James Fallows: The Net will transform — not displace — mainstream media

The noted media critic and former editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report discusses the future of online journalism

Harvard-educated, a Rhodes Scholar, a former chief White House speech writer (for Jimmy Carter), former Washington editor of The Atlantic Monthly and former editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, James Fallows is one of the nation’s foremost press critics, on the strength of his 1996 book, “Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.” He responded to questions on the state of the online media in an e-mail interview on May 7, 1996.

In an “On the Line” online interview earlier this year you said one advantage of the Internet is that it gives people “the ability to find ways around the bottlenecks and strangeholds of the mainstream media.” Can you expand on that? What are some of the ways in which it allows ordinary citizens and amateur journalists to get around those bottlenecks?

“In ‘public journalism’ as in journalism in general, I think that the Internet will change but not revolutionize the structure of information.”

The great shortcoming of the broadcast media is the terrible pressure for time and space. Network TV has 22-or-so minutes each evening to touch on world and national events, and viewers don’t know ahead of time which subjects will be covered, or in what order. Newspapers and magazines offer greater space and improved “random access” — you can flip through the things you don’t care about about to find the stories that interest you. But even the best newspapers suffer the inevitable constraints of the material world. They have only so much space each day.

The Internet, by contrast, allows each user a (theoretically) limitless amount of coverage and discussion on whatever obscure subject the user may care about most. In the real world there are some barriers to achieving this theoretical potential. Phone connections are slow; searching tools are primitive; an alarming amount of on-line discussion is conducted by rankers and cranks. Still the Internet allows the determined info-seeker a way to find things that the mainstream press leaves out.

Nonetheless I think there is a lasting role for the mainstream press, even in the complete Internet age of the future. Precisely because there is so huge a tonnage of data being poured out of the Internet each day, we all still need someone to say: “Here are the five most important events that happened yesterday.” In theory, an “intelligent agent” could do this for us and produce personalized newspapers for each of us. But that is quite some time away, in my view.

Your book makes a persuasive case for “public journalism.” Do you see ways in which the Internet and its inherent interactivity can tie into that movement? I’ve heard that you don’t think the Net will have a major impact on the civic journalism front.

Continuing what I was saying above: in ‘public journalism’ as in journalism in general, I think that the Internet will change but not revolutionize the structure of information.

It will change it (speaking now of public j) because it gives both journalists and citizens / readers new tools. The journalists have different ways to contact the public — and be contacted by it. Even at the Atlantic, our operations have been changed in the last two years by the voluminous exchanges we have with our readers (via AOL and our Web site.) We hear more of what is on people’s minds; we answer reader queries more thoroughly than we were able to in the answering-paper-letters days. The Internet is obviously an important research tool, which at least in principle should allow reporters and editors to find a wider range of info. (Assuming it does not convert reporters into slugs who hate ever to leave their terminals and encounter actual people.)

From the reader’s perspective, again it is a matter of having extra choices and tools. More info is available to complement/challenge what is in the paper. There are opportunities to register your view more easily with the paper [converse of the point above], and ways perhaps to participate in electronic forums or virtual-events convened by the paper.

All this is valuable. My point is, it is more likely to be evolutionary change than some world-altering disruption in the relationship between papers and their readers.

Do you see any danger in nontraditional news and information suppliers — I’m thinking here of Microsoft — entering the market and competing head on with the new york times, wall street journal and the like?

I am not a big fan of Microsoft, but this aspect of its ‘dominance’ does not worry me very much. If it were to be an effective competitor to the NYT and WSJ, it would presumably have to do at least a good a job of what they now do — that is, providing extensive, good coverage of the world. If Microsoft made itself into another very effective news organization, so much the better. I can’t really imagine it attaining over the rest of the news business the kind of strangehold involving standards that it has over its software competitors.

Your book makes an important distinction between legitimate news that affects the way people actually live, and the spectacle and scandals that pass for news, which you call the “distraction machine.” You suggest that the mainstream media have loosened their standards and their definitions of what is newsworthy by covering celebrity gossip, sex scandals and other tabloid subjects. Do you think we ought to be going back to our roots, to the traditional notions of what constitutes news, or should we be going in the other direction, broadening our scope of coverage to include a wide array of subjects and interests that have not been traditionally considered worthy of coverage? (Certainly many people would argue that newspapers have turned into bland, sterile, carbon-copy knockoffs of each other that are too timid and just no fun — you know, the indictments from media critics like Jon Katz.)

I agree with Katz that the news should be interesting. Great narrators through history, from Homer to Truman Capote, have found ways to involve people’s emotions as well as their intellects. But I also think (and believe I agree with Katz here too ) that if the news tries to compete with entertainment head on, it is simply doomed. The real thing — real movie-star news, real sex news, real gossip — will be more interesting than the watered down version. The NY Times will always sell fewer copies than the National Enquirier. That is human nature. So while the Times should do its best to be lively and interesting, if it starts viewing the Enquirier as its target it might as well close up shop.

I spoke at length with Katz today, and he suggests that newspapers just don’t belong on the Net, period, basically because the Net isn’t a place to go to make sense of the news, to find context and meaning. Is he right?

I didn’t hear his argument, of course, so without disagreeing with him I’ll say ‘yes and no’ to the question itself. I think newspapers may be involved in the net for several reasons:

* a crass marketing tool, to remind readers of their existence and importance

* a way to provide breaking-news, like up to date sports reports. Ironically newspapers felt they went out of this business as generation ago, because of TV, but the net may be taking them back into it.

* selling their back archives as a research service. This is a tremendously valuable asset, as Nexis’s price structure shows, and mags and newsppaers can find some way to capture more of it for themselves.

But is this the way to provide their basic product? I don’t think so. Newspapers and magazines will have a fundamentally on-paper existence for quite a while, I think. (Until there is some kind of portable computer that is as light, as flexible, and as non-fragile as an actual magazine, paper, or paperback book.)

In your book you laid out a string of indictments against some of the practices of modern journalism. One might be the top-down model of news organizations, which decisions every day about which news is fit to print. What do you think about the new kinds of personalized, individualized “news products” coming on line, where some computer software goes out and hunts down news on any subject a person designates?

As I indicated earlier, I think this wll be a useful supplement and convenience for certain high-end users. But honestly, I can’t imagine this working well enough, any time soon, to give people the confidence that they’re not missing something important. Part of the value of newspapers is of course the serendipity — seeing things you didn’t know you were looking for. Even if readers aren’t consciously aware that they appreciate that, I think most people do. It is why people tear articles out of the paper — they’re usually items that surprised them or caught their fancy in some way. Their “search agents” presumably would not have found these.

On page 266, you refer to “user-driven journalism.” I’m not familiar with the phrase (perhaps because I’ve never worked in the marketing dept. … or for Gannett). Do you see a potential problem in the fact that some newspapers’ online operations are being put under the aegis of the feel-good folks in the marketing department?

I can see the ‘public journalism’ impulse going in bad directions as well as good ones, although of course I think it asks a lot of the right questions about how journalism should change. One of the bad directions would be a pure marketing-mentality approach to news content: finding out what people [think they] want to know, and telling them only that. The historic function of the news includes understanding what you audience cares about and thinks — but also telling them things they may not know are important to them. So I’m not in favor of lackey-style public journalism.

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