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A Look Back at 2003, and What's on the Horizon for the Online News Universe

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2003 was a tumultuous year for online journalism, including the first "Internet war" and the rise in influence for Weblogs and citizen journalism. We look back at the year that was, and predict what's coming in 2004 -- with a little help from our colleagues.

Call me Swami. Sure it seemed slightly obvious, but for one of my predictions for 2003, I wrote that "smart bloggers get their due, become famous, and can get paid for what they do. Media companies get it, and start assigning blogs as real jobs and not just extracurricular activities."

Now a month doesn't go by without another media company announcing new Weblogs -- Fast Company, MSNBC.com, Variety.com, Wired magazine, New York magazine. Whether blogs are journalism or not, journalists are paying attention to them more than ever, writing about bloggers in Iraq or new blogging services offered by AOL.

But 2003 offered up much more than just an unhealthy fascination with blogs. We also obsessed over the proliferation of people with camera phones breaking spot news stories; the rise of Google and Google News; the soap opera at (AOL) Time Warner; the continued inroads of paid content; RSS feeds; massive online coverage of the war in Iraq; viruses, worms and spam overwhelming newsrooms; the struggle for independent news in Zimbabwe, China, Iran and Iraq; and political rhetoric and election coverage.

If I were to play Swami again for 2004, I'd say we will see an acceleration of many of these trends as online publications start to gain more solid financial footing. The watchwords for the industry are "cautious optimism."

With the U.S. presidential election front and center for so much of 2004, and the Olympics, expect the three-ring circus that is online media to get more raucous and rowdy -- but perhaps it will mature as well.

For this year's roundup of the top developments of 2003 -- and a look to what will happen in 2004 -- I've enlisted a group of distinguished colleagues to give their two cents. The following is an edited excerpt of their answers via e-mail.

Q: What do you think were the most important developments related to online journalism (media, video, blogging, etc.) in the past year?

The rising influence of Weblogs:

"The content management applications known as blogware greatly simplified the complexity of publishing online, allowing almost anyone easily to publish online. Just as how a million monkeys using typewriters will produce some bits of Shakespeare, three million humans using blogware produced a few hundreds sites worth regular reading. (A difference is that the monkeys don't claim this will revolutionize journalism.) An unfortunate side effect of blogware is it has facilitated monologues and narcissism to be considered as online journalism. The Neiman Foundation detailed some excellent usages of blogs by journalists." -- Vin Crosbie, consultant and president of Digital Deliverance

"Journalists getting involved in blogs, using them as a normal mechanism. Interconnection of blogs of similar philosophy.... I think this might represent a new big part of journalism, since an interconnected set of blogs is kind of a magazine. (This just occurred to me, I gotta blog it myself!)" -- Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org

"The rise of blogs, memorably during the war with Iraq, was the single most important development in online journalism in 2003. I felt that mainstream online outlets, including giants like NYTimes.com and CNN.com, struggled during the war. But blogs maintained by individual journalists on the ground in Iraq brought more color, insight, feeling and even humor to the war than anyone else." -- Angus Frame, editor of globeandmail.com

"Blogging definitely became more popular on online news sites this year. I've been tracking the number of Weblogs on news sites and during 2003 they increased from under 50 to well over 100. This is a great development, as blogging is a form that takes advantage of the Web's strengths: speed, short bursts of information, interactivity." -- Jonathan Dube, publisher of CyberJournalist.net

"The emergence of blogging is important and very much tied to the rise of the 'embedded correspondent.' Blogging among reporters would have caught on under any circumstances, because the technology became widely deployed and easy to use. But it was given a rocket-fuel injection by the Iraq war and the Pentagon's press coverage strategy of implanting correspondents in military units. In the most important way, blogging harkens to a very traditional and very important practice in journalism: filing installments or frequent updates to stories.

"The other thing blogging did for journalism was allow reporters to humanize themselves. Blogs are quite often done as personal reflections and anecdotes, rather than inverted-pyramid news-writing style. This helps correspondents to carry on more conversational relationships with Internet users. It helps build trust." -- Lee Rainie, director of Pew Internet & American Life Project

"This is the year when citizens' media exploded. In the U.S., the population of Webloggers grew, their audiences grew, and their influence grew. But much more significant is the Weblog revolution that has occurred in Iran and now Iraq. In Iran, one person -- Hossein Derakhshan at www.hoder.com -- inspired up to 100,000 countrymen to start blogging, allowing them to discuss forbidden topics and spread their stories around the world, putting pressure on the mullahs' regime. Even the president of Iran acknowledges the movement.

"Watch Weblogs and citizens' media bring freedom of expression and democracy to other lands next year. Whether in a small town in Iran or Iraq or America, citizens' media means that anyone can now own a printing press and has the power that goes with it. That will revolutionize news, media, politics, government, and marketing." -- Jeff Jarvis, blogger and president of Advance.net

"Blogs, which are a truly new form of communication, even bordering, at times, on journalism. Their greatest threat comes from self-aggrandizing gasbag bloggers ("gasbloggers?") who attempt to take credit for events that would have occurred anyway, in the normal news cycle." -- Bill Grueskin, managing editor of WSJ.com

"Collective support from the worldwide blogosphere called for the release of Iranian blogger/journalist, Sina Motallebi. He has now actually left Iran with his wife and son for Europe just two days ago. The Iranian vice-president who, after a year of extensively reading Persian Weblogs, decided to start his own bilingual blog." -- Hossein Derakhshan, Iranian blogger living in Toronto

War in Iraq:

"The most important development in online journalism in 2003 was without a doubt the Iraq war. This is a war that in large part played out on the Internet -- partly because of the 24-hour nature of the war; partly because of the incredible amount of detailed information available; partly because of the embed program, which created a ton of information for journalists to publish online; partly because of the information bloggers in Iraq published; and partly because of the global nature of the medium and the story. The coverage online was outstanding -- some of the best online journalism I've seen. The war was truly a watershed moment for online journalism." -- Jonathan Dube

Smart phones make a difference:

"BBC News Correspondent Richard Bilton and Cameraman Manny Panaretos used a third-generation (broadband) mobile phone to report broadcast-quality live coverage of a news event. No longer will broadcast correspondents have to lug videocameras and satellite dishes for on-the-spot reporting." -- Vin Crosbie

Broadband and video:

"Video finally came into its own as a storytelling medium for online news, because of increased demand and a story, the Iraq war, that met that demand. At MSNBC.com, we served more than 85 million free video streams during the war, largely because of a huge demand from our at-work, prime-time audience that demanded the story on *their* schedule." -- Dean Wright, editor in chief of MSNBC.com

"Broadband adoption has given online publishers greater opportunity to experiment with more fulfilling multimedia offerings." -- Cyrus Krohn, publisher of Slate

"The rise of video consortia, such as the AP Television News, for online sites. This might be seen as a direct result of increased broadband penetration (and the need to compete with national nets). In AP's case, it has also made it easier for local sites to generate some traffic from their local video feeds. We'll see more video being developed locally, and similar consortia efforts built around broadband in the coming year." -- Peter Krasilovsky, VP and senior partner, Borrell Associates

The good and the bad:

"The beginning of awareness by newspapers of how fundamentally different the Web is in projecting their brand. This has good sides, and bad. On the good side, many newspapers have realized that they are not just confined to repurposing the print content on the Web. We are seeing imaginative Web designers starting to spin off alternative versions of the print edition, using multimedia, and totally different approaches to engage an audience. The 20,000-circulation Lawrence (Kans.) Journal-World is a good example. On the bad side, it is appalling to see how many papers, in the pursuit of quick profits, try to charge for what should be the tent poles of their sites." -- Dirck Halstead, editor of The Digital Journalist e-zine

Tiered content and the ad recovery:

"There was increasing interest in 'tiering" of content at news sites. Some material is free; some you pay for. Many news sites now require folks to register and pay for archival content, video material, and other add-ons to their daily coverage. E-mail news-alert services also seemed to gain full traction this year. All of this represents new attempts by news creators to move to print journalism's economic model. One revenue stream is from subscribers, another is from advertisers. That brings me to [another] development: the beginnings of a comeback of online advertising. This is good news for online journalists because it means their organizations are earning money for their work." -- Lee Rainie

"Increased pressure for subscriptions on Web sites, and more content behind the subscription wall. Why? TANSTAAFL: 'There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.' (Coined by sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein in 1966 novel, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.") -- Alan Abbey, senior feature writer, Jerusalem Post

Political discourse online:

"The Howard Dean campaign -- and others -- grasped the value of the Internet as an organizing and fund-raising medium. Meanwhile, news organizations grasped the importance of online journalism in covering the campaigns." -- Dean Wright

All of the above:

"The growing profitability of the Web. The continuing domination of a few companies over the most popular Web sites. The continuing growth and interest in blogging." -- Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Q: What do you think will be the most important developments in online journalism in the coming year?

A continued explosion in blogging:

"Some mainstream news organization will likely find a way to bring a 'rock star' blogger into the organization or somehow find a way to embrace the most powerful of the new journalistic voices emerging on the Web. This will be part of a longstanding pattern, where news organizations bring the best of the Web into their operations." -- Lee Rainie

"Improved quality of commentary via journalists' personal blogs, unfiltered by media owners. More people relying on Net for news." -- Craig Newmark

"Increasing growth of the blogosphere beyond the English speakers to Chinese, Portugese, Spanish, Arabic, and European languages. The first blogger/president of the world (Howard Dean), I guess! Members of parliaments around the world finding Weblogs to be the best tool to communicate with their people. Also they'll be popular among teachers, professors, and their assistants to get in touch with students." -- Hossein Derakhshan

Net influences politics:

"The political campaign will focus new attention on the Internet as a communications medium and this will build a new audience for online journalism. I predict at least one major news organization and/or pundit will write in late winter (just after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary) that this is the year the Internet has come into its own the way TV emerged as the dominant political communications medium in 1960. This won't be true, but it will be treated as a milestone for the Internet -- and online journalism." -- Lee Rainie

"Online journalism will play a bigger role than ever in telling the story of the 2004 election, perhaps the most important in three decades. Today's political campaign demands more than linear storytelling, and online journalists are best equipped to tell those stories." -- Dean Wright

Participatory journalism:

"I think more and more non-journalists will commit, as JD Lasica puts it, 'random acts of journalism.' Weblogs and picture phones have whetted the content-generation appetites of a whole generation of amateur reporters. I suspect news companies eventually will realize the appeal of non-journalists' content -- it's more interesting because it's more real -- and unsuccessfully attempt to get in on the action. Then, if amateur journalism really catches on, it's inevitable that news companies will try to reinvent themselves as 'the information providers you've always trusted.' Such a fundamental shift in thinking probably couldn't happen in only a year, but I think we're already ankle-deep into this chain of events." -- Adrian Holovaty, lead developer for the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World Web site

"Photo phones bringing amateur video journalism to mainstream audiences.Puts power in the people's hands, and the demand for 'real life' video (e.g. 'Cops' and its spawn) is heavy." -- Alan Abbey

"Photo phones are going to have a major impact on journalism in the coming years. It's the whole idea of citizens having in their pockets -- at all times -- the power to document some news event that they find themselves part of and instantly post it to the Internet. I hear a lot of people in the industry yawn when I and others enthuse about photo phones, but they're missing something profound. I predict that in the next couple years, we're going to see more amateur citizen photojournalism showing up in all forms of news media -- from ordinary people carrying photo phones who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, with no journalists in sight. And we'll see more photo-phone-carrying reporters turned into impromptu photographers when their photojournalist colleagues aren't on the scene." -- Steve Outing, senior editor at Poynter, and columnist for Editor & Publisher

"I'm going to continue to sing one note: We will continue to witness an explosion of citizens' media into more countries and down to a hyperlocal level and into more kinds of content: audio, video, social networks...More and more big media will try blogging -- though what they should do first is listen to what their audiences are saying in this new form. We will see successful journalists and businesses launched from the world of citizens' media." -- Jeff Jarvis

Real Simple Syndication feeds:

"RSS. I think the uptake of news readers and RSS feeds is quite important. It'll break out mainstream in 2004. Finally push that works." -- John Battelle, visiting professor, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California-Berkeley

"The maturation and increased visibility of RSS as an alternative to a plagued e-mail publishing environment. This is still in its infancy, but RSS should evolve into an e-publishing technology that eventually is on a par with e-mail and the Web. It's still got plenty of rough edges, but once Microsoft builds it into Internet Explorer it should become mainstream." -- Steve Outing

Better content -- at a price:

"2004 will be the year of better, richer, deeper content -- for a price. Online publications wrestling with their bottom lines spent 2003 embracing the paid content model. In 2004, they'll realize that the content needs to be damn good if people are going to shell out, so we should start to see improvements (better interactivity, more Web-exclusive journalism, a more intelligent approach to personalization, etc.)." -- Angus Frame

"Fairly substantial profits at a number of newspaper sites that have been just barely in the black or slightly red for the past couple of years. Plus, a power grab going on right now on both the editorial and business sides. On editorial side, the print side of newspapers are seeing that online is an increasingly important part of their readership. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It likely means greater attention paid, more resources -- so long as they keep their eye on the ball and continue to embrace innovation." -- Peter Krasilovsky

"The single most important development will be the recognition by advertising agencies that online journalism can be a major profit center. All these agencies are facing the same crisis in broadcasting. The question is, 'Where did the audience go?' Instead of being able to command millions of dollars in fees from a monopoly of air waves of three or four major networks, the audience has been splintered into hundreds of cable and satellite operators. By the time you add in the Web, you are talking about an infinite number of content suppliers.... The answers may be to aggregate Web sites. At that point, the value of Web sites quickly will raise from hundreds of dollars per year to millions."  -- Dirck Halstead 

Watch out, Google:

"I do predict that 2004 will be the year that Google gets greedy, and a significant group of odd bedfellows will band together to challenge Google's hegemony." -- Travis Smith, editor of Variety.com

Same as it ever was:

"I don't expect anything important to happen in online journalism during 2004. Though there might be modestly incremental increases in the amount of original reporting done online, most news sites will simply continue to shovel their print or broadcast editions' contents online, plus attempt to transplant their traditional media's business models online. Unfortunately, not a lot of that shoveling or transplantation makes sense. Declining media put online does not ascending media make." -- Vin Crosbie

Q: What do you wish didn't happen in 2003? {on any topic}

War in Iraq

"I would have preferred there was no war and no space shuttle disaster." -- Leonard Apcar, editor in chief of NYTimes.com.

"Lessened emphasis on fighting terrorism. War in Iraq, as part of the lessened emphasis." Craig Newmark

The scourge of spam:

"I wish spam hadn't reached such an annoying level that it began to change the usefulness of e-mail. I hate getting spam. But I hate even more that the response to spam has made it harder for me to reach people I want to reach, or worse, made it impossible for me to start conversations with people who have set up such tight restrictions on incoming e-mail that I can't even introduce myself." -- Lee Rainie

"Spam has crippled e-mail as an effective channel between news outlets and our readers. Once upon a time delivering headlines to an in-box was a service; now it seems like a threat. The spam problem needs to be solved so online journalists and our readers can once again correspond through our own in-boxes without fear." -- Angus Frame

Q: What do you hope for most in 2004? {on any topic}

Readers gain control:

"That the chefs in the newsrooms will ask each consumer what he or she wants to consume, rather than just spreading a smorgasbord of content across hundreds of menued pages. I hope that most online news publishers will begin to realize that interactive doesn't mean multimedia. Interactive means the readers have control of what they read. Leading readers thorough mazes of Macromedia Flash graphics isn't interactive. Hoping for story leads by publishing reporters' e-mail addresses but not responding to most readers' e-mails isn't interactive. Giving a blog to each columnist or each editorial writer isn't interactive. As Jeff Jarvis says, harkening back to what news probably was in its aboriginal, pre-industrial form, "News is a conversation." On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog, plus it's time that marketers and publishers understand that the dogs have stopped eating the dog food." -- Vin Crosbie

Original reporting:

"That we see more original reporting, not just opinion work, coming from the Web." -- Tom Rosenstiel

Advances in political coverage:

"I hope for spirited, long-running primary and general election campaigns that will engage the readers and be great fodder for terrific journalism." -- Leonard Apcar

"There are elections in 2004, both in the United States and Canada. So my hope is that we break new ground with our coverage of democracy in action." -- Angus Frame

The economy, stupid:

"A strong economy for online, but without the hype and froth." -- John Battelle

"To see continuous smiles on the faces of our advertising salespeople." -- Dean Wright

"In the long term, I think the most important thing for the future of online news is for sites to reach profitability and financial stability. That, more than anything, will help ensure the commitment to online journalism and justify media organizations pouring more money into producing online news. And, of course, I hope media organizations pour more money into online journalism. I'd also like to see the end of pop-up ads!" -- Jonathan Dube

"A 10% increase in staffing for my online department. (Are you listening, Santa?)" -- Travis Smith

Many wishes:

"That broadband saturation expands more rapidly, and that no one is left to suffer with dial-up. That the online advertising market perks back up, stealing away some of the dollars that television undeservedly holds on to. That general-interest news publishers give up on the ridiculous idea that they can put a paid-subscription wall around all their content and expect to survive. That everyone would be smart enough never to buy anything from a spammer, and the spammers would simply go away." -- Steve Outing

"EU and U.S. step up pressure on Iranian government to stop Internet censorship on Iranian political and news Web sites and Weblogs. Bloggers can earn more money using inventive new services based on niche marketing ability of blogs. Real-time search among blogs by Google/Blogger wich will revolutionize content analysis methods. E-mail to be useful again due to anti-spam laws." -- Hossein Derakhshan

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Related Links
Associated Press Television News
BBC: Live on the Ocean Wave
BuzzMachine Weblog
Editor: Myself Weblog
Glaser: What Will Be in 2003
Neiman Foundation: Neiman Reports
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