The Online News Trends

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Online news sites operated by print and broadcast news organizations can contribute to public knowledge about news and public affairs issues by carrying original news of social consequence. These sites can be sources of exclusive news stories, investigative reports, and original commentaries, providing unique contributions to the marketplace of ideas. However, in most cases online news sites operated by print and broadcast news outlets have not made full and responsible use of their sites, seeing them as merely supplements or promotional vehicles for their original outlets, satisfied to reproduce their offline content online and carry wire service stories. Nonetheless, online news sites will have to offer original news if they are to evolve into more legitimate and original news resources in their own right and become more than promotional outlets for parent media outlets. This is all easily said, but it would require commitment and some faith. It would also require separate budgets and editorial staffs for online sites, so they are separate editorial outlets in a corporation able to compete in the marketplace for original news. As things now stand, because of market considerations, news organizations have no incentives to produce original online news (Martin & Hansen, 1996; Thalhimer, 1994). They should, however, because news, unlike entertainment, mandates a greater degree of social responsibility. Producing original news is costly and labor intensive, requiring investments in bureaus, reporters, editors, graphics specialists, and content designers; and most publishers and general managers of news outlets find these expenditures unnecessary when they already have news from their offline outlets and the wire services. They also fear that too much original online content could compete with and threaten the main offline organizations, their primary moneymakers. Most online news sites are free to users, unlike the printed versions. Efforts to create subscription-based news sites have largely failed, except for specialized services such as the Wall Street Journal. To date, most online news sites cannot subsist on advertising alone. Advertisers, for good reason, are leery about whether their online ads are being read. Thus, under present circumstances, we cannot expect online sites affiliated with print and broadcast organizations to establish reputations for editorial quality on their own. It is unlikely that they can provide much original online news as a public service obligation. Things may change, however, when and if market conditions change. Perhaps one of the major changes we can expect in coming years is fewer free news sites, despite public resistance to such a trend. Newspapers and magazines are finding it increasingly difficult to continue to give away information that they charge for in their hard-copy editions. In Chapter 1, Garrison cited the example of the Dallas Morning News’ online exclusive reporting Timothy McVeigh’s confession as the Oklahoma City bomber. Although the story was lauded at the time as a harbinger of online newspaper exclusives, the story has thus far been an anomaly. By and large, news organizations subscribe to the common wisdom not to put much original material online, and certainly not exclusive stories, for fear of scooping themselves.1 This makes sense economically, but it neglects the important public service component invested in any news organization, which is not merely some chimerical notion. Society would benefit from online news sites, in competition with other news outlets, with original news bringing more ideas and news into the marketplace. Instances of original online news indicate that the medium can have a beneficial social influence. In 2000, Columbia University recognized the contribution of original online journalism with its first Online Journalism Awards. Many of the sites carried news unavailable anywhere else. Salon, a leading online magazine (or “zine”) that is examined in length in this chapter, was the recipient of awards in two categories—enterprise journalism and general excellence. CNET.com, a technology news site, received the breaking news award for its reporting of the Microsoft antitrust ruling. BabyCenter.com was honored in the service award category. The judges lauded the site as a service for parents, describing it as “a complete guide to their baby’s health for the first 12 months of life” (Christian, 2000, p. 5B). APB.com (All Points Bulletin), a site devoted to news about law and crime, was recognized in the category of creative use of the medium for its coverage of unsolved murders of nine women whose bodies were found in several Western states: “Audio, video, scanned police reports, maps, and photos of the victims make the stories come alive in a way that print publications couldn’t do,” . These examples testify that online news sites can, if properly harnessed, contribute original information, stimulate public debate about issues, and emerge as important news media and social forces. Whether the news concerns a major antitrust ruling or infants’ health, original news, rather than recycled news, contributes to public knowledge. However, as this chapter makes clear, online news sites have yet to find an economic model for success. Without such a model, it is unlikely that online news outlets will expend resources to obtain original online news when less expensive news is available. For example, the recognition of APB.com illustrates how even an award-winning online news site had not figured out how to make the medium financially successful. A few months before being honored, APB had filed for bankruptcy.

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