A Style story Thursday about media coverage of the Internet incorrectly reported the World Wide Web address of www.slashdot.org. (Published 10/23/1999)
Walk by any newsstand these days and the altered landscape is inescapable. Here is Newsweek's special issue on "e-Life," boldly declaring that "the Internet is now transforming how Americans live, think, talk and love." There is Time's cover on "Make Money.com." Or the 70-page "e-Commerce" section bursting from the middle of the New York Times. Or Business Week on "The Internet Age." Or the Industry Standard on how "The Net Can Save Your Life."
Like some raging computer virus, the Net seems to be devouring the media culture, shattering the usual definitions of news and eclipsing more traditional subjects. The so-called old media are invading this brave new world with near-revolutionary fervor, fueling a growth industry that might be called e-news.
"The Internet sells better than sex or crime," says John Huey, managing editor of Fortune. "The hunger for the thing is great. The story's become so rich and ubiquitous that we can no longer contain the thing in Fortune without turning it into an Internet magazine." So he's taking the next best step--spinning off a new publication devoted to nothing but Net.
Such stories are finding an eager audience; Fortune's August cover on "Dot.com Fever" was the best-selling issue in its history. But have news organizations themselves--which are scrambling onto the online bandwagon in search of cyberbucks--become part of the hype machine?
After all, as Newsweek acknowledged deep in its special issue, only 25 percent of Americans are connected to the Internet. Some cities, led by the Washington area with nearly 60 percent, boast high rates of Net access, while the figure is less than 31 percent in Pittsburgh. And the Internet hullabaloo often obscures the reality that black, Hispanic and lower-income households are far less likely to be online.
"Journalism tends to lurch from one extreme to another," says Jon Katz, a media critic who writes for slash.com and Rolling Stone. "Either the Internet is destroying our kids and families and values or we're awash in techno-hype about the Internet changing everything. Every new thing that comes out of Silicon Valley is insanely hyped. There's a difference between being important and reordering the Earth."
Perhaps no 20th-century technological development, from mass-produced cars in the early 1900s to the dawn of television in the late 1940s, has received such saturation media attention. In the process, the press has embraced a whole new vocabulary--logging on, instant messaging, downloading, scrolling, broadband, chat rooms, screen names, browsers, domain names, page views, streaming video--while delivering gigabytes of publicity.
In this crackling atmosphere, it's easy to forget how recently the world became wired. In a 1994 article, the San Francisco Chronicle observed that the recent past had seen "the occasional piece in Business Week or the Wall Street Journal about how the Internet, this strange 'network of networks,' might be worth watching. Most stories seemed to depict the Net as a technical oddity, the province of nerds or stay-at-homes, with the occasional child pornographer or software pirate added to the mix to get readers' attention."
Such descriptions now seem ancient. "We went through a dozen years of how awful it was, how dangerous it was," Katz says. "Suddenly these companies are raking in a fortune and it's not so bad."
Jim Cramer, a Wall Street money manager and co-founder of the financial site TheStreet.com, describes the coverage this way: "Anyone who has a dot.com is created equally. There's no skepticism. It went from total disbelief to total belief.
"The Net gets more of a free pass than I'd expect. You can write about how anybody is going to take on any bricks-and-mortar outfit--except newspapers themselves--and you'd think they're going to be successful. They have a halo."
In the blink of an eye, the Internet has added new velocity to a culture already stuck on fast-forward--faster millionaires, faster stock trading, faster retailing, faster mail, faster research, faster rumors and, even as journalists scramble to keep up, faster news itself.
No one really knows how pervasive the Internet will be in five or 10 years, opening the door to all kinds of fevered speculation. But it has cut such a wide swath through economic and popular culture that there is ample fodder for nearly every denizen of the news business. To wit:
* Politics has gained a firm foothold on the Web, from news coverage to partisan attacks to roaring ideological debate. The 2000 presidential candidates all maintain active Web sites and use them to raise money, a technique that has netted at least $600,000 for Democrat Bill Bradley.
* The Net has been a bonanza for financial coverage, since such Internet stocks as Yahoo, Amazon.com, eBay and America Online have both soared and plummeted, often pulling the rest of the market with them. Silicon Valley twenty-somethings whose small startups bloom into multibillion-dollar enterprises provide great feature material. Electronic trading, which has spawned the likes of ETrade and Ameritrade and created a small army of day traders, has also been relentlessly chronicled.
* The news itself is moving online, with the New York Times' popular site drawing 2.7 million visitors a month and USA Today's 2.5 million. Magazines such as Slate.com and Salon.com (which recently went public) have developed a loyal following, while Sam Donaldson, Peter Arnett, Lou Dobbs and other television personalities have taken their act online. The migration to the Web has also created a nonstop, 24-hour news cycle.
* Gossip has thrived on the lightning-quick Net, not only on Matt Drudge's site but in a swirling sea of webzines, newsgroups and chat rooms, often serving as early-warning radar for unconfirmed reports that later become news.
* Online sports is drawing big crowds to such sites as ESPN, CNN/Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and CBS Sportsline. More than 29 percent of Americans checked sports scores on the Web last year, and Yankees and Red Sox fans traded insults this week on popular message boards.
* Sex has been extraordinarily popular on computer screens, not just the highly profitable X-rated sites but tamer fare from such outlets as Playboy and Nerve magazine.
While few news operations are making money from their online sites, writing about the Net is proving to be an extraordinary bonanza.
The Industry Standard, launched 18 months ago by magazine publisher IDG, was originally 56 pages. Now, with a circulation of 125,000, the weekly's biggest problem is generating enough copy to fill space around the ads. A recent edition was 172 pages, and the one after that, 230 pages.
"The hype has been true, in a sense," says the magazine's editor, Jonathan Weber. "People who took the skeptical view a couple of years ago, and frankly I'm among them, were wrong."
Every publisher wants a piece of the lucrative pie. Newsweek's "e-Life" issue, for instance, was filled with ads for Microsoft, Dish Network, Logitech, Palm Pilot, Dell Computer, Datek Online, Dow Jones.com and special inserts for IBM e-business, SAP.com and Apple's Power Mac G4. The New York Times last week ran a front-page story called "Washington.com"--which, perhaps coincidentally, concluded inside after eight full pages of ads for Fidelity.com.
Wired, whose circulation rose from 300,000 in 1996 to 415,000 last year, is fat with technology ads. Time publishes a spinoff called Time Digital, while The Washington Post trumpets such features as "Tech Thursday" and "Fast Forward."
All told, Internet companies are spending $2.8 billion on advertising this year, with 83 percent for print and television outlets, according to Forrester Research. And in a larger sense, the aura of wealth surrounding this burgeoning technology has dazzled even the skeptics.
"As company after company went public and was successful, eventually it hit these journalists that maybe it's for real," says Cramer of TheStreet.com. "It became too difficult to stay negative and have credibility, because people are just making too much money."
Indeed, much of the recent coverage has seemed to celebrate the financial explosion that has brought great riches to young entrepreneurs, canny investors and others fueled by the Web's success. "There is something wrong with journalists serving as cheerleaders for the mega-rich," writes William Powers in National Journal. While the media derided the 1980s of Ronald Reagan as the "greed decade," they seem more favorably disposed toward a boom in which ordinary folks--including members of the fourth estate--can move into higher income brackets.
E-news is not only popular--and probably more fun than writing about oil prices or Social Security reform--but appeals to the younger audience that media companies are desperate to attract. Eighteen percent of people under 30 are major users of the Internet for news, says a Pew Research Center survey, compared with just 3 percent of senior citizens. News outlets are chasing after this audience online while also trying to demonstrate in print that they are sufficiently wired.
Reporters and editors were classic early adopters of the new technology. Once content with manual typewriters and yellowed clippings, they write on high-speed computers, conduct e-mail interviews, scan Web sites and search media databases--and, increasingly, write for the Web or leave for high-paying Internet jobs. In that sense, they are more plugged in to the high-tech circuitry than people in unrelated businesses.
"Reporters extrapolate from their own job," says Clifford Stoll, author of "Silicon Snake Oil." "If the Internet is making my job easier, that must be true for everyone else--sales clerks, architects, taxicab drivers, florists. That's false." At the same time, the media have noted how many small businesses have gotten a boost from the ability to find information or peddle their wares online.
But everyday experience also plays a role. Jon Meacham, Newsweek's managing editor, says he began focusing on the Internet late last year after receiving holiday books from Amazon.com instead of bottles of wine or other gifts. That led to the magazine's "e-Christmas" issue.
"We coined that phrase 'e-life' exactly because it had moved from hype to reality," Meacham says. "A lot of people are betting big on this, not just the media. We're trying to keep a cold eye."
That can be difficult, however, when the subject is as white-hot as this one. Last week alone, newspapers featured a drumbeat of such headlines as "In the Wired World, Much is Now Free at the Click of a Mouse" (New York Times); "Armchair Analysts Bring Predictions From Chat Rooms to New Internet Site" (Washington Post); "Service With an E-Smile" (USA Today), and "Where the E in E-Shopping Stands for 'Extreme' " (Wall Street Journal).
Stoll questions why every major newspaper has a technology column but not a regular column on new cars. "Which is more important to our society, the automobile or the World Wide Web?" he asks. "How long could you survive without Internet access; how long could you get along without a car? Which one is getting more coverage? Microsoft doesn't employ anywhere near the number of people that General Motors does."
The Net, of course, is a newer, more exciting story than the internal combustion engine. "There is a lot of hype," admits Fortune's Huey. "Maybe there's some in my own magazine, but we try to control it and make sure we don't make unreasonable claims. I see stuff in the competing press that drives me insane. There's a lot of naivete because a lot of people got to the party late."
Late or not, the party is getting louder. Weber, the Industry Standard editor, says the press must move to the next level of scrutiny.
"We're believers and we think this thing is huge," he says. "Now let's get beyond that and call a spade a spade, try to cut through the hype."
CAPTION: E-asy writers: The Internet's effect on American life may be debatable, but its effect on the media is indisputable as magazines, newspapers and campaigns join the converted.
CAPTION: "The Internet sells better than sex or crime": Fortune's E-cover.