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The Impact of New Technology on the News Media

March 8th, 2004 · 1 Comment

Tonight I went to The Impact of New Technology on News Media : A Bainbridge Island Humanities Inquiry Event. It wasn’t what I had imagined it would be, but I still enjoyed the discussion.

This was part of a series exploring the media sponsored by the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council. Co-presented by the Washington News Council. Funded in part by Humanities Washington.

The panel included
Cyrus Krohn,(CK) publisher of Slate.com
Stanley Farrar, (SF) managing editor of Seattletimes.com
Alex M. Dunne, (AD) managing editor of Blue Ear Daily
Doug Schuler, (DS) former chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and a founding member of the Seattle Community Network, faculty member Evergreen State College and author.

Moderator: Stephen Silha (SS), Member, Vice President, Washington News Council

This was the first time I’ve attended a BI Humanities Inquiry Event. I was surprised, especially with the topic of Internet and Media, that the average age in the crowd appeared to be 50, or so, of the few dozen gathered in the library conference room. Only a handful of people without white or grayish hair. Perhaps it was due to the weeknight time, where many younger people would be caught commuting or caring for children. I also was the only one who brought a laptop.

It was dark outside by the time I left, and I was running late. After some searching, I had to park in the church lot and scamper across the street. I wore my clogs and wondered why: they didn’t fit my feet well, especially when I was hurrying. The cherry tree blossoms were luminescent, glowing, as I raced through the library garden and to the door. Frogs croaked in the pond, the sound carrying into the conversations. I got an aisle seat and due to battery problems, plugged my laptop into the wall. Ready to go.

What I noticed about appearances: the four men sat a a table before the rest of the room. The Seattletimes.com editor and the professor wore shirts and ties and had beards. The publisher of Slate and the managing editor of Blue Ear wore black/darker clothes, no ties, no facial hair.

The panel began with each member speaking for five minutes. Then the entire group answered questions from the moderator and audience.

For this post, I’ll summarize statements under each panel member, but then include quotes indented beneath:

Stephen Silha, the moderator, started:

…We have seen the end of a particular kind of mass media and we’ve seen …the balance of power shifting from the makers of journalism to the consumers of journalism….two way communication that simply weren’t possible before…

Doug Schuler was the first to speak. He seemed skeptical about the direction the Internet is headed. He emphasized Indy Media and provided a handout titled “Reinvent the Media” on the Public Sphere Project. Citizen responsibility was one of his big themes.

Citizens need to assume a lot more leadership…the evidence is accumulating that people are willing to stand up…the anti-war movement it was a world-wide movement and civil society mobilized within a month. statistics also of nonprofits, transnational social groups the numbers have gone up 5 fold in the last 50(?) years…those groups are quite active. …..i’m interested in this idea of civic intelligence. trying to focus in on what we do have to offer…the public library is one of our sort of prime existence proofs that there is such an institution we can develop…leaving it (traditional media) to its own devices is a big mistake and we need to pound on it every day.

Ten year ago it was illegal to have any commercial content on the Internet. Now maybe 90% is. When you look at the history it becomes commercialized. Hackers…they were the ones who got it all going, did the engineering, and then the Radio Act of 1934 have made it so that all of our media is pretty commercial…this is classic Intenet ideology of the 90’s “it’s a free wild animal”…we’re so strangulated in commercial radio…in the last few years there have been some interesting things…but if in ten years people don’t know the free part exists, it’s a de facto not free environment.

Cyrus Krohn was next. It was easy for me to imagine him interacting with Dan Quayle – with whom he had interned at the White House – as well as Michael Kinsley and Bill Gates. I liked his style; I think he was my favorite on the panel. It sounds like he’s had some great experiences from the White House to CNN to Slate – ones I’d envy….

Commenting on how he was a Quayle intern and then worked for Michael Kinsley he said : I’ve grown and matured or been brainwashed.

Then continued, starting with his time at CNN’s Crossfire:

Researching half for Michael Kinsley (MK) and the other half for Patrick Buchanan and by the time they aired my head was spinning…Michael Kinsley looked at the Internet in a different light, the economics of print publishing, that industry is a flawed model, everything that goes into the print entity is costly..could we create a publication in a new medium that would allow us to increase our readership two fold…we’ve grown under just 5 million readers a month. …we’re still struggling to make money and have yet to do so. Microsoft publishes the magazine…you’ll be happy to know Microsoft has not touched our editorial process or anything we write…that’s been a treat, we can poke and jab and not be rebutted for it…We have a reader discussion forum…it truly is a virtual letters to the editor when you’re not at the mercy of the editor to decide which letters are going to get published…the feedback that we get…is unlike traditional print…

I think the biggest thing we struggled with early on are what we were..Are we a weekly? a daily?…In fairly short order we needed to be an hourly…and we’re publishing faster than that…We made the unknown mistake at the time of taking a week off in the summer for R&R and that was the week Princess Diana was killed in the car accident and we learned immediately we could never take a vacation…you have to have analysis immediately….I think we’re still struggling with that, we’ve found ourselves in a media cycle where people yearn for instant reaction…we’re forced into reacting to the mood of today…I feel fortunate we have thoughtful writers who can produce intelligent summary and peppy analysis rather quickly…it ultimately comes down to the reader and who they trust…

What amazed me was that Slate.com is not making money, is not even considered a market:

With a audience of 4.7 million readers boasting affluent demographics…you’d think that’d be attractive to advertisers..for some unknown reason, that’s not consider mass reach any more. We tried the subscription model but that couldn’t’ sustain the business. Content should be free.

Stanley Farrar was in the enviable position of Mr. Big Bad Media. I think he did a good job from where he was. I enjoyed the statistics he shared. The projection that today’s teenagers will not be reading print media when they are older is not surprising.

I’m more than anything the evangelism in the organization…it’s my job to change the culture, all through from the top to the bottom, and to adapt this inst to new realities…what drives this for us is people are reading print less and less…teenagers…the percentages of those who read print newspapers by the time they’re in their 30s and 40s will be in the single digits…the inst I work for has had its place at the center of the community for a long time, sort of a clearinghouse for the community…making sense of this massive amount of information….so we think it’s important that some institutions stay at the center of this public interaction…we are looking for a new audience fo that and looking for the advertising to make that possible…that’s what I struggle to do and struggle to do it at a time when our newspaper has gone through a very difficult time, a strike, an economic bust…strike…making that all work efficiently is what I’m there for…

Ah, so this is why I have to fill out all those forms on the registration – also “circulation” is a passe term…:

All of our income is from advertising in one way or another. A lot of it comes from classified advertising…we have banner…sponsorship…we will, we hope, charge more and more for that advertising as we create groups..the reason we ask for registration information is that…that means we can go to an advertiser and say…it makes it a more attractive package for advertising. And we’re bundling advertising with print whenever we can. …our circulation departments no longer talk about “circulation”, they say “reach’ because we reach …three-hundred -something-thousand people a day with our product..in print and on-line…We know on-line that the readers are more affluent, better educated…the majority, probably 20% of our audience is outside the greater Seattle area.

Who and when is the Times getting read on-line? High school sports is a big market.

60% of our on-line users read a daily newspaper. What we find about our users, the pattern that we’re discovering is that the way a lot of people use us…they come to work they log in and they look at us several times during the day for updates then they go home and read the feature sections… they say they read us at home and they’re lying…we get our traffic in the morning..it drops off at noon, then it tapers off slowly…Thursday Friday Saturdy nights high school sports drives an incredible amount of traffic.

The newspaper is paying us to read it?

…people have asked me when are we going to start charging for content…I think the other question is when are we going to stop charging for print? We’ve never charged for content. We actually pay people to take a print newspaper..you can’t argue that we’ve been charging you for content…we’re charging for distribution…we’re paying for you to read the content…very highly specialized publications will be able to do it…most of which people will be willing to subscribe to because they believe they will make more money if they subscribe to it…Micro transactions have always been one model…

Reporters were insulated from readers…and they are not at all any more…they get direct feedback from readers constantly…it does take an incredible amount of time away from what they once did.

How do they know are doing the right thing? When people on both sides are upset.

We try to hire a diverse staff that can check each other…we know we’re doing the right thing when we have people on the right and on the left who are pissed-off at us. We don’t expect people to think we are unbiased…

Budget for Seattletimes.com = 1/50th of total “We run Seattletimes.com with 11 people. 280,000 pages view a month”(this number seems low to me? JL)

Alex M. Dunne spent much of his time explaining what Blue Ear is. It is essentially virtual, since they are spread out across the globe, communicating by email and IM.

Historically there have been 3 levels of reaction to unsatisfying media….typically you could throw your shoe at CNN, you could turn off your TV or you could write a letter to Michael Powell…fortunately what has happened with newer technologies is you are now provided with a new level of response you can make your own. Blue Ear was founded in 1996 (with this in mind) and that is something we are still trying to do today. The tools are new. The capabilities that we have are new and exciting. The problems we face are similar to the problems these other publications are facing. One of the interesting things about Blue Ear Daily is that as I mentioned, our readership is in over 60 countires… soon we’ll have an RSS feed.

How Blue Ear Daily gets ethical journalists:

We pre-qualify our writers. We have a gentleman in Israel who writes every two weeks what’s going on. I don’t fact check his work. That would be presumptuous of me…generally when we get a new writer…we will fact check or scrutinize to make sure that they aren’t saying things without substantiation…I as an individual cannot fact check their work…generally if you know the person…(the advisory board) will qualify writers.

Currently we’re not able to pay writers. We do give them in-kind. They get a premium membership for twice that duration..the people who write for us are not always working professional writers…theres are things that people do because they like the media…we have a 76 year old gentleman in Cairo who is translating works of Plato very interesting people…we’d like to pay our writers…the more work we could get from them…

AD imagines permanent media requiring commercials or patrons, and short-lived publications expiring after a phase.

I think what will happen is that if you want to be a mainstream permanent media outlet…you’re recognized as the go-to source, you are going to have to mature to being a commercial publication, or you’re going to be blessed with a patron or you’re going to be a private or public trust of some sort….There was a great example on the island BFP.org, that was set up here locally to provide an alternative to mainstream media outlet to get news about the war in Iraq, aftere 9 or 10 months it matured technically but the single person updating the site decided to discontinue….you’re going to have publications that will be short-lived, have a life cycle of 12 months or less, while a topic is on people’s mind,…These are the things people can put up themselves and you can put up one of these publications…and for the duration of the topic it’s on-line and available to everyone…I can’t imagine a topic that would force an ISP to say we can’t host this…if you have trouble hosting it here, move to another country…that’s kind of exciting!

From the dialogue with the audience:

Q: Will the Internet remain free?


The panel looked at each other and laughed a little.

When SF from the Times mentioned how much work it is for reporters to reply to their emails

It does allow for more voices and stories…we make their names and email addresses very public..simply sorting through the emails, the rants from the information, but it does make for a broader range of reporting and accountability. Reporters were insulated from readers…and they are not at all any more…they get direct feedback from readers constantly…it does take an incredible amount of time away from what they once did.

AD of Blue Ear responded:

Maybe the public should be in charge of the corrections page.

I liked this audience question 😉

Q: my concern is you are reaching a very particular segment of the population…there are a lot of people let’s take an urban housewife who doesn’t work in an office lets say she has 3 kids she carpools all day, she hears the 30 second soundbites when the TV comes on…not everybody has the time, the skills and the resources to do the things that we’re doing…

This question though was not directly answered – maybe I should have volunteered ?!

The fast food dialogue:

AD (Blue Ear): Large publications Slate, Seattle Times they’re an aggregator of feeds from other outlets…this is fast food… if you don’t have time to cook for yourself, choose the origins of the bell peppers and baby spinach..you’re willing to compromise…people are going to balance, make their own decisions…I go home and assemble my own daily newspaper….I’ll assemble interesting stories and on Friday I pass it out to friends…

CK (Slate): This is partially where technology is going to the extent that personalization…deliver the news based on your web habits…in the future when you come to the Seattle Times home page it is not going to be talking about Nordstroms, the computer is going to be thinking about what you want…Amazon.com is one example. your purchasing habits determine like books…That has real negative connotations for me, I’m providing a real menu and now the chef is bringing food to my table because he thinks I want the lobster over the ravioli…

DS (Seattle Community Network): I don’t want to believe it can never be controlled here…I’m not sold that it is going to remain totally democratic…We don’t want people to just get their sports scores and nothing else…I don’t want to be just “eat your vegetables” about this…”global warming” – are we going to change our behavior? People still get 80 or 90% of their information from newspapers and TV…I believe…if we’re going to successfully deal with some of our major problems…those issues really we deal with them now or we don’t deal with them.

My thoughts

I went hoping that more would be said about blogs, about the power of personal blogs even, but attention remained mostly on the larger media, with a lot of questions and focus on advertising/how to make it pay. Definitions of RSS and blogs were given, although when I hear a blog defined as a “public diary” it makes me think of “Dear Teddy Bear…” Now I have written once or twice about teddy bears, but I think blogs are much more than what comes to mind with the word “diary”. I think “diary” takes away some of the power and potential by its connotations, and would discourage people from reading it for “news”. In retrospect I could have asked a question or two myself. I was feeling a bit distracted by my cold and computer but maybe I should have pursued blogs.

In terms of the fast food analogy, blogs are the organic greens. Blue Ear, Slate, The Seattle Times may all be aggregators and fast food outlets. But if you really want to know where your food comes from, as the analogy goes, then I think you need to know the person who is presenting the information: what better way than a blog?

Sitting there with my laptop at a session on the Internet and Media, with my wi-fi card sticking out of my machine, I expected someone to ask me “are you blogging this?” But no one commented on my computer.

Except Cyrus Krohn. On his way out the door – “like any good party on Bainbridge we have to catch a ferry” is how the moderator ended the night – the publisher of Slate passed by me, as I was shutting down my computer, commenting:

I saw you had your computer and I was envious of you. What I wouldn’t give to log on!

The publisher of Slate envious of me?! I smiled.

Tags: island

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Anita Rowland // Mar 9, 2004 at 8:38 am

    I’ll bet you were the only weblogger there.