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.

The new balance of power between producers and consumers. Curley described this change to the Online News Association on Nov. 12, 2004. When it came to consuming media, the Web allows users to decide "what application, what device, what time, what place." Curley described a decisive shift in whose clock the news runs on, away from an "appointment-driven" model. Producers had to adjust.

The basic idea of what defines a news "consumer" morphs when consumers gain access to producers' tools, and can float between being a reader and an editor. In a speech to BBC staff on April 25, 2006, the network's director-general, Mark Thompson, said users with expanded choices demand more from big brands. New media, he said, "empowers those audiences, transfers control from us to them, lets them consume what they want, when they want, lets them create content, lets them participate."

It's a long way from "Excuse us, just re-purposing," to, "Oh my God, there's been a power shift." But since 2004, mainstream providers have shown signs of learning to swing with the Web. They supported blogs. They encouraged interactivity. They began to re-draw their picture of their audience.

'Newspaper, radio, television...Web!' was a wrong turn down a one way street. Uh, oh, power shift. In October of 2005, Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, said the era of omniscience in network news had ended. His insight: You could improve viewer trust by denying full knowledge. Disruption! (By the way Heyward said it at my blog, PressThink.)

Sources have more power to sidestep journalists. What goes for consumers goes for sources. Because sources can be publishers too, there's a new balance of power between them and reporters, who once gave those sources a voice in the press. For example, the Dallas Mavericks' owner and a tech entrepreneur, Mark Cuban, has little use for beat writers assigned to cover his team. Instead, with Blog Maverick, he speaks to hardcore fans and addresses controversies directly. Reporters read his blog concurrently with the fans, who once relied on the sports section for inside information.

The Net exploded the universe in press criticism. A decade ago, six letters and two phone calls from readers in response to a three-part series that took months to report was considered "good" feedback. Today, a big story commonly brings in 500 to 1,000 e-mails. It's not just the volume, but who is speaking up. Today there is much more criticism of the press from outside the club of mainstream journalists. This changes the kind of explanations that will wash in forums like the Washington Post's live online discussions with reporters, where -- under tightly controlled conditions -- journalists reply to skeptical users.

Heavy consumers of online journalism also effectively fact-check, cry foul and push back with weblogs and other tools. That's an environment of critical scrutiny unknown to most journalists pre-1996. Of all things bloggers have tried to do, their criticism of the news media has probably made the biggest difference in the business.

The Net has exposed group think in journalism. The strongest motivation I had in starting PressThink (my one-person magazine of press criticism) was to circumvent the gatekeepers in the national discussion. I was tired of passing my ideas through editors who forced me to observe the silences they kept as professional journalists.

The day after President Bush was re-elected in 2004, I suggested on my blog that at least some news organizations should consider themselves the opposition to the White House. Only by going into opposition, I argued, could the press really tell the story of the Bush administration's vast expansion of executive power.

That notion simply hadn't been discussed in mainstream newsrooms, which had always been able to limit debate about what is and isn't the job of the journalist. But now that amateurs had joined pros in the press zone, newsrooms couldn't afford not to debate their practices. This is disruptive because if the unthinkable cannot be ignored, professional correctness loses its power.

A Pulitzer-prize winning media columnist at the Los Angeles Times, David Shaw, denounced my suggestion after reading about it at Romenesko, an online gathering spot for journalists. He quoted CNN staffers as saying what a terrible idea opposition press would be. Are you nuts? It would instantly destroy our credibility!

But my question was: Why has no major news organization tried to build up credibility as the oppositional (but relentlessly factual) network the way Fox News built credibility as a Bush-friendly channel, which capably won the ratings for its coverage of the 2004 Republic National Convention? After all, the target audience -- cable watchers from "blue"America -- comprised at least 40 percent of the overall market, plus anyone from the right who would tune in for the outrage factor. Prior to the Internet, the idea that an opposition press could have value would simply have been ignored.

Disrupting the legacy media's overconfidence. How crazy is it to think a third-place cable news channel might see the logic of developing an oppositional, adversarial -- even liberal -- voice? It isn't improbable in the big picture, but finding support for such programming is deemed impossible by those in the TV news club. Some call it the "legacy" effect. When mainstream journalists, trying to maintain consensus ideas that justify their work and form bases for their professional identities, misunderstand the environment created by the Internet, bad decision-making and dumb statements follow.

In 2004, Dan Rather and his team at "60 Minutes," along with the CBS executives, misrecognized what was happening to their story about President Bush's National Guard service. They made a lot of dumb statements. They were over-confident in their understanding of the new medium. To them, it was impossible that amateurs on the Net could apply factual tests more strenuous than those their staff had conducted. The higher-ups assessed inaccurately who was reading certain bloggers' assaults on the network's story. Correspondents for the national newspapers monitored the blogs, picked out tidbits and developed them into stories, raising questions CBS could no longer ignore, even though it had tried to ignore the bloggers.

In that episode and others, the combined effect of amateurs and news professionals proved decisive. In the fall of Republican Senate leader Trent Lott (December, 2002) the press reported Lott's comments praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign, but failed to weight them adequately. The bloggers corrected for that, and added substantial background information. The freewheeling discussion proved that distress over Lott's comments came from both sides of the aisle. Within days, the national press picked the story back up and within two weeks, Lott was gone. That's accountability journalism gone pro-am, and it shows how the great disruption may yield solid improvements.

Another example: On the day the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, Reuters had 2,300 journalists and 1,000 stringers positioned around the world, according to the firm's chief executive, Tom Glocer. But none of them were on the beaches to witness the disaster, he told the Online Publishing Association.

The amateurs were there and they were prepared. "So for the first 24 hours the best and the only photos and video came from tourists armed with 1.3 megapixel portable telephones, digital cameras and camcorders. And if you didn't have those pictures you weren't on the story," Glocer said. Reuters, a wire service, had to recognize there are more people in the press zone now -- and integrate their material into its report. That should make us better, he said, but "you have to be open to both amateur and professional to tell the story completely."

Exactly: To survive you have to be open. That's where disruption in the news business looks a lot like renewal.

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and is the author of the blog PressThink.

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