The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World: Beyond Portal Websites
December 2004

by Terry Heaton

The first time I ever heard the word "portal" was in the early Star Trek episode, The City on the Edge of Forever. This award-winning episode found the Enterprise crew on the "Time Planet" standing before a portal called The Guardian of Forever. "Time and place are ready to receive you," the portal spoke. "I am a time portal. Through me the great race which once lived here went to another age." (Story summary: Kirk, Spock and McCoy end up on earth in the 1930s, Kirk falls in love with Joan Collins. Saves her life. Alters history. Back through the portal. Returns. Lets her die. Heartbroken.) Portals have become central to science fiction, including the film, Stargate, and the television series of the same name.

By definition, a portal is a doorway or a gate, and pre-bubble Internet business models adopted the concept as a logical way to manage content. The World Wide Web itself was seen as one giant portal, because of the linking ability built into the language of the Web, HTML. Within the Web, it was natural to produce portal sites to help people find things, but as so often is the case, greed set in. Framing options available through HTML code made it possible to keep users within the confines of the portal site, thereby validating its advertising business model through new metrics, such as page views, unique users and stickiness.

AOL is a giant portal (in ISP clothing) that offers users access to the Web through the AOL software. The early attractions for AOL were easy access to the Web, organization, interaction and the use of keywords to find things. We used to call AOL "Internet training wheels," because it really functioned as a Web within the Web. And while the AOL community taught a lot of us how to use the Web, there came a time when we could ride the bicycle ourselves, thank you very much.

Nearly every Website has portal functionality, because, well, it's just so darned logical to build it that way. Here's the thinking:

  • An attractive home page to welcome users. For awhile there, we had the trend of Flash animation "pre" home pages. Go figure.
  • The home page offers access to the content of the site through links. We call this "navigation."
  • These links often lead to other portals, called "departments" — or something like that — and links to the content are found there.
  • Therefore, the actual content of the site is usually two, three, four or more layers deep within the site.
  • Content is then further broken into more than one page, so that the site will produce more clicks.

Portal sites are great for organizing and managing content, but the concept drags Modernist baggage into what is essentially a Postmodern entity. The concept presupposes a marketing mentality that is contrary to the nature of the Web — that everything is organized from the top-down. Technology is leveling playing fields everywhere, and no where is this more evident than with the Internet. Disruptive innovations are shattering the status quo, and portal websites are becoming increasingly irrelevant for anything other than storage and maintenance.

Throughout our history, we've always managed knowledge and information from the top down. Whoever has the highest knowledge mountaintop wins. This notion is at the core of the current debate between so-called professional journalism and the citizen phenomenon of blogging. With millions of blogs, the argument goes, how is it possible to get a handle on what's being said? This presupposes the idea that the filtering all of that dialog is essential to an overall understanding, and that comes from the highest mountaintop belief.

The logical mind assumes the position that only a few items can occupy "top of mind" status, while the rest lie underneath in descending layers of importance. In that sense, the mind is a portal to knowledge, and managing all that knowledge becomes the task

And so we produce TV station Websites that function the same way. We build top-down portals with only links to the important stuff on the home page. I once removed all of the design elements from the home page of a client's Website. When the colors and graphics and ads and promotional material was removed, the only thing left was links and perhaps a short paragraph on the top story. Try it sometime. You'll be amazed. There is no content on the home page of most supposedly "content" Websites.

Then, along came Google and changed everything. Like the Star Trek "Guardian," Google's portal works in two dimensions — horizontal and vertical — but the technology does more than just provide links. It's what they're linking to that's important and the way it has changed how consumers use the Web. A Google search takes the user inside the portals of others and straight to the content they seek. The company can track FedEx or UPS shipments simply by entering the tracking number and "FedEx" or "UPS" in the search bar. Up pops the page from the FedEx or UPS site with your information! Google didn't partner with either FedEx or UPS to provide this service. They didn't need to, and there's really nothing to stop them from spreading such services.

History may well judge Google's real contribution to be teaching people how to reroute themselves around all the top-down, portalesque Websites that clutter the Internet landscape. This is significant, because it's exposing the reality that a URL is just a URL, and that there are ways around the traffic lights we used to take for granted.

The logical mind views Websites as places where people go, regardless of the reason. As such, it makes sense to welcome them with some sort of home page, and then lead them through the process of finding what they're seeking. The problem with this is it makes an assumption about people that is simply incorrect — that people want to be led through the process of finding what they're seeking. This view of Websites also completely disregards the reality of the Internet. Contrary to the way it seems, a Website is not a destination. The Web browser that sits on an individual's computer is the destination. The truth is a Website doesn't actually exist until the browser on a user's desktop translates the coded language that's sitting on a server somewhere. All of the work takes place in a connection between the two computers, but it's displayed only on the user's desktop.

Most people view a browser as a vehicle that transports them from place to place along the information superhighway. Not true. You don't "go" anywhere. It all comes to you.

This isn't merely a semantic argument. It's key to understanding the media revolution underway, because the power to find and obtain what is being sought increasingly lies with the user today, not companies providing the information. It is purely bottom-up, and it's why RSS is such an important innovation. RSS brings the content being sought directly to the user's desktop, by-passing the portal Website that's hosting the content. And this direct connection between user and content will only grow downstream, because human nature — not some business model — is what's driving it. I want what I want when I want it, and technology is my servant. This is trouble for companies who base their Internet strategies on reach/frequency advertising models. A different mindset is required to make money, and it begins with understanding that today's Internet portal is on the desktop of the Internet user, not in some distant place under the command and control of somebody else.

Keeping in mind that a Website is not a TV station, there are four things we can do to better position ourselves for the long run.

  1. We need to think narrowcasting, not broadcasting, and get out of the portal mindset. Perhaps we need more than one Website from which to offer our content. If we feel that local news is a reason for people to visit us on the Web, then perhaps we should think about doing a local news Website. Regardless, we need to get our content as high up into the site as possible, and that includes our home page. This is one of the beauties of blogs. No navigation is required. All the current content is right there on the blog page.
  2. Remove all the cluttering navigation links, keep things clean and simple, and incorporate search prominently. Search is interactive and intuitive, and users find it terribly satisfying. People want to find things themselves, and our archives are vastly more important than we think.
  3. Delve deeply into RSS. This technology is going to revolutionize the way news is delivered. It's already making waves, and most of the big Web publishers are making their material available via RSS. Every local news entity should do likewise. RSS is demonstrative of the true nature of the Internet. It "pulls" material from portal Websites and delivers it to the user's desktop. Marketeurs obsessed with push marketing have yet to discover how money can be made here, but that's inevitable. RSS is where people are going, and where the people are, there's money to be made. Some publishers are experimenting with delivering ads along with the news, and branded readers make it possible to deliver ads.
  4. Actively and aggressively encourage our viewers and users to move forward with new technologies that bring what we can offer directly to them. This is a smart strategy for several reasons. One, it's where everything is going anyway, and it positions us with a cutting-edge image. Two, it will move people away from our competitor's Web offerings while bringing them to ours. Finally, it will seal our commitment to the new reality in which we live.

As The Guardian of Forever noted, time and place are indeed ready to receive us. The future isn't nearly so frightening as we may think. All we need to do is step through the portal.

© Terry Heaton