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The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril
The News About the News:
American Journalism in Peril


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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 interviews.

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 Web sites.

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 newsrooms.

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 television stations.

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 news-gathering resources.

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 technicians.

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 can thrive.

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, informative journalism.

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.

Salon.com was 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.

Slate.com, started 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.

Slate.com devised 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 Papers."

Slate invented 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 Post.

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 Web sites.

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 success.

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 Illustrated magazine.

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 all.

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 newsroom. 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 it.

. . .

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 Web. 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.

Excerpted from The News About the News by Leonard Downie, Jr., and Robert G. Kaiser. Copyright 2002 by Leonard Downie, Jr., and Robert G. Kaiser. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.