The internet and the news industry

I almost missed this trio of articles that appeared in the Washington Post yesterday, commemorating the tenth anniversary of washingtonpost.com.

The first traces the history of the web site from a 1992 memo through the present day:

It was August 1992. There were no wireless laptops, no BlackBerries, no blogs, no rush to flip on cell phones as soon as your plane hit the runway. Yet, in his hand-written memo, sparked after attending an Apple-organized conference in Hakone, Japan, Kaiser took a peek into a crystal ball of technology and proposed that the company “design the world’s first electronic newspaper.”

“We could organize the entire paper electronically with a series of ‘front pages’ and other devices that would guide readers the way our traditional cues do — headlines, captions, story placement, etc.,” he recommended. “And we could explore the feasibility of incorporating ads in the electronic paper.”

What’s interesting about this anecdote is what it reveals about the thinking back then: that the web would be no different from print. He talked about simply taking the content and putting it on a web page, using all the same formatting and visual cues. There’s little realization that this is a different medium; and certainly no realization of just how profoundly different it would be. It’s companion article, Web Users Open the Gates explains this in more detail:

Big guns such as the Associated Press’s chief executive, Tom Curley, have admitted that the industry seriously fumbled its new media strategy for years by opting to re-purpose material produced to serve print and broadcast audiences.

“When the Web was born as a commercial content enterprise back in the mid-’90s, we thought it was about replicating — that is, ‘repurposing’ — our news and information franchises online,” Curley said. “The news, as ‘lecture,’ is giving way to the news as a ‘conversation’.”

The earlier idea of re-purposing content was not innovative, but it was rational and cost-effective. The Web is flexible. It can “kinda/sorta” replicate an older format, if that’s the goal. It’s useful as a cheap, fast mass delivery system. “Trusted brands,” the thinking went, could establish trusted sites, and transfer their reputations to the new medium.

Newspaper, radio, television … Web! It made sense at the time. But in the 10 years following the birth of washingtonpost.com, the Net and its publishing platform, the World Wide Web, have proved harder to master, scarier to get wrong and more thrilling to get right than expected. Wilder, and discontinuous with the past in a way those coming out of traditional journalism never could have imagined.

That article lists some of the ways it’s changed and how the news industry is being forced to adapt.

The final article is As the Internet Grows Up, the News Industry Is Forever Changed talks about the new economics of journalism, and hones in on the changes on the business side of news.

All in all the articles are a terrific summary of many points I’ve previously tried to make here. The way the news industry works is changing, because the way we get our news is changing. And a different way of getting information about the world means we’re going to end up with altogether different perceptions of that world, which is what makes this stuff worth watching.

This is all from the one paper that I think “gets it” – the Washington Post in the last several years has made great effort to make its content available, accessible, and included in the global conversation. I wish more papers *cough*The NYT*cough* would follow its model rather than desperately clinging to a walled garden model for its pages.

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