How the online news industry is evolving

I was interviewed by PBS’s Online NewsHour in 1999 and received permission to republish our exchange on my site.

Online News Industry

The Internet news industry has undergone some major changes over the last five years.

To discuss these changes is JD Lasica, new media columnist for the American Journalism Review and the Online Journalism Review. In addition to writing about online ethics for the Industry Standard newsweekly, Mr. Lasica is also managing editor of BabyCenter, an online resource for new and expectant parents.

The following are Mr. Lasica’s answers to 5 questions asked by the Online NewsHour.

How has the online news industry evolved over the last 5 years? Where is it going? Five years ago, most people were just beginning to discover the Web, and the online news industry took notice not long after that. Early efforts were embarrassing, to put it kindly, with few publications that had even an inkling of understanding about the nature of Net culture. For the most part, old media was content to pour yesterday’s news, aptly called shovelware, into the digital abyss. Nobody read it — and deservedly so.

In the past two years, but the past year in particular, there’s been a turnaround. Some of traditional media’s biggest powerhouses, such as the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, now do a lot of original reporting on the Web. (Thankfully, we’re seeing an end to the nonsensical drivel about online news organizations “scooping themselves” with their online editions.) CNN Interactive and newcomer MSNBC are fighting it out for supremacy in traffic, drawing millions of visitors each month. And refreshingly, young online publications like Salon have provided important new voices to the news dialogue.

How has the Internet changed the way people get their news? Today news consumers have information flooding them from all directions. If television displaced newspapers as the medium people turn to for breaking news, the Net is the medium people turn to in order to get a richer news experience. That richness may come from the Net’s immediacy, which rivals broadcast’s; from its depth, for the news hole on the Net is limitless; and from its most powerful feature, interactivity, which online news organizations still haven’t grasped, much less exploited. On election night, I’ll have the TV turned to election coverage, but I’ll also be surfing the Web, accessing the races and results most important to me.

The Net, coupled with cable, talk radio, interview shows and the like, has created a 24-hour news cycle. It’s a cycle that’s increasingly out of the hands of the politicians, the spinmeisters, the PR professionals, and the news media themselves. Instead, amateur armchair journalists are sometimes calling the shots, and that’s a scary thing for professional journalists. It also imposes on the public a greater responsibility to be aware of and educated about the source of the news it receives. Not all news purveyors are trustworthy, and it’s critical that as news consumers we make distinctions about the sources of the news and information we come upon. Otherwise we’ll live in a news universe where bad information drives out the good.

How have Internet-only publications fared (Salon, Slate, etc.)? We’re still fairly early in this grand experiment. I think Salon has proved to be one of the singular success stories of the Web, for the breadth of its coverage, quality of its content, and the likelihood that it will succeed as a business. Slate had that opening, too, but has largely frittered away its chances by hewing too closely to the old media heritage of its editors and founders. (I worked for Microsoft as a journalist at the time Slate went to its subscription model and could only shake my head at the Redmond giant’s bumbling missteps.)

What’s disappointing is the lack of other new and vibrant voices on the Web. Feed is a good chronicler of social issues, Suck provides an occasional diversion, Wired News is still plugging away, ZDNet and CNet do a good job covering technology news. But we need to see more original voices.

How has the Internet affected journalism as a whole? It’s transformed our craft in new and extraordinary ways. We’re no longer the gatekeepers of information. The floodgates are open, and it’s up to us to try to make sense of it all. The Net is forcing us to be more relevant to our readers and viewers, more open and accessible, more trusting in the audience’s judgment, and more accountable — it’s much easier to ferret out deception, plagiarism and deceit in an interactive medium. I think the Net has also infused the profession with new excitement and vigor. Young people who are turned off by old media’s hierarchical, closed-to-new-ideas corporate culture are joining new media, whether it’s for the online arm of a traditional news organization, like Time Digital or Tampa Bay Online, or for a niche online publication like SonicNet or BabyCenter. It’s healthy and invigorating for journalism.

Is there a discrepancy in editorial standards between Internet news and other mediums? I truly believe that we can no more make a sweeping generalization about “Internet news” than we can about “print news” or “broadcast news.” Standards run the gamut in all media. I’m relieved and gladdened that traditionial media organizations like the NewsHour, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the like have transferred their timeless values and standards onto the Web. And when Web upstarts like Salon or Wired News buck the conventional wisdom, sometimes it’s the status quo that needs reexamination.

As far as Matt Drudge, the conspiracy theorists and others are concerned, the Net is a big enough medium to accommodate all shades of reportage. Print has its tabloids, gossip columnists and anonymous sources. Broadcast has its invasive cameramen, live car chases and honoraria-taking talking heads. The Net has its share of abuses, too. But the democratizing of the news process will ultimately prove to be healthy not just for news consumers but for journalism as well.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT