Web Users Open the Gates

By Jay Rosen
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 19, 2006; 12:00 AM

A decade after major news providers such as The Washington Post began publishing on the Internet, they are finally beginning to ask the right questions about what the Web can do for them and their readers -- and to realize how disruptive web technology is to traditional journalism.

Big guns such as the Associated Press's chief executive, Tom Curley, have admitted that the industry seriously fumbled its new media strategy for years by opting to re-purpose material produced to serve print and broadcast audiences.

Only recently has it begun to respond to the decisive, Internet-driven shift in the "balance of power" between news providers and readers by striving to deliver news "on-demand" and by developing truly interactive reports, Curley told the Online News Association in 2004.

"When the Web was born as a commercial content enterprise back in the mid-'90s, we thought it was about replicating -- that is, 'repurposing' -- our news and information franchises online," Curley said. "The news, as 'lecture,' is giving way to the news as a 'conversation'."

The earlier idea of re-purposing content was not innovative, but it was rational and cost-effective. The Web is flexible. It can "kinda/sorta" replicate an older format, if that's the goal. It's useful as a cheap, fast mass delivery system. "Trusted brands," the thinking went, could establish trusted sites, and transfer their reputations to the new medium.

Newspaper, radio, television ... Web! It made sense at the time. But in the 10 years following the birth of washingtonpost.com, the Net and its publishing platform, the World Wide Web, have proved harder to master, scarier to get wrong and more thrilling to get right than expected. Wilder, and discontinuous with the past in a way those coming out of traditional journalism never could have imagined.

Simple example: The Net radically shifts principles of news distribution as all sites become equidistant from the reader.

In 2003, I tracked Arnold Schwarzenneger's gubernatorial campaign by reading California Insider by Dan Weintraub because the Sacramento Bee political columnist seemed more clued-in to the race than top national reporters. That I could choose his coverage (and links) over the Washington Post's demonstrates the "unbundling" effect of the Internet.

Containers in which news had been packaged broke apart because the Internet could deliver content without the wrapping. I had no use for the Sacramento Bee, just Weintraub. The technology increased his influence, his "brand," while subtly diminishing the Bee's.

The disintegration of news containers unsettled a business that had coped with the introduction of radio and television. Executives were forced to redraw their value chains. Curley, for example, suggested that "legacy technology, silo-ed bureaucracies and entrenched workflows" at American newsrooms had prevented creative responses to the Web. True. Yet the disruptions happened anyway. Here are some that stand out for me:

The "closed" system of gates and gatekeepers has been busted open. What's the most amazing thing about the new media world? Its low barriers to entry. Thanks to the Internet, it is cheap and simple to launch a site that, theoretically, the whole world could be watching.

Yesterday there were a few dozen providers; today news, views and attitudes stream through millions of gates. And the Web accepts all kinds of gatekeepers, each with unique rules for what matters, rather than the rules adopted by a class of professionals with set journalistic principles. For the old gatekeepers that's a big disruption. The charges made against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, claiming that his medals were undeserved, could have been held out of circulation by newsroom gatekeepers, pre-Internet. By 2004, it was impossible to keep such a story quiet, and editors knew it.

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