I recently attended "Webfest 2000," a forum presented by the National
Press Club, featuring a panel discussion on the problems
and promise of online journalism. This month's issue of the Columbia
Journalism Review contains a section devoted to this subject.
The thread running through these
discussions is that major media publications and networks are
trying to hop on the digital bandwagon. It is also clear that
they are having major problems figuring out what their mission
should be, and reeling from the expense.
The cost of producing a daily online
publication is enormous. For newspapers, such as The Washington
Post and The New York Times, the money needed to produce a website
- that can stand alone - has been a shock to their systems. All
of them have been forced to move from a daily deadline to a minute
by minute one. They realize they can1t simply re-purpose material
from their printed editions and be competitive in the online arena.
Instead, they have to ask reporters to stay on top of their stories.
Now, rather than being held responsible
for what lands on a reader1s doorstep in Washington, The Post
has to field calls from a frantic correspondent in Beijing at
3am in the morning, because he1s getting called by Chinese officials
about a misquote they've just seen in the online edition.
A single photograph on the front
of the metro section, is turned into a multimedia essay on the
That's great, but picking one picture
is a totally different editorial task than putting together a
multimedia essay including audio, and in many cases video as well.
The strain has been far greater
among the newsmagazines. They are being forced to turn out a site
which needs continual updating, with far less resources than those
of their daily newspaper competition. The sickening reality for
the magazines is that they are confronted with having to modify
their operations from being a weekly to a "24-7" publication.
A Time vice president described their Web operation as giving
"new meaning to the words 'black hole.'"
Henry Luce was very clear in his
mission statement when he proposed Time magazine. It would be
a weekly digest of news from around the world. It was a simple
and brilliant idea then. It should still work now. But instead,
after such disastrous missteps as bundling all Time Inc. brands
into a site called "Pathfinder," they decided to create "Time
Daily." The red flags should have gone up. Time has never been
a "daily." They bit off more than they could chew.
The competition in this area is
enormous. MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post,
The Los Angles Times, The Chicago Tribune, are all hemorrhaging
money trying to compete in an arena they never anticipated entering.
The frustration for these brands
is the difficulty in holding onto loyal reader bases. The simple
fact is that the
sites change too quickly for the
average reader to keep up with them. MSNBC online changes its
front page 30 times a day. Major features, involving huge amounts
of work, appear and disappear in one news cycle. Then, there1s
the horror of realizing that all those words and pictures will
sooner or later have to be turned into video as the Web goes
It's going to be interesting to
see how the media giants handle these challenges. The best single
quote that may apply here is by screenwriter William Goldman,
talking about the motion picture industry: "Nobody knows anything!"
I just received an email from Tom
Burton, a photographer (and Platypus) who works for the Orlando
Sentinel. He reports that his newspaper, owned by the Chicago-based
Tribune Company which also owns the Los Angeles Times, is investing
in a concept called "The Feedroom." It's an interactive, broadband
Internet product that will provide news, photos, and video on
Well, here it comes - the start
of the paradigm shift.
What this means is that publishers
are about to change the fundamental way their product - information
- is delivered. "On demand" is the key phrase here. It means the
precious commodities - the words, video, and pictures that are
archived can be served up in portions the reader or customer wants.
Stop thinking in terms of a newspaper,
magazine or television station. Instead, think of a huge wire
service that's available to anyone. "Mix and match" content that
can be used in any form. The idea of "The Feedroom" has been knocking
around journalist circles for the past few months. The term has
generally been used in the pejorative sense (i.e. "The Feed")
to describe how people will get their news from a mega-source
that lives in cyberspace (but has bank accounts in Chicago and
It's vitally important that freelance
photographers, artists, filmmakers and writers understand what
electronic rights they may be signing away. It's not really about
what Time magazine, for example, plans to do with
the pictures on their website "Time
Daily," that's inconsequential. The rights are necessary in order
for these publishers to slice, dice, and mix your photographs
and video in any combination they choose, then feed the results
to their mega-servers where your material can be accessed for