This week, the United States Senate held a hearing on “The Future of Journalism”, prompted by the recent demise of two major U.S. newspapers. I won’t rehash the many, many arguments and theories put forth by so many people on this issue, save to note one that I am afraid might be slipping down the memory hole.
It should not surprise any OJR reader that I stand with those who blame newspaper management for the industry’s current woes, and not upon “the Internet,” Google or even the competition from all those new websites out there. (After all, those new websites have to compete with each other, too.) No, when confronted with the ride of the Internet, the newspaper industry’s owners and managers made a series of lamentable decisions that crippled the industry’s ability to engage and defeat its new competition.
The particular decision I wish to remind folks of today was the industry’s reaction to 1995 court case, one that prompted news managers across the country not only to dismiss opportunities to engage with their audiences online, but to directly order their employees not to do so.
Perhaps the (relative) old-timers among us will remember Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy. That 1995 case pitted a New York securities firm against the Prodigy online service. The plaintiffs argued that an anonymous poster on a Prodigy discussion forum defamed the firm and its president by claiming that they committed fraud during the IPO of another company.
Ultimately, a court held that because Prodigy had hired “board leaders” to monitor the forum, that made Prodigy the “publisher” of the information, and, thus, responsible for it. The court noted a distinction with a previous, similar case involving CompuServe: In that case, CompuServe did not hire anyone to monitor its forum, so it was simply a conduit, not responsible for what people posted.
The lesson the newspaper industry took from the case? Forums and comments are okay… only if newspaper staff do not edit, or even read, them.
Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy lasted just one year as precedent. The U.S. Congress, effectively, made the ruling moot the next year with its passage of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The CDA created a “Good Samaritan” exception that prevented people and businesses who hosted discussion forums from being treated as the “publisher” of information provided by participants on that forum.
But risk-averse newsroom and website managers weren’t persuaded. They continued to insist that their papers could be held liable for any defamatory statements made by readers on their website if newspaper staffers engaged in or managed those discussions. I heard that message from other employees at chains where I worked, as well at several industry conferences, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
And with the guards pulled off duty, the crackpots moved in.
Few understood then, but the stakes were higher that the viability of message forums and comment boards on newspaper websites. The chilling effect of the Stratton Oakmont decision kept newspaper staffs from engaging with audiences (and potential sources) on the Internet at the precise moment when thousands of new Web communities were evolving, building relationships with those online readers that newspapers were choosing to ignore.
With no one from the paper engaging them at many newspaper-dot-coms, responsible folk looking for a conversation soon departed. And with no one from the paper to stop them, the cranks had an open forum in which to scream. Newspaper forums and comment boards were not communities, hosted by a trusted voice within the community. They were a blank wall, a virtual representation of a faceless institution. They weren’t your neighbor. They were “The Man.”
Little wonder so many frustrated, disempowered readers rebelled. And, worse, that so many smart voices simply clicked elsewhere to speak.
While many newspapers ignored their comments boards and forums, or shut them down, competing communities emerged. The most notable, Craigslist, ultimately helped destroy the newspaper industry’s highly profitable classified advertising business. But thousands of other niche topical and community forums demonstrated that the local newspaper would no longer be the best source for daily information on the issues and activities that readers held dear.
I can only guess why so many newspaper managers were eager to act upon Stratton Oakmont and slow to embrace the CDA. I suspect that some wished that Stratton Oakmont had held – it would have absolved the newspaper industry of the need to embrace interactivity online, and could have led to potential, reader-driven competitors being sued into oblivion. How convenient that future would have been to the newspaper business.
So when newspaper managers bemoan the poor quality of their user-generated content, blaming crude and offensive readers, please remember that the industry had the same chance that everyone else did to engage readers responsibly. And that the industry, for the most part, demurred.
Yes, some papers did the right thing. But not enough to create a critical mass that would have led the U.S. public to see newspapers as the best place to go online for interactive communities.
Nor was the failure to engage the audience online the only factor in the news industry’s decline. Conservative politicians for a generation have been encouraging their followers to disengage from newspapers. The Do-Not-Call list kept newspapers from using incessant telemarketing to keep ahead of high churn rates. Passionless, “he said, she said” reporting turned off readers looking for a source of truth amid the Internet’s deluge of information.
But how much stronger could the newspaper industry have been had more of its leaders decided in 1996 not to withdraw, but to engage? Plenty of employees within the industry urged just that. But fear of Stratton Oakmont ruled the day. And the decade.
The Internet did not make newspaper oblivion inevitable. Witness how Microsoft responded to the same threat, parlaying its market dominance in operating systems and desktop software into dominance in the Web browser market, protecting Microsoft’s market share for another decade. (Yeah, the government sued Microsoft, but the firm stood its ground and, ultimately, didn’t have to give up nearly as much as it would have lost had it allowed Netscape to continue dominating the browser market, thus potentially undermining Microsoft’s position in other markets.)
Vibrant online newspaper communities could have strangled competitors like Craigslist in their virtual cribs… if newspaper managers had not called off their online innovators. That missed opportunity is the newspaper industry’s fault. And no one else’s.