The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World: Beyond the World Wide Web
August 2004

by Terry Heaton

Like most other news directors, I was an early user of the Internet. I took to e-mail like a kid in a candy store, but it wasn't until I left the news business in 1998 that my real education began. I was president and CEO of an Internet company with a largely advertiser-driven business model. When we were invited into a hi-tech business incubator, one of our early investors boasted that we'd soon be worth $100 million. He was wrong, and I went broke.

Early attempts to exploit the Internet for business purposes—a.k.a. "the bubble"—mostly presumed a Modernist top-down model as the core competency. The ability to easily reach vast numbers of people meant that getting there first was the only requirement for success. This was a great mistake, for while it made many early speculators wealthy, it eventually ruined even more. This failure to understand its real core competency is the essential lesson for all of us—and especially broadcasters—when pondering the Internet and the future.

The great mistake was an honest one, however, for no one had ever previously considered the full ramifications of a life form like the Internet. The Internet Society, for example, notes the "world-wide broadcasting capability" of the Net, so it's natural it would be viewed that way from a business perspective. The reality is that the Internet is much more than a broadcast delivery system, and that's where most people in the television world continue to miss it. Television is, after all, a genuine broadcast medium, and it's hard to shift your perspective when that's all you know. Trust me. It was a significant blind spot in the development of my former company.

Here's a secret that those of us who work in the industry understand about the Internet, but most people don't: the Internet is not the World Wide Web. The Web is just a part of the Net. Once freed of this misperception, you are able to view a multimedia news product in a different light—that a monolithic Web site is hardly the be-all-and-end-all that many suppose it to be today.

Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, views the difference between the Web and the Net this way:

"The Internet ('Net) is a network of networks. Basically it is made from computers and cables. What Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn (early Internet pioneers) did was to figure out how this could be used to send around little "packets" of information. As Vint points out, a packet is a bit like a postcard with a simple address on it. If you put the right address on a packet, and gave it to any computer which is connected as part of the Net, each computer would figure out which cable to send it down next so that it would get to its destination. That's what the Internet does. It delivers packets—anywhere in the world, normally well under a second.

"Lots of different sorts of programs use the Internet: electronic mail, for example, was around long before the global hypertext system I invented and called the World Wide Web ('Web). Now, videoconferencing and streamed audio channels are among other things which, like the Web, encode information in different ways and use different languages between computers ("protocols") to provide a service.

"The Web is an abstract (imaginary) space of information. On the Net, you find computers; on the Web, you find documents, sounds, videos ... information. On the Net, the connections are cables between computers; on the Web, connections are hypertext links. The Web exists because of programs which communicate between computers on the Net. The Web could not be without the Net. The Web made the Net useful because people are really interested in information (not to mention knowledge and wisdom!) and don't really want to have to know about computers and cables."

This is why delivering news content via RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is revelatory of the Internet. The Web doesn't have to be involved—although it often is—because the technology is an Internet application. Until we can look beyond the Web, we're going to limit what's possible as providers of local news.

We owe a lot to early pioneers like Cerf and Kahn, for their vision enabled what we have today. Four ground rules were critical to Kahn's early thinking. When you understand these, you understand the Internet just a little better.

1. Each distinct network would have to stand on its own and no internal changes could be required to any such network to connect it to the Internet.

2. Communications would be on a best-effort basis. If a packet didn't make it to the final destination, it would shortly be retransmitted from the source.

3. Black boxes would be used to connect the networks; these would later be called gateways and routers. There would be no information retained by the gateways about the individual flows of packets passing through them, thereby keeping them simple and avoiding complicated adaptation and recovery from various failure modes.

4. There would be no global control at the operations level.

That last ground rule confounds Modernist thought, because it reveals the Internet's lack of hierarchy. The Internet, although a network in name and geography, is a creature of the computer, not the traditional network of the television industry. This is why we all missed it on the original business model, because a computer network features two-directional communications. Everybody's equal, and that's why broadcasters (and many others) have such difficulty understanding its power. It is the communications medium of Postmodernism, which rejects hierarchical structures of all kinds, including the broadcast model.

Doc Searls, one of the authors of "The Cluetrain Manifesto," understood all this long before most. In May of 1998, Doc offered a prophecy in the form of an essay called, "There is No Demand for Messages:"

The Web is not TV. Repeat after me: The Web is not TV. Excite, Lycos and Yahoo see themselves as the new TV networks. They may have newfangled services, but they make money the old-fashioned way: by aggregating scarce access to dumb eyeballs. That model will fail once the Web starts meeting its promises:

1. the need to know; and

2. the need to buy.

In economic terms, these are the only promises made by the Web. Neither of these is met by this year's "portals," last year's "push," or the original notion (circa what, 1995?) that all people really want is to surf through Web sites the way they click through TV channels ...

... The main reason I got out of advertising and PR was this epiphany:


Let me see a show of hands: who here wants a message? Right: none. And who wants to shield themselves from messages they don't want? Exactly: everybody.

TV advertising has negative demand. It subtracts value.

The day will come, hopefully soon, when we will measure demand for advertising on a customer-by-customer basis, and not just by its indirect effects on large populations. When that happens, and direct vendor-customer conversations start adding serious value for both parties, that new conversation will disintermediate most media. Companies will drop advertising like a bad packet.

That day is already upon us, and it's critical that broadcasters understand the hows and whys of it. The broadcast metrics of reach and frequency are bound for the grave. A study released in earlier this summer by InsightExpress finds that people (with DVRs) are most inclined to view ads they have not seen before, and consequently are most likely to zap ads they've already seen. Joe Mandese of MediaDailyNews wrote, "it suggests that the economics of a business based on serving redundant commercial impressions to a mass audience in order to reach an impressionable few will no longer work in the future." This is the kind of thing Doc Searls prophesied over six years ago.

And so the issue once again is what do broadcasters do? I strongly recommend at least the following:

Embrace New Media

Bring your employees up-to-speed on New Media, especially your newsroom. Hire people from the local technical school to come in and teach such things as Photoshop, HTML, Web slide show software, and other skills. Contrary to the way you might feel, technology is not your enemy.

Embrace Internet marketing

There are plenty of companies that will send somebody to your station—in many cases free-of-charge—to do workshops with your sales and promotions departments. You'll not survive the New Media world without this knowledge, the lack of which produces an unspoken fear among salespeople about the Internet.

Local, local, local

Your role as an information provider in your community is under attack from people who understand things you don't appreciate about the Internet. That includes your local paper and various search engine companies and others who are trying to build a market within yours. For you to survive, you're going to have to think of yourselves beyond traditional broadcast roles. Build your own searchable shopping and classifieds database. Don't stand by and let somebody else do it. This will have unimaginable value downstream. Thoughtfully develop local franchises and do whatever it takes to own them, for in the end, all that matters is local.

When our industry first confronted the Internet, I remember a lot of folks saying it was a way to expand our reach. History now reveals the silliness of that proposition. We need to think of it as a better way to reach and interact with those we already—or in many case used to— serve. The Internet buzzword is "conversations." There's no time like now to begin conversing with the people in your market. In that sense, a Web site is but one tool in the vast toolbox offered by the Internet.

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© Terry Heaton