of getting de-wormed and inoculated against viruses. How long did it take for TV to overcome many of its technical road bumps and invent TiVo? Fifty years? Let's see, the first transmission on the ARPANet was October 29, 1969. Ask me again in 2019.

Rosenberg: If I had a brilliant answer to this question I wouldn't be wasting a moment responding to you, I'd be off working on building it... I'd love to see someone design the equivalent of a super-usable, super-elegant Web home page built out of RSS feeds that you select -- a dynamic "My Front Page" that is easy to read and linked to a universe of content. Each feed represents someone's editorial brain -- a news site editor or a blogger. The selection of feeds represents my own brain's filter of the available brainpower. A weakness is that RSS is strictly chronology-based, so you still don't have the chance to do the equivalent of picking a top story to hold at the head of the column.

Carlson: It would be virtual reality. I would be a witness to the event, right in the midst of it, able to look up or down, this way or that, and see what the reporters see and what the participants see. Afterward, I would be able to review the event in multiple media -- words, pictures, video, audio, databases, archives, blogs, chat rooms and more. I'd be able to see and do all this on a wireless device that fits in my pocket or is built into my glasses or clothes.

Romenesko: Philadelphia Inquirer's site from 1998. Nice design, easy to navigate.

Weaver: I'm going to paraphrase a really smart advertising and design guy named Bob Greenberg here. He said the great Web site experience is two minutes wide and 120 minutes deep. I need to get my view of the news in a quick, navigable format that gives me plenty of room to go deeper on any given topic. Video, archival data, background all has to be there but needs to live below the surface. I don't care to have you greet me with any splashy graphics or video...put all that underneath. And I'd add that the whole thing has to have a personality. If you look at any of the great information brands, you can feel the presence of personality, a point of view. I guess I want someone to be my news DJ.

OJR: What's your least favorite thing about going online for news?

Brown: My least favorite parts of the online news experience involve issues of currency and story structure. Nearly all major news sites fail to tell me whether I'm reading yesterday's stories, whether what I'm reading is coverage of events that just happened and what the sources of the information I'm reading actually are. I don't want to waste my evenings scouring through material that I had looked through that morning. And I want to know from news sites especially when they site "sources" for their stories whether those are actually their producers' sources or those of a wire, a stringer, or another news outlet. 

Fleishman: The fact that I still have to collect news from many places to find out what's up. That's partly because of the cost factor: If you can't charge, you don't want to disseminate too easily to reduce the amount of advertising revenue you get from eyeballs. I use a news aggregator and Google News, and between those two items, I wind up rarely just visiting news sites anymore. Rather, I visit after getting the headlines and blurbs.

Romenesko: Running into a registration or subscription site.

Rosenberg: Sitting at a monitor. Though now that I work mostly from a WiFi-enabled laptop, that's vanishing.

Dougherty: It seems like a random experience and it takes up a lot of time. Also, newspapers have so many advantages over online in the way they can present information.

Weaver: The feeling that online news providers -- just like their offline counterparts -- are getting lazy, bankrupt, cynical or all three. When you see that same news feed in six different places then who the hell is adding any value? If you don't have the budget to actually generate or uncover news, then at least interpret it for me. I'd hate to think that the biggest role of an online news "editor" is choosing typefaces.

Carlson: Shovelware, and that's just about all there is to find.

Barr: Blackouts.

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Related Links
CNET.com
Glaser: Online News Pioneers See Lots of Changes in the First 10 Years
IrishEmigrant.com
MSNBC.com
O'Reilly & Associates
Poynter's Romenesko
Salon.com
San Francisco Free Press
Slashdot
The Obscure Store and Reading Room
University of Florida's Interactive Media Lab
Upstream Group's The Drift
Wi-Fi Networking News
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Merrill Brown: "Nearly all major news sites fail to tell me ... whether what I'm reading is coverage of events that just happened and what the sources of the information I'm reading actually are."

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Christopher Barr: "My feeling is if the information is of value to you, then you should chip in to pay for it."

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Doug Weaver: "If you look at any of the great information brands, you can feel the presence of personality, a point of view. I guess I want someone to be my news DJ."

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Rob Malda: "Where journalism starts fitting into Weblogs is when humans start making editorial decisions."

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Scott Rosenberg: "Blogs are evolving as a sort of parallel universe in symbiosis with mainstream journalism. How that plays out will continue to be fascinating."

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