World Online Exclusive: Spinning the Web - Ok, so I was wrong

Monday, July 15, 2002

Nearly a decade ago, shortly before I began to first work in the employ of a news organization, I used up the first two of my 15 minutes of fame by getting quoted in Rolling Stone magazine.

I was participating in an online community that included among its shining lights Jon Katz, a novelist and media critic working at that time for Rolling Stone. In a piece about the impending impact of computer-mediated communications on mass media, he made use of my statement that "the many-to-many model is going to eat the one-to-many model alive."



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I was wrong.

I believed that this new communications medium allowed people to disseminate information freely and without dependence upon established media institutions. I believed people, engaged in free, unmediated discourse, would eventually undermine the primacy of branded media giants. This was before there was a World Wide Web. I would have believed in this even more strongly had I known that soon we would all have the means to be publishers right at our fingertips.

Shortly after I first began working at newspapers, back when the San Jose Mercury News' presence on AOL was about the only news operation trying to publish online, I developed another theory that's proved so far to have been equally incorrect.

I developed a belief that the explosion of personal computing, the advance of the Web and sound business principles guaranteed a paperless future in the newspaper business.

It stood to reason, I thought, that this new delivery mechanism for news and information eliminated the need for newspaper publishing to be an industrial enterprise. Why manufacture a physical product, which entails managing, supplying and staffing supply chain, materials inventory, production facilities and a distribution network if the business of newspaper publishing could be accomplished without any of those things?

I was wrong.

I imagined that by now we'd have begun to see newspaper companies beginning to shut down those operations in favor of Web-based delivery, delivery of customized content directly to a reader's browser, an e-mail client or a laser printer for those who like to do their reading seated in the smallest room in the house. This was before laptops were commonplace and before palm pilots and e-books existed. Had I known they were coming, I'd have believed even more strongly in this, too.

It's 2002, and while the media landscape has shifted in the last decade, it's still pretty recognizable. Why was I so far off? Why didn't street level reporting topple the media companies? Why hasn't the Web undermined newsprint?

In order to understand why the revolution has been mostly an unfulfilled promise, it's illustrative to recognize how traditional media, and not just newspapers, kept their franchise as our centralized providers of news and information.

First and foremost there is inertia. We're lazy, or busy, or tired. There is far more information available these days than we could ever hope to consume, and therefore we rely on media effort and expertise to compile, index, prioritize, digest and present it for us.

With different media companies and products specializing in different types of news and information, we can all pick and choose a few sources that broadly reflect our individual worldviews and our needs. I may select Entertainment Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, National Public Radio, Spin Magazine and ljworld.com. You may choose the CBS Evening News, New Republic, CNN Headline News and the O'Reilly Report. We can all turn to the mainstream outlets and configure our own news feeds.

The web is a great source for all the left field news and information anyone could ask for. But unless something is one's own personal hobbyhorse, it just requires too much effort to dig deeper into the finer details, controversial information or unreported stories that mainstream sources lack either the space or the daring to report.

So while the Web, even with all of its crank journalism distracting from the real value that can be found there, can be an essential source of specialized news, the amount of effort required to mine that information continues to assure that established media companies will remain the first choice for broad-stroke coverage on which most of us rely.

OK, so media monoliths remain upright, but why haven't they made the big shift to the Web? Sure we're all on the Web, but no one has unplugged the printing presses yet. Boxcars still roll up beside the Journal-World to offload rolls of newsprint and enormous cauldrons of printing ink.

To understand this you have to understand what business a media company is in. You might think a newspaper company is in business to sell you a newspaper. It's not. When you buy a newspaper you do little more than offset the cost of gathering the news, printing the paper and having it delivered to you. There's not a lot of profit in that, often none at all. A newspaper company, like almost all media companies, is in the business of getting your attention and the selling access to that attention to advertisers.

What holds newspapers back from shutting down printing presses and publishing solely online is that not just news organizations specifically, but the Web as an entire industry is still striving to develop business models that work and are just as profitable as what exists now.

Banner advertising has been a disappointment. Banners are small, easily ignored, their effectiveness is problematic to demonstrate and the very interactive nature of the Web allows readers to choose not to interact with them. The free, advertiser-supported visual medium where advertising is effective and therefore lucrative is television.

Television advertising is ubiquitous. Unless your fast-forwarding through commercials on taped programming, you don't get to watch that next chunk of "60 Minutes" until you've dutifully watched the last two minutes of commercials. It's pretty much that simple.

For better or worse, if the Web is going to thrive as an advertiser-supported medium, then you'd better expect to see advertising online to begin to function that way.

Frequent visitors to the Weather Channel's site, weather.com, are used to just that sort of advertising. They employ a variety of techniques to deliver browser-dominating, animated advertising that requires your patience, if not your attention, before you can proceed to the content you're after. Yahoo! has embraced the use of so-called "interstitial" advertising that displays an ad page between the page you were just on and arrival at the link you were following.

We're all going to be seeing a lot more of this kind of advertising, though it may never subsidize a complete shift away from newsprint. And as the Web continues to cover the globe but at a depth of but an inch or two, readers will continue to rely on familiar media brands to package news and information into digestible info-meals. Then again, I could be wrong.