The New News
Building 25--three floors of look-alike little offices--is identical to
all the other sterile steel-and-glass warrens for high-tech workers on
the leafy Microsoft corporate campus just northwest of Seattle, with one
exception: a sprawling, cluttered, open room on the second floor filled
with rows of computers and walls of television monitors. Here, in the
center of the futuristic computer software universe, is a familiar
sight--an old-fashioned newsroom, albeit one equipped with the latest
technology, filled with energetic young journalists busy producing a new
form of news for the Internet site called MSNBC.com.
Microsoft originally built the newsroom for a news service of its own
for users of its MSN network on the Internet. But when Microsoft
executives realized how difficult it would be to assemble and run a news
operation, they abandoned that idea and struck a deal with NBC News at
the end of 1995 to create MSNBC.com and the MSNBC cable news network. MSNBC.com quickly
became one of the most popular news sites on the World Wide Web.
The MSNBC.com newsroom is
dominated by a wall of monitors displaying numerous network, cable and
local television channels and the home pages of MSNBC.com and competing Internet sites. A door in the
wall of monitors leads to a conference room, where Merrill Brown, the
editor in chief of MSNBC.com, was conducting his daily news meeting on a summery day
in June 2000.
"The Supreme Court just ruled on Elián," announced executive
producer Bob Aglow.
"What did they do?" Brown asked, as he fingered the keyboard of a
computer on the table in front of him, searching the Internet on a huge
screen at the opposite end of the room.
"I'll know in a minute," Aglow said. As if on cue, a colleague stuck his
head in the door to say the court was allowing the father of
Elián González to take the boy home to Cuba, the
denouement of a news melodrama that had captivated much of the country
and the news media. Brown tapped on his keyboard to check out the
competition. He went first to rival CNN.com, whose front page soon
appeared on the big screen at the end of the room. CNN.com, created by the cable
news network, relied on CNN's news-gathering and video resources in
addition to news services like the Associated Press and Reuters, just as
MSNBC.com relied on NBC News and the news services.
Brown saw that CNN.com had
already posted news of the Supreme Court decision. It took a few more
minutes for an MSNBC producer to process a news service story on his
computer in the newsroom just outside the conference room and post it on
the, MSNBC.com home page.
Meanwhile, the editors and producers in the conference room, and others
at NBC and MSNBC offices in Washington, New York and London, who could
be heard on a speakerphone in the middle of the table, fired questions
and suggestions back and forth about what to do next.
A compelling feature of Internet news sites is the speed with which they
can produce and deliver news. Web users don't have to wait for the radio
news on the hour, or the television news at 6 or 7, or the next
morning's newspaper; they can find the news online whenever they want
it, and can learn about breaking events moments after the fact.
Measurements of Internet traffic--the "ratings" for this new
medium--have shown that big, breaking news stories draw the largest
audiences to news sites. So when the Elián story broke, MSNBC.com journalists
rushed to put as much coverage on its site as they could.
And they sought to exploit other features of the Internet: infinite
"space" for words, photos, video and audio; multimedia capability; and
interactivity. The headline about Elián on the MSNBC.com home page was
linked to the main story, written by a Web site producer, and to other
stories from the news services and from the Washington Post,
which has a partnership arrangement with MSNBC and NBC. Besides the
print stories, MSNBC.com
offered video clips from NBC and MSNBC television, and unedited,
continuous streaming video from NBC cameras at various locations. MSNBC.com also invited
readers to comment on the story in its discussion areas and offered the
opportunity to participate in a "Live Vote" survey on the subject.
The Supreme Court decision had been anticipated for days, but MSNBC.com editors and
producers clearly were scrambling that morning. A producer in NBC's
Washington bureau could be heard on the speakerphone reporting that the
story would lead the NBC Nightly News broadcast and its Dateline
newsmagazine show later that night. Another producer, in the Secaucus,
New Jersey, newsroom of the MSNBC cable network, described plans to
cover the Elián story on news shows all afternoon and evening. MSNBC.com asked NBC
television producers in Havana to provide telephone and video
Brown did not hide his frustration over his staff's apparent failure to
anticipate the Supreme Court decision and plan how to cover it. "There
should have been a plan in place for what has been coming for days," he
said. But after the meeting, one of Brown's deputies, executive editor
Michael Silberman, expressed optimism that "in a couple of hours we will
have a huge package."
Out in the newsroom, Mike Moran, an MSNBC.com producer who specialized in breaking stories,
rewrote the main story on the Elián case from AP and Reuters wire
stories and information from NBC producers in Havana. A story from
washingtonpost.com about the reaction of Eliáan's relatives and
other Cuban exiles in Miami was added to the package, along with
background stories from news services.
Before long, users could also find video reports from NBC and MSNBC,
including a helicopter shot of the car carrying the father and son to
Dulles International Airport outside Washington. The really curious
could also find live streaming video from MSNBC.com's own cameras. One was in the Cuban
neighborhood in Miami, where Cuban exiles were protesting in the
streets. Another was on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court in
Washington, where lawyers were holding press conferences. And still
another was on the street outside the house in an affluent Washington
neighborhood where Elián and his father had been staying while
awaiting the court's decision. For most of the day, that camera showed
little more than joggers running by.
"Breaking news is our traffic driver," Silberman said. "If we put a lot
of energy into covering the big breaking story of the day, and pull out
all the bells and whistles of video and nontraditional storytelling, not
just text, people will come to us. It's one reason we are number one."
MSNBC was one of the most popular Web sites specializing in news on the
Internet, visited by about 10 million people each month, including
repeat users. Half of this audience came from Internet users on MSN, the Microsoft portal,
which competed with AOL and
Yahoo! as a principal
highway into cyberspace. MSN featured MSNBC headlines, and a reader who
clicked on one of the news stories from MSNBC would be counted as an
MSNBC visitor. Much of the MSNBC audience is also drawn to the site by
plugs for it on NBC's television networks. On-air promotions by their
networks also drew large audiences to the CNN and ABC
News sites on the Internet. The most popular news sites not
affiliated with a television network were those of the New York
Times, the Washington Post and USA Today. Because Internet users paid nothing to
visit MSNBC.com (and
nearly all other news sites on the Web), most of its revenue came from
the advertising that appeared on the site. Ads appeared on the screen
above, below and alongside headlines and news stories and sometimes
popped up in ways that forced users to pay attention to them.
But revenue from advertising didn't yet cover the costs of most Internet
news sites, let alone contribute to the costs their parent organizations
incurred to cover the news.
MSNBC.com was heavily subsidized by its prosperous parents.
The way MSNBC.com spent
money and man-hours was revealing. Besides people, its biggest cost item
was the technology needed to support the site and its content. Most of
the staff spent most of its time operating the technology or gathering
visual material for the site. Only a couple of dozen members of an
editorial staff of 110 actually produced news stories. Most of them had
once been newspaper or television journalists, but they did little or no
original reporting or writing for MSNBC.com. Instead, working in shifts around the clock, they
rapidly rewrote and updated stories from wire service and NBC News
reports, adding headlines, summaries of the stories, graphics and video,
plus material from partner news organizations.
This was the pattern
MSNBC.com followed in covering the biggest story of recent years,
the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.
The site relied almost entirely on wire service reports, stories from
the Washington Post and Newsweek and video from NBC's broadcast
and cable networks. One of its few pieces of original journalism was a
first-person account by Martin Wolk, a reporter for MSNBC cable,
describing his escape from the World Trade Center's Marriott Hotel. The
most popular feature on
MSNBC.com that day was continuous live video from NBC and MSNBC
cameras covering the story in New York and Washington. These attracted 6
million viewers on September 11, Brown said.
Brown, Silberman and others at MSNBC.com said they would like to do more original work in the
future, especially investigative and explanatory reporting projects that
could exploit the Web's capability to provide multimedia presentations.
But they acknowledged that most investment in the near future would be
spent on still more advanced technology, rather than on additional staff
to produce original reporting. They hoped that new technology would mix
text, photography, graphics and video seamlessly and more creatively,
and put MSNBC.com into
more homes through cable television and into people's hands wherever
they were, through wireless telephones and other portable devices.
Brian Storm, the energetic and visionary young "director of multimedia"
in the MSNBC.com
newsroom, said that eventually the new medium should emulate the
in-depth reporting of newspapers rather than the "shallow" journalism of
television news. The fact that webcasting would eventually provide sound
and pictures as vivid as television's should not mean that Web news
sites would mimic television news, he thought. He saw no reason to dumb
down online news; on the contrary, the Web's technological capacities
lent themselves most logically to high-quality news products emphasizing
depth, interactivity and customized editing for different audiences. But
he acknowledged that in the first years
of MSNBC.com's existence,
developing the necessary technology had proved to be expensive,
time-consuming and sometimes distracting from the news itself.
"Everything is an experiment right now," Storm said. "Newspapers
just focus on what is in the story. We get distracted from the
storytelling by the technology, its possibilities, limitations and
decisions" about how to use it.
This is a time of experimentation for all news media as they try to
adapt to revolutionary new technology. Newspapers, magazines and
television networks and stations repackage their news daily on their
Internet sites. Some newspapers and newsmagazines cooperate on news
coverage with television networks, and put some of their reporters and
editors on network news shows to talk about their stories. The New York
Times and its Web site shared stories and reporters with ABC News and its Web
site. In the new AOL Time Warner empire, magazines, broadcast and cable
networks and AOL itself
were all trying to cross-promote and share content. The Washington
Post and Newsweek, also owned by the Washington Post Company, were
partners with NBC News and MSNBC. These arrangements have given new
exposure on television to print reporters, their publications and their
Some newspapers and local television stations are working together on
news stories. Several newspapers and television stations owned by the
same media corporation share multimedia newsrooms. Many newspapers have
put video cameras and fully equipped television studios into their
newsrooms to make it easier for their reporters to appear on television
or to tape video reports for the newspapers' Web sites.
Collaborations like these exemplify an industry catchword, synergy, that
implies the combining of old and new media resources and technologies to
create something bigger and better and more profitable than the
component parts. The search for synergy has significantly changed many
Reporters at large newspapers with active Internet news sites and radio
and television relationships can produce news for four different media
in the same day. They report and write stories for their newspapers;
they prepare separate, often earlier, versions of the same stories in
text or on video for the newspapers' Web sites; and they appear on
television or on radio to talk about the stories.
Much of this news sharing amounts to little more than cross-promotion
among co-owned or cooperating media. For example, in Tampa, the Tampa
Tribune newspaper, television station WFLA and their Web site, TBO.com (originally Tampa Bay
Online), are all owned by the Media General corporation of Richmond,
Virginia. They share a new building on the bank of the Hillsborough
River. Each of the three regularly promotes the others. On its 11 p.m.
newscast, WFLA previews a story in the next morning's Tribune and refers
viewers interested in still more information to TBO.com. The Tribune's
weather page features forecasts by WFLA's Storm Team 8 illustrated by a
photograph of the television station's four on-air meteorologists. And
the TBO.com Web site has
repackaged content from both the Tribune and WFLA. While this kind of
cross-promotion has clearly increased traffic on their Web sites, it
does not appear to have increased the audiences of newspapers and
With a few exceptions, attempts at synergy have produced relatively
little additional original or improved journalism or new revenue. They
mostly have "repurposed" (another news term) journalism already being
produced by one news medium for use by another. In practice, this
usually has meant repackaging newspaper journalism on television and the
Internet, because newspapers continue to have by far the largest and
most talented news-gathering staffs.
Still, there are obvious benefits from multimedia collaboration.
Cooperation between newspaper and television news operations, even on a
relatively small scale, offers viewers of network and local television
additional news they might not otherwise see. It can expose wider
audiences to significant enterprise and investigative reporting. And the
cooperating news organizations can benefit from one another's
Evidence of these benefits can be seen in Media General's ultramodern
News Center in Tampa, where the newsrooms of the Tribune, WFLA
and TBO.com are stacked one
on top of the other on two floors above the television station's
studios. Hollowed out of the middle of the two floors is an atrium that
allows everyone to hear and see what is happening in the newsrooms above
and below. In the middle of it all, at the bottom of the atrium, is a
multitiered "superdesk" where Tribune, WFLA and TBO.com assignment editors
work side by side on telephones and computers to monitor breaking news
and the movements of their reporters, photographers and video
After conferring with one another during the course of each day, editors
of the newspaper and producers of the television newscasts meet in their
separate conference rooms to plan that evening's news broadcasts and the
next morning's newspaper. On the day we visited, they agreed that a
Tribune story on a projected teacher shortage in a local county
school system would be featured both on the Tribune's front page
and on WFLA's 11 p.m. newscast. "The Tampa Tribune has discovered
alarming information about the hiring of teachers," began the story on
WFLA that night.
WFLA is the Tampa Bay area's dominant television station. The
Tribune is the second-largest-circulation newspaper in the
region, behind the St. Petersburg Times, but it still has a much
larger news staff than WFLA. So the television station has benefited
from the newspaper's beat coverage and investigative reporting and the
sheer number of reporters it could send out on a big breaking story,
while the Tribune has been able to present and promote its news
reporting to a larger audience on WFLA.
"Today, the Tribune was at a city council meeting and we
weren't," Susan DeFraties, WFLA's managing editor, said on the day we
visited. A Tribune editor alerted her to an important vote by the
council, "so we can catch up later." WFLA had 6 to 8 reporters working
on an average day, while the Tribune had 125, she said, "so who
is going to know more?"
When a big fire caused extensive damage in Tampa a few months earlier,
WFLA news director Dan Bradley said, the newspaper sent six reporters to
cover it, while he could send only two. So he put the paper's reporters
on the air, along with his own, to tell viewers what they could see and
find out from their various vantage points and news sources. "They all
want to be on TV," Bradley said of the newspaper reporters. "We tell
them that while a lot of people are reading your newspaper, there are
lots of people watching us on TV who are not reading your newspaper."
Gil Thelan, executive editor of the Tribune, said the newspaper
in turn benefited from the television station's faster start and greater
urgency on breaking stories. "There is a lot more energy in the building
from being around broadcasters," he said. "The newspaper is moving
faster." But most of the reporters at the Tribune and WFLA have
continued to do most of their work only for the newspaper or the
station. And very few of them produced original journalism for the TBO.com Web site. Despite
being in such close proximity, they tended to stick to working in their
own newsrooms and had little meaningful contact with the others. Both
Bradley and Thelan, who expressed strong belief in the future of what
they called "convergence" of the television, newspaper and Internet news
operations, acknowledged that the Tampa News Center still housed three
quite different and often conflicting news cultures. "This is an
experiment," Thelan said.
Perhaps the best-known and most closely watched experiment in multimedia
convergence, or synergy, has been at Chicago's Tribune Company. Tribune
owns the venerable newspaper from which it takes its name, the top-rated
WGN television and radio stations, the CLTV (Chicagoland Television)
all-news cable station and the chicagotribune.com news Web site. The newspaper's main
newsroom in the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue downtown is dominated
by "the stage," a spacious, open studio with three television cameras
where reporters are interviewed for Tribune's television outlets.
Nearby, at the city desk, representatives of the television outlets and
the Web site work side by side with the newspaper's local news editors.
The Tribune's largest suburban news bureau west of Chicago shares a
former warehouse with CLTV's studios and newsroom, where newspaper
editors and CLTV producers also work together at the same news
operations desk, trading information about what they are covering.
Tribune executives said their long-term goal was to make the
news-gathering operations of its newspaper, television, radio and
Internet outlets in Chicago virtually interchangeable, with reporters
for any one of them gathering news for use by all. They even created a
news synergy staff in the Tribune Tower to move toward that goal by
encouraging more cooperation among the Tribune news organizations. But
progress has been slow. While many Tribune reporters appeared on CLTV, a
typically low-budget, low-audience cable news channel that welcomed
their contributions, they were mostly shunned by WGN, Chicago's dominant
television station, which preferred its own highly paid broadcast
professionals. And Tribune's news Web site could not always count on
Tribune reporters to produce around-the-clock updates on developing
local stories, so it had to hire its own reporters.
"We preach synergy, but we don't do synergy," said Mark Hinojosa, who
ran Tribune's synergy staff. "We don't have shared cultures." Asked
specifically what multimedia cooperation he had been able to achieve in
his first half year on the job, Hinojosa said, "Nothing. Really almost
nothing." A year later, Hinojosa said he was making some progress, but
reiterated that real synergy remains a hope for the future.
So in the first years of experimentation, hopes for a creative, fruitful
convergence of traditional news media have not been realized. New
technologies and new attitudes have allowed new kinds of collaboration,
and online journalism has created a new medium. Some old ways of doing
things have been displaced by new ones. But nothing has yet challenged
the pre-eminence of broadcast and cable television, and ink-on-paper
newspapers and magazines.
This lack of synergy should not be confused with a prognosis about the
future, however. The stunning growth of the online world since the early
nineties and the rapid evolution of new technologies obscure the fact
that we are still in the infancy of this new medium. The greatest
potential of the Internet may be its capacity to combine many of the
advantages of television, radio and newspapers in ways that could make
it much more powerful than all three. As Internet technology improves
and the "picture" on a computer screen becomes as good as on TV, users
will be able to "watch television" on their computer screens while
retaining control over what they watch and when. They should be able to
skip around from item to item as and when they like, the same way they
now read a newspaper. When they find a subject or story that interests
them, users will have the option of stopping to read about it in detail.
Technologically, this capability isn't far off. If and how it will be
exploited, and by whom, remain to be seen.
Everyone in the news business has become aware that the Internet can
change everything we do, but we don't yet know how or when this may
happen. Already, news is everywhere on the Internet. But none of the
first experiments with news on the Web has been commercially successful
or particularly innovative journalistically. They have taught
interesting lessons without yet demonstrating how journalism on the Web
Many Internet pioneers hoped that this new medium would enable the
creation of new news outlets independent of the established media.
Starting a newspaper is enormously expensive; a new television or radio
station requires an impossible-to-acquire broadcasting license;
launching a cable channel is plausible only for those who can negotiate
deals with cable systems to carry it. Buying an existing news
organization requires outbidding the huge conglomerates that now own
most of the news media. But anyone with a personal computer big and fast
enough to be used as a Web "server" can host a news site on the
Internet. Here is technology, like the printing press earlier in
American history, that can make a free press a meaningful concept, and
not just for the wealthy. On the most superficial level this potential
has been exploited by
the proprietors of countless Internet sites. But the provenance of the
information they provide is often obscure, and its reliability often
dubious. And the Internet's cacophony has overwhelmed most information
providers on the Web. Only a tiny handful of independent sites have
attracted many readers.
For those that have reached larger audiences, the journalistic and
financial results have been less than exhilarating. Many have been
overwhelmed by the costs of staff, increased technological capacity and
marketing required to reach and reliably serve large numbers of users.
Only a handful have managed to break through to sustainable
profitability, and even fewer have been able to provide original,
Two of the first news sites to develop significant readerships on the
Internet were Web magazines, Slate.com and Salon.com. They both combined opinion journalism with a
limited amount of original reporting, a lot of chat and some breaking
news from wire services.
started independently by journalist David Talbot. It attracted readers
and attention in the national media with gossipy stories and cheeky
commentary during President Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal. It held
the interest of loyal readers with literate journalism about politics,
religion, sex, books, movies and the arts. Capitalizing on the Internet
investment craze in the late 1990s, Salon raised a lot of money with a
successful stock offering that funded a large writing and editing staff
and offices in New York and San Francisco. But when the Internet
investment bubble burst in 2000 and Salon had difficulty attracting
enough advertising or other revenue to cover costs, its stock price
plummeted and it began cutting back on staff.
by magazine editor Michael Kinsley, had more financial security because
it was owned by Microsoft and was available on, and promoted by, its MSN Internet gateway. Kinsley
said he originally intended Slate.com to be a weekly magazine of news and opinion, the
Internet equivalent of a print magazine like The New Republic,
which he had edited. But he quickly learned that Internet readers
expected Slate's content to be updated constantly. So the Web site's
contributors, many of them successful magazine journalists, wrote and
posted articles and commentary whenever events or their whim dictated.
one popular innovation that was widely copied on the Web. It encouraged
its contributors to write personal commentary about news being reported
in newspapers and on television, and accompanied their comments with
hypertext links to the full stories on the Web sites of traditional
media organizations that originated them. Slate's single most
popular regular feature during the 2000 election campaign was a daily
summary of various newspapers' political stories called "Today's
e-mail dialogues between well-known writers on the hot topics of the
day, which Kinsley said have established "e-mail as a form of
journalism." E-mail is "just a wonderful medium for exchange of ideas,"
he said, "and when it works it's like the best of talking and the best
of writing. The spontaneity of talking but the reflectiveness of
writing." But most of Slate.com's content remained traditional opinion-magazine
journalism, supplemented by numerous links to news stories, opinion
columns, editorial pages and literary and arts criticism on news-media
Web sites. Slate also provided links to the Web sites of
newspapers in other countries and to transcripts of network and cable
television talk and opinion shows. While much of Slate's writing
was original, very little of its reporting was. Most of the news it
presented came from the Web sites of established media organizations
with large news-gathering staffs. Kinsley said it was easier for
Slate.com to exploit "information that already exists on the Web"
than to amass the resources to do its own reporting.
Slate.com has not
been a lavish operation. Kinsley kept a few writers and editors on the
staff and relied mostly on freelance contributors. But even with low
costs, Slate struggled unsuccessfully to break even. It did sell
some advertising, but not enough. When Microsoft tried for a year to
charge readers for access to Slate.com, traffic fell off dramatically. Only about
30,000 readers agreed to pay the $19.95 subscription fee, so it was
dropped in 1999, and Slate became free again. Kinsley told us he
hoped to break even during 2002.
One of the very few people to exploit the publishing power of the Web
successfully as an individual entrepreneur has been an online chat room
gadfly named Matt Drudge. Beginning in the mid-1990s in Los Angeles,
where he traded show business gossip in chat rooms and through e-mail,
Drudge gained a growing Internet readership and e-mail source network,
especially among journalists and political operatives. The scoop that
got him the most attention came from a source at Newsweek magazine, who
told Drudge in January 1998 about a story Newsweek's editors had held
out of the magazine at the last minute--a story that opened the
floodgates to what became the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
But for every Drudge "exclusive" that contained a germ of truth, another
proved to be wildly wrong. "Like reporters, he disseminates what he
finds out, but he does not necessarily take pains to verify his items,
and he operates without an editor or other gatekeeper," Tom Goldstein,
dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, wrote about
Drudge. "He has had his scoops and he has made his mistakes." He's made
many, but hides them from readers by refusing to keep an archive on his
Web site of exclusive stories that "stayed exclusive," as reporters like
to say of rivals' scoops that don't pan out. Even the editor of the
supermarket tabloid newspaper the Star accused Drudge of "dealing mostly
in barroom gossip and wild speculation."
Drudge brushes off such criticism, contending that the great popularity
of the Drudge
Report on the Web, where it has been visited by millions of
Americans each month, has shown "there is a hunger for unedited
information, absent corporate considerations." But he also realized
early on that he could attract more people to his site by showing them
other interesting news on the Internet. So he put on the Drudge Report
headlined links to news stories on the Web sites of newspapers and other
news organizations. This quickly made Drudge an important source of
traffic for newspaper sites on the Internet. In 2001 Drudge sent more
readers to washingtonpost.com than did any other Web site that linked to the
The established news media that Drudge loved to lambaste in interviews
were critical to his own success. He couldn't provide a sustained diet
of exclusive stories of his own, and relied on traditional media sources
to keep his site lively and interesting. For all his talk about how
"now, with a modem, anyone . . . can report on the world," much of
Drudge's Web site merely listed what traditional news organizations were
reporting on their sites.
Drudge may have lived up to the romantic notion that the Web would
produce new Ben Franklins and Tom Paines, electronic pamphleteers or
news-site proprietors who could break the hold of big media companies on
the information reaching the American public. But if he did, his
personalized site has turned out to be sui generis. As befits the times,
commercial interests dominated the early years of the Internet, not
resourceful individuals eager to crusade for truth and justice. The most
typical Internet news sites were launched by entrepreneurs targeting
specialized audiences, and hoping to make money. These offerings,
products of the Internet bubble of the late 1990s, were often lavishly
backed by wealthy investors and money raised from public stock
offerings. They focused narrowly on news about subjects like business
and finance, politics, women, minority groups, sports, crime, health or
the weather. APBnews.com hired veteran reporters to chase down stories about
crime. Drkoop.com was
started by C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. surgeon general, and
investors to provide health news and advice. Voter.com collected veteran
political journalists and campaign workers to present election and other
political news. Women.com, whose investors included the Hearst media corporation,
specialized in news and features for women.
These and other "stand-alone" Internet news sites mirrored on the Web
the proliferation of magazines, newsletters and other print publications
that similarly targeted specialized audiences. They hired their own
editors and reporters and produced their own journalism. They spent a
lot of money promoting themselves and initially attracted large and
enthusiastic audiences. But their readers were all freeloaders; none of
these sites could charge their readers a fee. Long before the World Wide
Web simplified access to the Internet for millions of citizens, an
Internet culture had evolved, which decreed that information on the Net
should be free. In this first phase of the Web's history, that culture
proved very strong. Only specialized providers targeting specialized,
eager audiences succeeded in charging for information on the Internet.
The backers of most new information and news sites on the Internet
counted on advertising revenue to earn them profits. But after healthy
growth in online advertising for several years, the demand for it fell
abruptly in the second half of 2000, largely because many Web
advertisers were new Internet start-ups, which themselves fell on hard
times after their stock prices collapsed. By the end of 2000, many of
the stand-alone Web news sites were hemorrhaging money. Those that did
not go out of business altogether were forced to cut costs and staff
drastically, seek new investors or sell their content to more successful
Voter.com got more
attention than most of these start-ups. A young venture capitalist,
Justin Dangel, launched the site. He hired as his executive editor
former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame.
They hoped to use media and public interest in the 2000 presidential
election to gain a large audience rapidly. They tried to attract
attention with expensive publicity campaigns, beginning with lavish
parties and prominently placed work spaces at the Democratic and
Republican national conventions in the summer of 2000. The parties were
fine, but the site flopped. Voter.com went out of business early in 2001.
The news and information sites that survived focused on subjects best
suited to continuous updating on the Internet: business and financial
markets, sports and the weather. But even these were not guaranteed
The popularity of financial news sites was linked to the
personal-investing and new-technology booms of the late 1990s, which
played out in part on the Internet. Day traders bought and sold the
stocks of online entrepreneurs through online trading houses, and relied
on online information to make decisions about what to buy or sell.
According to one survey, active stock traders were relying more on
Internet-based financial information than on traditional news media in
the spring of 2000. But the bubble burst that spring.
In the months that followed, many of the most successful online
publishers had to relinquish their ambitions, face painful adjustments
or go out of business. One was Fool.com, a Web site full of news and advice for individual
investors started by brothers David and Tom Gardner and their friend
Erik Rydholm. They began in 1993 as an iconoclastic newsletter, The
Motley Fool. They moved onto America Online in 1994, then launched
their Web site in 1997. By the end of the nineties, after years of bull
markets and an ever-expanding number of individual stock traders,
several million people were visiting Fool.com each month. Exploiting a talent for
self-promotion, the three founders, often wearing court jester hats,
became a kind of multimedia conglomerate. They launched a radio show
heard on 130 stations and a newspaper column that appeared in 170
papers. They added chat rooms to their Web site. When Internet business
dropped dramatically at the end of 2000, this diversification helped
The Motley Fool struggle to stay afloat. But it didn't prevent
layoffs and cutbacks of content when advertising revenue fell in 2001.
Two other business news Web sites, TheStreet.com, and MarketWatch.com, quickly gained large audiences in the
late nineties. They used money from sales of their stock to hire
reporters and editors who produced original business journalism. But
their stock values tumbled in the 2000 sell-off of Internet issues. MarketWatch.com
depended for its financial health on partial ownership by CBS. TheStreet.comshrank its news operations and ended a joint
newsroom-operating agreement with the New York Times.
By 2001 the common missing ingredient for these enterprises was profit,
regardless of the size of their audience. Those owned wholly or in part
by established media companies were subsidized by their parents. The CNBC.com and CNNfn.com financial news
sites were subsidiaries of cable news networks. Weather.com was run by
cable television's Weather Channel. And the three most popular sports
news sites were owned by CBS, the sports cable channel ESPN and a
combination of the CNN cable network and Sports
After the shakeout of 2000 to 2001, the Web outlets of old-media
organizations were indisputably the dominant news sites on the Internet.
Not only did the networks and major newspapers draw big audiences, their
material also became ubiquitous on other sites as a result of
content-sharing agreements and the free links from one site to another
that are a unique feature of the Web.
But even the most popular news sites had many fewer visitors than the
major "portals"--Yahoo!, AOL and Microsoft's MSN, among others--that
many people used as gateways to the Web. The portals offer easy access
to the Internet, e-mail, Web searches, chat, online auctions and
shopping, entertainment--and news.
The portals do not create any journalism of their own. They buy
standardized news summaries and stories from the Associated Press and Reuters wire services, and
they provide links to stories on the news sites of newspapers, magazines
and television networks. They treat news as a commodity.
As a result, one of America's oldest news organizations, the Associated Press, has become a
ubiquitous news provider for the newest news medium, the Internet. The
AP supplies most of the news displayed by the portals. Even the major
newspapers and television networks, which produce fresh news stories for
their Internet sites all day long, use the AP for breaking news
bulletins and updates on their sites. Many newspaper and television news
sites use only the AP for the latest news. The more ambitious sites use
AP dispatches until they can complete their own stories and "put them
up" on the Web.
With 2,700 reporters, photographers and editors in 146 bureaus in the
United States, including all fifty state capitals, and ninety-five more
bureaus around the world, the AP has more journalists in more places
ready to report breaking news than any other news organization. More
than 1,500 member newspapers are the primary clients and cooperative
owners of the 152-year-old news service. The AP also sells selections
from its daily output of more than 20 million words and 1,000 pictures
to 5,000 American radio and television stations and nearly 9,000
newspaper and broadcast customers in other countries. And now it sells
around-the-clock news reports to a number of Internet sites besides
those operated by its newspaper and broadcast clients.
The AP delivers a basic and bland diet of news bulletins that Internet
news consumers will find almost wherever they roam on the Web. The AP
emphasizes speed, accuracy and fairness in its reporting. In the words
of the AP's chief executive, Lou Boccardi, the goal is to produce "a
dispassionate account of news across the country and around the world."
As new technology creates "many new voices [with] a point of view,"
Boccardi said, "the AP keeps its objective tradition."
The AP provides journalistic meat and potatoes, a diet that satisfies a
wide variety of customers. It distributes concise, straightforward
accounts of the big national and international stories, local news from
every state in the union, sports news and business news. The AP's
reporting reflects the abilities and experience of many AP
correspondents, who tend to start their journalism careers at the news
service and move on after a few years. AP pays mediocre wages, but it
gives young journalists intense and extensive experience in busy bureaus
with large workloads that keep all hands running all the time. With some
notable exceptions, the AP does not produce much investigative or
interpretative reporting that goes beyond or behind the events of the
day. But it stays on top of those events, updating them all the time.
The news bulletins heard on the hour on American radio stations come
predominantly from the AP.
The fact that the Associated Press and its main competitor, the British
news service Reuters,
are the principal providers of news on the Internet suggests that, so
far, consumers see the Web more like a user-friendly radio station than
a serious provider of in-depth news. But there is also a strong and
growing demand for more serious journalism on the Internet. The links
offered by most of the portals to stories on the sites of major
newspapers and television networks draw thousands of readers to those
news sites. And of course Web surfers can go directly to the sites of
the New York
Times, the Los
Angeles Times and the Washington Post to read the entire contents of those
papers, plus stories and features specially produced for the Internet.
The Wall Street
Journal also has a good Web site, but, uniquely, it is only
available to paid subscribers. Journal readers need the information
their paper provides for business purposes, so they can treat its cost
as a business expense, which may explain why the Journal has been
able to attract hundreds of thousands of paid online readers.
The Times and the Post have vast armies of new readers,
hundreds of thousands daily, who read Post and Times journalism on their
computer screens from every corner of the globe. Anyone with access to a
computer and modem can read the country's--and many of the
world's--leading newspapers whenever they like.
The Post's experience has demonstrated the power of big news
events to drive up the online audience. As the number of Internet users
grew by leaps in the late 1990s, usage of washingtonpost.com jumped
every time a big story broke. The first of these was the death of
Princess Diana in August 1997. Later, each big development of the
Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment of President Clinton drove
readership up. Yet every time a new record for "page views" was set,
that became a new level of everyday readership. Then the next big news
event drove the audience up again. One surprising example was the
sinking of the Kursk, the Russian submarine, which drew a huge
readership in the days when the fate of its crew was still uncertain.
Then the 2000 presidential election and, especially, its suspenseful
aftermath set more new records. Then all records were shattered on
September 11 and 12, 2001, when a huge audience, three times larger than
the one that read about the presidential election, visited
washingtonpost.com's coverage of the terrorist attacks on Washington and
New York. On each of those days, washingtonpost.com recorded more than 28 million page
views, indicating that millions of people had visited the site.
If charted as a graph line, washingtonpost.com's readership grew like a staircase, sharply up
with a big new story, then leveling off until the next one. Clearly,
readers who found the site liked it enough to return, even when there
wasn't a dramatic new development. But breaking news is always the most
popular feature on washingtonpost.com.
When the owners and managers of the established news organizations began
to grasp the potential of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, they
first saw a mortal danger. Newspapers were particularly worried that
online competition would draw away a large portion of classified
advertising, unprepossessing little advertisements that make up 20 to 50
percent of all revenues of most newspapers. The theory was that the Web
was an ideal classified-ad environment that would enable consumers to
search easily for exactly what they wanted in a car, job or apartment.
This proved true, but not devastating. After several years of anxiety,
the consequences have been significant but not yet dire. The economic
slowdown at the end of 2000 hurt classified advertising considerably
more than Internet competition had up to that point.
Confronted by dramatic technological change, hundreds of newspapers,
television stations and the networks all came to the same conclusion:
They had to defend their own interests by staking a claim to a piece of
cyberspace. So they launched Web sites, sometimes with ambitious and
creative plans for how to use them, sometimes without much thought at
Some newspapers have added newsroom staff or created new subsidiaries to
work on their Web sites and invested many millions of dollars in
Internet publishing ventures. But many others are struggling with tiny
Web staffs that do little more than dump the contents of their papers
onto the Internet each day. Newspaper chains like Gannett and Knight Ridder appear
to be undecided about whether they should emphasize collective,
corporate Web news strategies or let their individual papers go their
own ways. Some have debated whether their papers' Web sites should be
built primarily around news or become multipurpose local portal sites,
on which the news plays a much smaller role.
Most local television stations have also starved their Internet sites of
money and staff until recently, and the audiences for these bare-bones
sites have been tiny. The networks are now investing in the sites of
stations they own, and dozens of other stations have banded together to
put the operation of their sites under a consultant called Internet Broadcasting Systems,
which began by improving their graphics, weather reports and promotion.
The Internet sites of most television stations amount to little more
than an alternative way to view the relatively limited news coverage the
stations put on the air.
At the opposite extreme are the best sites, most of them belonging to
the biggest newspapers and the networks, which combine breaking news,
updated twenty-four hours a day, with the journalism published or
broadcast by the parent organization. Besides news, these sites
typically offer photographs and snippets of audio and video from news
events, press conferences and interviews, which can make them look like
combinations of newspapers and television on a computer screen. The best
news sites also offer many of the services provided by the portals,
including e-mail, online discussions, Web search engines, classified
advertising and online shopping. Many newspaper sites offer extensive
guides to their cities' dining, entertainment, cultural activities and
community events. Some are sending e-mail newsletters to subscribers who
want tailored packages of breaking news, sports highlights or movie and
restaurant reviews. At first the big newspapers reacted fearfully to the
Internet, seeing it as a destabilizing competitor, but by 2001 many of
the major papers had decided it could be a means to strengthen their
local franchises and expand their audiences into the regions around them
and the rest of the country.
By 2001, about five years into the Web era, the more ambitious and
better-funded news sites of major newspapers and television networks had
attracted the great majority of readers and advertisers on the Web,
while local newspaper and television station sites were struggling. But
even the big national sites had to be subsidized by their old-media
parents. Neither advertising nor other forms of revenue (mostly the
resale of content for other purposes) produced enough money to fund an
ambitious news site. As in the early years of radio and television, many
advertisers are still uncertain about the effectiveness of advertising
on the Internet. Yet the Internet built audience much faster than radio
or television did, and it seems only logical that advertisers will find
a way to exploit the eyeballs the Web attracts.
After Wall Street lost its enthusiasm for money-losing Internet
businesses in 2000, a number of big media companies decided to reduce
the red ink at their subsidized Web sites. The Tribune Company, Knight Ridder, the
New York Times Company, NBC and CNN were among many that cut the
staffs of their Web operations, even as they tried to increase their
news content to attract larger audiences and more advertisers.
So the first period of journalism on the Internet was similar in many
ways to the first period of "e-commerce," the selling of goods and
services on the Web. Most Net-only enterprises failed, in retailing as
in journalism. Once established brand names like Barnes & Noble and
Wal-Mart learned how to use the Web to do business, they proved to be as
strong in cyberspace as they were on land, while their Web-based
competitors could not survive. Big news organizations also used the Web
to defend their brand names and spread their journalism, although no
old-media business made significant money from Internet operations.
. . .
Profits or no, the Internet is destined to remain a significant
distribution channel for the country's biggest news organizations.
Millions of people across the globe have already embraced the Web as a
provider of journalism, and the number grows every day. As Internet
service gets cheaper and faster and reaches more people, and reading
devices become more portable and more sophisticated, use of the Web can
only become more and more popular.
Web journalism has begun to alter the cultures of the big news
organizations. Initially deep divisions were typical between the new
staffs hired to launch Web sites and traditional newsrooms, where Web
skepticism reigned. But these differences are disappearing. At the big
news organizations, more and more reporters produce stories for the
Internet and participate in online chats and Web videos. Traditional
journalists have begun to see the Web as an opportunity to give readers
background, details, graphics and photographs that won't fit into
newspapers or television broadcasts, which now regularly inform readers
that they can find additional information online.
The 2000 presidential election became an important laboratory for these
changes. That something new was happening was evident at the party
conventions, where Web sites took up positions on "Internet Avenues" in
the work space for traditional journalists. Most noticeable were the
futuristic news operations of MSNBC.com, CNN.com
and ABCNews.com, which
featured open TV studios in which network news personalities like Sam
Donaldson and Cokie Roberts conducted panel discussions for video
broadcasts on the Web. One of the webcasts that appeared regularly on
the Internet during the conventions and then throughout the 2000
campaign was a New York Times discussion group featuring the
newspaper's Washington bureau chief and political reporters, part of the
Times's Web and television partnership with ABC News.
During the election campaign and the month-long postelection recounts
and court battles that followed, Washington Post political
journalists produced up-to-the-minute coverage of breaking developments
throughout each day for washingtonpost.com. They then wrote more
in-depth stories and analyses for the next morning's newspaper, which
were also put onto the Internet site overnight. They interviewed
politicians in online forums and video webcasts and answered readers'
questions themselves in online chats. Washingtonpost.com also featured live and
recorded video, as well as full printed texts and transcripts, of
candidates' speeches and press conferences. This blended the speed of
broadcast news, the depth of print journalism and the limitless
information capacity and interactivity of the Internet.
Washingtonpost.com's audience on the Web tripled during
the election. Its readers included hundreds of thousands of people
around the world who would never be able to hold an ink-on-paper
Washington Post in their hands. Research by the Pew Center showed
that the number of Americans who used the Internet for election news
grew dramatically during the 2000 campaign. According to the survey, 18
percent of Americans got political information from the Web, most of
them from the sites of major old-media news organizations whose names
and credibility they knew and trusted.
The success of the Post's site altered the culture in our
By the morning of September 11, 2001, it was second nature for
Post reporters to immediately start filing information to
washingtonpost.com. "No one needed to be reminded that this story had to
be covered on the Internet," said Tracy Grant, an editor responsible for
rushing breaking news coverage to the Web site from the newspaper's
downtown Washington newsroom.
Post reporters covering the White House, Congress, the Pentagon,
the Justice Department, Wall Street and the air transportation system,
among many others, wrote reports for the Internet throughout the day
while also producing stories for the newspaper's "Extra" print edition
that afternoon and its regular editions the next morning.
From the twelfth-floor offices of washingtonpost.com across the Potomac River in
Arlington, Virginia, the Web site's executive editor, Doug Feaver, could
see the smoke rising from the stricken Pentagon. Clearing everything
else off the site's home page, he and his staff updated it around the
clock with new information about the terrorist attacks from Post
reporters and the wire services, plus video from the Post's
television partner, MSNBC.
Coverage of the terrorist attacks and subsequent war on terrorism
demonstrated the Web's potential. The package of material available on
washingtonpost.com resembled television coverage in some respects: it
provided video of the big moments, and could be updated constantly. But
consumers did not have to be watching all the time; they could view the
video and other material at a time of their own choosing. The pictures
were accompanied by written accounts much more detailed than any of the
brief news reports broadcast on television. And the coverage was always
available--no commercials or entertainment programming competed with
. . .
Trying to forecast the future of the Internet is probably futile. How
predictable was the future of radio in 1921, or the future of television
in 1951, comparable moments in the history of those two media? The
Internet is just getting started.
Of the many unknowable facts about the future, perhaps one is most
critical: what consumers will want and expect from the Internet five,
ten or twenty years from now. Today using the Web is still pretty
clumsy. The computers that provide access to it are much clunkier,
harder to use and less portable than they will be soon. When your
Internet "receiver" is as easy to use as your television today, when it
provides moving pictures as vivid as a television's, when it can take
oral orders from you and respond in kind, when you can easily take it
anywhere, how will you use it?
It isn't difficult to imagine the Internet displacing television as we
have known it. The evolution of both distribution technologies and
receivers will quite soon give the Web all the advantages of television
but none of the many disadvantages. Consumers will be able to watch
whatever they want, whenever they want. Commercial interruptions will be
easily avoided. Where television news is constricted by the relatively
short time allotted to it, and by the fact that viewers can watch a news
program only in exactly the order and form its producers choose, Web
news will become a malleable product that can be shaped by every viewer
to suit his or her tastes.
Such an evolution would wreak havoc with the economic model that
prevails on television, which presumes viewers' willingness to sit still
for some commercials if they want to watch whatever comes next. This is
one of the ways in which television presumes the passivity of its
audience. Another is the way news is presented on the tube, one item at
a time. Of course this may be what many consumers want, even if they
have an alternative. In modern America television has become an opiate
as well as an entertainment medium.
The cardinal difference the Internet offers is the power to talk
back--genuine interactivity. Choosing what to read or watch and when to
read or watch it is the simplest form of compelling interaction.
Internet users can also talk back to the news media, get answers to
their own questions from newsmakers and journalists, participate in
surveys, discuss the news with others online, take tours of remote
places or assemble their own packages of information on various
subjects. If a lot of them want to do this, traditional television will
be in trouble.
These opportunities will threaten newspapers too. But the newspaper will
retain many of its peculiar advantages, beginning with what may be the
ideal way to put advertising in front of the public. It's already a
simple matter to read a newspaper without looking at a single ad.
Research has shown that almost nobody does that, however. And many
newspaper readers say openly that they like the ads; some buy the paper
for the ads. By contrast, early studies of the impact of "banner" ads on
Internet sites suggest they are poorly read, and they don't appear to
enjoy particular popularity with consumers.
Journalism won't exist without financial support--someone has to pay the
journalists and the expenses of gathering news. National Public Radio has persuaded many of its
listeners to pay for news through contributions to their local stations,
and it augments this income with NPR's uniquely subtle commercials by
businesses that want to reach its listeners. Perhaps a high-tech version
of the NPR model will ultimately prevail on the Web. Tiny fees charged
to Web readers could produce substantial revenues, assuming the number
of readers keeps growing.
What has happened so far on the Internet has been a great giveaway of
news content. Newspapers did it first, and television stations and
networks followed. Advertising revenue has offset a fraction of the
costs on the most popular news sites, but not yet enough to generate a
profit. This can't go on indefinitely, especially if technological
evolution makes the Web more user-friendly than the traditional media
themselves. When a substantial proportion of NBC News viewers or Los Angeles Times readers are consuming those products on
the Web, some way will be found to make the consumers pay, or make
advertisers pay more to reach them.
No one yet knows definitively what Internet users ultimately want from
news sites on the Web. The Pew Research Center's 2000 study showed that
a growing number of better-educated Americans, who are generally more
interested in the news, were watching television news less but reading
news more often on the Internet. Perhaps, because these people regularly
use computers both at work and at home, they find the Internet a more
efficient way to catch up on the news whenever they want to.
Young adults aged eighteen to twenty-nine, who are generally less
interested in the news, are the fastest-growing audience for news on the
Internet. And they are watching news less on television and reading it
less in newspapers. Perhaps they find it less demanding of their time
and attention to skim headlines and news summaries while surfing the
We know already that Web surfers like to use the Internet for headlines,
quick updates on breaking news, stock quotes and sports scores. They
like personalized news that delivers them headlines on subjects they
have chosen. The popularity of the Internet sites of the New York Times
and the Washington
Post demonstrates that a market also exists for fuller news
stories reported, written and edited by authoritative journalists. It's
entirely possible, perhaps probable, that both appetites will survive
into the unforeseeable future, but we can't be certain. Will tomorrow's
Web readers be more interested in revelatory, original journalism? Or
will they prefer raw information like texts, transcripts and unedited
audio and video, or interactive features like online discussions and
packages of news that cater to their individual needs and tastes, which
are uniquely available on the Internet? Or might they just want
headlines and brief bulletins?
The Internet sites of the major news organizations now offer all these
and more. And they are working to create the kinds of mixed, interactive
print, audio and video presentations of the news envisioned by MSNBC.com's Brian Storm and
others. Internet users are beginning to migrate slowly from
limited-capacity telephone lines to broadband fiber-optic cable being
installed by both cable television and phone companies, which offers
greater speed, more interactivity and better audio and video quality.
Will Americans want to take advantage of these capabilities for
higher-quality news coverage? Or will they prefer to use them primarily
for entertainment, the way they use their televisions?
At least in its infancy, the Internet has disappointed those who
predicted it would become a significant new source of original
journalism. Instead, it has quickly become an important new means of
distribution for the journalism produced by the established news media,
giving more Americans access to the best journalism than ever before.
This suggests to us that the work of the best news organizations, those
with the strongest commitment to independent and original journalism, is
most likely to find the largest audiences on the Web of tomorrow. But
this prediction can only come true if the owners of those news
organizations are willing to support the evolution of this new medium
and take advantage of the opportunities it offers.