Online News:A Status Report and a Look Ahead

2001-10-15

  It's been seven years since the first U.S. newspapers lit up their web pages in cyberspace and nearly eighteen months since the bursting Internet bubble raised serious doubts about the future of those very online news sites. And yet, despite the malaise still dogging the global digital realm, journalism online continues to grow, occasionally thriving, often demonstrating both the reality and the potential of convergent media as the newest form of mass communication.

Heavy Internet Use

  First and most basic, the number of persons with Internet access, particularly the ability to log on from home, is still on the rise. According to Nielsen/ NetRatings, some 459 million people worldwide have home-based Internet access, up by 30 million in three months and, in some of the fastest growing Internet markets of Europe and Asia, upwards of one-quarter of regular users without home connections go online from work or Internet cafes. Even in the United States, where home Internet penetration may have reached a temporary plateau at 50+ percent of households, a growing proportion of Americans are upgrading to broadband, a sure sign of increased interest in surfing the Net.

  All of this adds up to greater and greater "availability" of the online audience. In the U.S., for example, Jupiter Media Metrix reports that, while all Web traffic grew by approximately 12 percent from July, 2000 to July, 2001, the number of visitors to news and information sites rose by almost 15 percent in the same period. Moreover, according to a Scarborough Research National Internet Study, some 45 percent of online Americans read a digital newspaper "last month," while 38 percent listened to streaming audio and more than one-quarter (26 percent) watched streaming video.

  Closely linked to the growth of the online news audience is, of course, the remarkable up tick in the amount of Web-based journalism. Although it is very difficult to get an accurate count, and indeed the number changes daily, my best estimate is that at present there are 1,279 daily, general interest newspapers online in the U.S. and 217 daily, weekly, and/or specialized newspapers with a Web presence in Asia.

  In addition, I have counted almost 11-thousand Internet radio stations "broadcasting" from the United States, with roughly one thousand online radio stations available from Europe and some 135 from Asia. In the U.S., online radio listening is strongly associated with heavy Internet use. For example, 95 percent of persons who are online seven or more hours a week listen to Web radio and about half of online listeners stay tuned in for twenty minutes or more. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet counted how many television stations worldwide are also routinely online with streaming audio, video or other, rich multimedia; and, as far as I know, no studies have been conducted to determine what percentage of the Web audience goes online regularly to hear and see "broadcast" news.

  There is, however, at least one recent study that suggests the Internet has made a significant impact on the Americans' patterns of media use. The study (released by Scarborough Research in May) found what was characterized as "substantial percentages" of altered media behavior. For example, while seventy to eighty percent of the Internet users surveyed reported no change in their long-standing media habits, some 15 percent said they read the newspaper less often, with twenty percent acknowledging decreased magazine exposure and with almost one-quarter (23 percent) saying they watched less television.

Internet Journalism

  Although online newspapers may for the moment out-number full-service, highly interactive broadcast news sites in the U.S., three of the four most watched online news sites are associated with broadcasters - MSNBC.com, CNN.com, and ABCNews.com. Indeed, with more than 3 million "readers" each day, MSNBC's web presence has a larger circulation than any traditional American daily newspaper.

  The proliferation of Internet news sites and performance-praising prizes convinces me that an increasing number of industry leaders and journalists now consider Web-news to be a legitimate journalistic enterprise. However, as I shared with my new colleagues on the frontlines of Chinese media, it would be a mistake to uncritically apply journalism's powerfully ingrained standards of news judgment and news practice to the new, digital media. While newspaper journalists have had hundreds of years to polish their craft and while broadcasters have been at their trade for fifty years or more, Internet journalism is still young enough to do better, to avoid some of the shortcomings of their professional predecessors.

  In my opinion, the failings of traditional journalism, and particularly broadcast journalism, are partially the fault of the medium itself (television news is often goes by too quickly for viewers to comprehend), partially the responsibility of broadcast news personnel (broadcast journalists rarely think about or understand what their audience wants or needs from the news), and in part a function of how viewers approach the news (many of us are too busy, too inattentive to get the most from the dedicated, daily efforts of broadcast journalists).

  Fortunately, Internet journalism has already demonstrated that it has the technology, if not always the incentives, to rectify many of these difficulties. The key to creating online news that lives up to its promise is, in my judgment, a question of maximizing the interactive nature of Net news. In making the pitch for this point of view, I would suggest that, in terms of online journalism, interactivity has four important components:

  • Immediacy of content
  • Complexity of content
  • Journalistic responsiveness to users
  • Audience potential to interact with others in the public.

  In short, increased interactivity in online news is, in my judgment, crucial to transcending the limitations of the historic mass media. It can be accomplished, if there is an understanding of and a commitment to use the new technology of journalism for these important goals.

Internet 2

  And speaking of new technology, let me conclude this brief status report with a look ahead to the arrival of Internet2, the next phase in the Net. The application of Internet2 to online broadcasting was successfully demo-ed this past summer, when an NBC affiliate in Seattle, Washington sent five, live television feeds to the National Association of Broadcasters annual meeting in Las Vegas.

  Every online broadcaster that I have ever talked with dreams of greater bandwidth, a larger digital pipeline between themselves and the audience. Of course, the Internet doesn't come close to fulfilling those dreams. It was not designed for multiple-millions of users; it was not created with multi-media content in mind; and its designers had little understanding of its utility for real-time, interactive communication.

  But what if we could send studio-quality HDTV signals over a general purpose Net? Well, that, of course, is precisely the promise of Internet2, a quantum leap for online communication, being developed by a non-profit consortium of 180 U.S. universities. With a network backbone operating at 2.4 gigabits per second and with local networks now able to deliver digitized news and information to campus-based PC's three-thousand times faster than a dial-up modem, Internet2 is the "big pipe."

  Right now, Internet2 is not ready for primetime. But in less than five years, it will be. When that happens, broadcasters, in my judgment, ought to be among the first non-academics to have a go at putting Internet2's enormous power to use.

  The convergence of personal computers and the "old" mass media of broadcasting is creating enormous opportunities for innovation. Regrettably but understandably media convergence is also the source of considerable industry unease. Still, as Henry Jenkins, the director of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at M.I.T., recently wrote:

Media convergence is an ongoing process. …… it's not an end state. There will never be one black box controlling all media. …… History teaches us that old media never die. …… A medium's content may shift, its audience may change and its social status may rise or fall, but once a medium establishes itself it continues to be a part of the media ecosystem.

  Ultimately, of course, it is the men and women of journalism who will determine the role of online news in the media ecosystem. I wish them well. I'll be logged on.

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