PopTech attendees send a cautionary signal to mainstream news publications
By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review
Late last week, while the Online News Association held its annual conference in New York, a handful of online journalists headed to a different kind of conclave, trekking to a scenic coastal village in Maine for PopTech, the annual gathering of Internet deep thinkers and technology heavy hitters.
In between sessions, I asked some of the participants their views about the state of online journalism, the news sites they frequent, and their digital news habits. (For more on PopTech, see Dan Gillmor’s coverage and related photos.)
If the digerati gathered here represent the leading edge of the Internet Age, reflecting where our wired society may be headed a few years hence, then online news publications have their work cut out. Few of the early adapters in this crowd spend much time at mainstream news sites.
Here are off-the-cuff ruminations about online news from eight PopTech founders, speakers and attendees:
Tech cred: Coined the term “virtual reality.” His company, VPL Research, was the first to introduce immersive virtual reality products. Lead scientist of the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, a coalition of research universities studying applications for Internet2.
Lives: New York, San Francisco Bay Area
Apart from my time driving in my car, the Internet is my only source of news, and it has been for some time. There isn’t any one news site that I would be willing to depend on by itself. I think it’s important to look at the Internet as a whole as a news source, and some sites make up for the others’ failings. I try to find sources from other points of view, from other countries.
Of the major news sites, editorially the New York Times’ Web site is well done, but technologically it’s poorly managed. It’s hard to make use of it. They’ve distributed their page loads over a lot of servers and have an overly complex commercial component so that some items on a page may not load at all.
For Middle Eastern news, there’s an interesting site called DEBKA. It’s definitely biased, with a rightist, Israeli perspective, but at the same time it seems to have all sorts of information a little earlier than anywhere else and it usually turns out to be correct. I also subscribe to a few interest groups, mailings to keep up on contrabass musical instruments, things like that.
Some news sites I’m not too fond of. I think CNN has done a poor job on their Web site. The ratio of variety of content on the first page to real estate on the first page is out of whack, where there’s a television-like distribution that displays only a tiny handful of stories, whereas on the Web it works better to have more than that.
Some of the news portals from organizations that weren’t news organizations before show a lack of editorial depth. MSN, for instance. And then there’s The Gate in the Bay Area. Of the major news portals, technically The Gate loads faster than any of the others, and it’s well managed and updates faster than the Times or Washington Post or CNN. And it has a nice balance of things. But, oh my God, the editorial quality is horrible. Puns built into every damn headline for no reason. It’s just an embarrassment that reinforces the media stereotype of the Bay Area as a place of intellectual inferiority.
Tech cred: Internet pioneer. Founding executive editor of HotWired. Founder of Electric Minds. Author of “The Virtual Community” and the new book “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.” Spoke at PopTech on “New Human Societies in Cyberspace.”
Lives: Marin County, California
I do scan Reuters to find out what’s going on overseas, and I read The New York Times online every day because they’re the 900-pound elephant, you can’t avoid them. But I must say that BoingBoing and Dan Gillmor and a rotating list of five or six other blogs are extremely important. I read your weblog and David Weinberger‘s. I read SATN because David Reed is a fantastic thinker. And I follow the links from those blogs to other blogs. The things I’m interested in, from pop culture to wireless policy to copyright, you have to go to the fanatics. If one of them is on to something, it infectiously spreads to everybody else.
If you know a subject well, you see The New York Times and The Washington Post completely blow it. I remember the study done at Carnegie Melon with some questionable methodology and statistics. The New York Times’ headline was, “Internet Sad, Lonely Place, Researchers Find.” OK, I happen to know that subject. Do they get everything else that wrong? Some of their reporters get it right and have a pretty good nose for what the story is, and I read Tom Friedman for what’s happening in the world. But for the most part I read blogs that are going to be more useful to me.
Newspapers were a new thing at one point and the service they provided was journalism. They employed people who knew how to cultivate sources and double-check them and go out and get the story from primary sources. Now the news media are owned by a handful of corporations in the entertainment business. A generation from now I don’t know that there will be journalists working for those enterprises. I think people who are dedicated to establishing a reputation for getting the story right and getting it first don’t necessarily have to work for The Washington Post or The New York Times. How they’re going to make a living, that’s another question.
I know the San Francisco Chronicle is not an example of the best journalism in the world. But like Marshall McLuhan said, you don’t read a newspaper, you get into it like a bath. I read everything in it. The obituary pages today contain fantastic stories about these guys who saved the world who were shot down over Germany and escaped. And still, I can’t get my well-informed 18-year-old daughter to read the newspaper.
Tech cred: Director, Initiative on Technology and Self, MIT. A licensed clinical psychologist, Turkle’s works include the book “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet.” She spoke at PopTech on “How Artificial Worlds Are Leading Us to Redefine Ourselves.”
Lives: Boston area
There’s another function of media and online media besides where to go for information. There’s the function of providing a marketplace of ideas so that people can take in the arguments, go to work in the morning and be mad together, become activists together, fine-tune their argument. Are we thinking realistically about what I consider to be our country’s rush to war with Iraq? What’s it going to be like, and what kind of resources will be needed?
Online reading and social discourse fill a particular function, and a lot of it is smart and multiplies our voices. But there’s still a necessary role for the printed word that people will wave at you when you get to work. I read a handful of columnists — Nicholas Kristof, Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd — and those are the people that my co-workers will turn to every day. An article in the Atlantic about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center was literally handed around from person to person — it had a different kind of social function than online carries. There are still publications that everybody sees and reads and thus serve as a very important social actor, and I don’t think the online world has moved to that level yet.
Niche has a point — you exquisitely fine-tune what you want to read by kindred spirits — but you want some things that aren’t niche. For certain social discourse, you want the commonly shared experience that only major media can provide. We’re going through something now that may make past events pale in comparison in terms of the future for our children — the set of ways of thinking that began after 9/11, the escalating chain of events that have led us to the brink of war and to a new national doctrine of preemptive strike. We are not in this together as a society and a community. The decisions that we’re making now could lead to many scenarios, including profound disaster. We may be the pivotal generation for the state of the earth. The online media should be thinking about this.
Tech cred: Co-founder (with John Sculley) of PopTech. His invention of the Ethernet protocol led to the creation of billions of dollars in global wealth. Made $100 million in personal wealth as founder of 3Com. Publisher, long-time columnist, InfoWorld magazine.
Lives: Boston and Maine
I refuse as a matter of protest to register for The New York Times because of their extreme media bias. So I go to the Drudge Report 10 times, 20 times a day. I don’t read Drudge’s column, I just use it as a jumping-off point to my favorite columnists and top stories because I like the news choices he makes. Understand, I was one of the last people to use the Web, so I don’t do blogs yet, but I hear they’re really cool and they can gather the news for me in much the same way that Drudge gathers the news for me. So I’m on my way to blogs.
After I find a story that strikes me, I want to read more. Right now I haven’t found a way to read all the other stories about this topic and I have no good way of doing that. So I use Google as my fallback to find related stuff and to go deeper. I’ll use Google 10 to 20 times a day as well. Google’s an IQ booster if you use it enough. The drill-down capability that I want from news sites is sort of a refined Google. I don’t want to have to guess at the right keywords in a search — I’ve just read the damn story, so just automatically tell me the related stories on this topic.
Tech cred: Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. Author of six books and more than 50 essays on popular culture. Moderator of the PopTech panel “Good and Evil in the Artificial Worlds of Popular Culture”
Lives: Boston area
I read the Washington Post every morning. I read Slashdot, a beautiful example of community-moderated news and getting the public involved in deciding what’s news, and I’ve found that consistently more reliable and thoughtful than much of the news media. I think the community is better informed on the issues that Slashdot covers and they’re less susceptible to fear-mongering and sensationalism. Yes, they’ll say what they think and say it bluntly, but if you read between the lines, they’re asking the right questions and they’re skeptical of people in power in a way that much of the press is not. Also, because you’ve got such a large group pulling information together, it’s not like a television reporter trying to cover a story like the Washington sniper and filling the 24-hour news cycle with speculation.
I read Salon almost every day. It’s one of the most well-written publications online, and it asks the tough questions we don’t see from the mainstream media. I’d also point to The Onion as playing an important role. It shadows the news by showing the comic conversion of it. It’s the only comic source that dealt with September 11 in a more skeptical fashion. And I go to blogs.
What I suggested during the panel discussion [to sustained audience applause] was that the news media, especially television, is using fear to drive viewers. It puts things on the air that are irresponsible in that the people in the news-making process don’t believe the information they’re giving out about things like the sniper’s reported links to video games, an outrageous claim that was put out there because it’s provocative and would stir people up. Because their audience speaks back to them, in the online space I see far less sensationalism and more down-to-earth reporting. Online news publications should serve as an alternative reality check on the more sensational elements of mainstream media.
Tech cred: Co-founder of PopTech. Former CEO of Apple Computer.
Lives: Silicon Valley and Maine
I head to SV.com every day for news about Silicon Valley. I read ZDNet and David Coursey‘s column there. I read VentureWire every day. For general news, I tend to read the newspaper. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the age before computers, so I still like the print newspaper. I just like the experience of having a cup of coffee and sitting there thumbing through the paper. I sit in front of a computer too much in my life anyway. I’ve tried the New York Times and Washington Post sites but didn’t find them all that compelling. If I want more information on something I go to Google. It serves as my front end, if I know what I’m looking for. I enjoy how Google aggregates links based on relevancy; that’s a useful service.
I read online news publications for things that specifically relate to my background, my life, my interests, and things that matter to me. A small number of the people at this conference use our ActiveWords technology.
ActiveWords lets you streamline your online news experience by naming Web sites, which then lets you to type in either a word or acronym that instantly takes you to a news site’s home page or a subpage. I type nyt and I get the New York Times’ Technology page. I type sports and I see Yahoo Sports’ main page. I type dukebb and get taken to the Duke basketball Web site. DJ takes me to the obituaries page of my hometown newspaper, the Daily Journal of International Falls, Minnesota, because as I get older I’m curious to see who’s died that I knew when I was growing up.
In my work life, I use it in a different way. Part of my day job is being a real estate lawyer. For example, interest rates are a very sensitive part of my business. When I type the word “rates.” I wind up six layers down at Bloomberg to see interest rates in real time, so if someone quotes me 175 basis points over LIBOR, I can find that rate instantly. Keyword shortcuts take me to dozens of weblogs. It’s all about evolving past Web surfing to a much more focused kind of news consumption.
One thing I find bothersome about news sites is how clunky and cumbersome their archives are. I’d like to see the archives available for free for perhaps a month. I point to stories in my weblog or in an e-mail and I’m reluctant to do it if the article will be locked away in a few days. The search engines on almost all news sites are absolutely abysmal.
Tech cred: Senior editor and idea scout for Fast Company magazine. Moderator of the PopTech panel “How Artificial Worlds Are Altering the Real World.”
I’m more of a blog surfer than I am a consistent reader of news sites. I’ll go to CNN.com if I need to, but I’ve had a huge love affair with blogs since they hit the scene. Now I’ve got a few bookmarked and I’ll follow links my friends email me. A couple of great blogs are in the Fast Company family: Dan Pinks’ Just One Thing, and John Ellis, our strategy columnist. I get my industry gossip from Jim Romenesko‘s Media News. And then I rotate between political and news sites. For my work I use Lexis-Nexis and Dow Jones services because I just don’t have time to surf the Web.