What the Old Media Fears About the Web

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In a smart New York Times story earlier this week about how web users seem to be gravitating to the on-line versions of the best-known national news organizations, Andrew Kohut, the head of the Pew Research Center in Washington was quoted as saying: "Online, people tell us they go to look for what they are interested in, which tends to narrow people's horizons, not expand them."

Ah, they go to look for what they're interested in.This is the now familiar lament of old media when it comes to online news. It's the idea that people might actually be able to choose what news they read or watch. Mr. Kohut, Felicity Barringer writes, "also said that viewing news on the Web took away one of the most important elements of news consumption in the old media, which is browsing." Now, let's forget for the moment that surfing is an exponentially more powerful version of browsing, and focus instead on Andrew's Lament.

The traditional Mandarin Media's great fear is that civilians may actually be able to consume news in whatever shape or form they want. And that ordinary folks, instead of eating their spinach, will go straight for the cotton candy. This disturbs old-style media types because they are, above all, packagers of news. Every front page of every daily newspaper in the country represents that paper's view of the hierarchy and relative importance of that day's news. Same thing with the order of stories on the network evening news. The idea that readers or viewers might be able to evaluate for themselves what was important that day, or decide that perhaps they are more interested in reading about Britney Spears than Great Britain, undermines the very rationale for a newspaper front page or even an editorial point of view. It erodes the common and yet elitist view of traditional journalists that, "We know best."

If you invert Fox News's disingenuous slogan of "We report. You decide," you get a sense of how the traditional media regards their mission. It is, "We decide. You read." Or, "We decide. You watch." It is the smug view that we know what it is you need to know, and we're going to spoon feed it to you whether you like it or not. Granted, this view has been transformed over the last few years by the desperate quest for ratings and readers, leading to the ever greater prevalence of so-called "soft news." This is the principle of finding out what people want to watch and then giving it to them. To paraphrase Louis XVI: There go my readers, I better hurry up and lead them.

To the traditional media, this is less scary by an order of magnitude than people putting together their own front page every day. The amount of time people spend on individual news web sites is not a lot. But when you put together the amount of time they spend going from one site to another, it's probably about the same length of time it takes to read the front page of the New York Times. At the same time, online personalization, customization, and the Tivo-ing of content allows users to put together the Daily Me. Wouldn't you want to subscribe to the Daily You?

I hear traditional news types disparage things like the book reviews on Amazon.com. Oh, they're just friends of the author's. Well, some of them might be. But a regular reader might wonder, What's wrong with that? Why doesn't that represent a valid point of view? Anyway, these friends-of-the author reviews represent a tiny minority of the reviews on Amazon.com. Moreover, most book readers seem to care more about what other book readers think than some highfalutin' critic. For the most part, critics write to impress other critics, not to help readers.

Editors like to think that the arrangement of stories on the front page or the order of stories on the evening news offer readers or viewers a little bit of serendipity. That is, a reader can start off reading a story about George Bush and get interested in the story one column over on new kinds of cell phones. And that does happen. But this is a contrived serendipity engineered by someone's editorial judgment. Surfing the web, for better or for worse, offers genuine serendipity of a kind that is not predictable or arranged. And that's what really scares old media types.