The evidence suggests that the Internet is clearly in journalism’s future. But it is less clear that it will be its only future. While most Americans are now online, and getting news, as of 2004, the Web appears to complement traditional media for most of these people rather than replace it.
The Internet is attracting young people. It offers the potential of a global audience, the potential of new jobs and new types of journalists. There will, however, be dislocation.
What is most intriguing is the evidence that television rather than print is suffering most. This is surprising because, at this point, the Web is still largely a text-based medium. One might have thought that the print media would thus be hurt by the greater convenience that the Web offers, in much the same way that cable seems to have eroded the appeal of network television. This is not the case.
What this means down the road is harder to figure. The future, say online professionals we have consulted, is an age in which the distinctions between media blur. Online, The Washington Post will not be a newspaper company but a text, picture and video news provider. CBS News will not be a broadcaster. It, too, will be a text, audio and video news organization. Nor will news just be consumed on computers, television or in print. News will be made to fit computers, PDAs, phones and perhaps more. Before too long, people riding the subway home from work may turn on their phones and watch a network anchor delivers the news, not because the anchor happens to be on but because he or she is “on,” on demand.
The Internet is a continuous, on-demand medium, like cable, but it is updated only when there is something to update, and users do not have to sit through the stories they don’t care about. As they can in newspapers, online users can search out what they want, but they also can access background material and previously published stories. Unlike any other single medium, they can read the news, watch video, listen to audio, read long transcripts, access original documents, or link to outside sites for more detail. The Internet, in other words, offers the strengths of all media–the immediacy of cable, the skillful storytelling of network, the depth and deliberation of newspapers, plus more, all in one place. That, at least, is the potential.
It likely will depend on the economics to see if that potential is fulfilled. And it may depend on a few large organizations capturing large portions of that audience for that to happen. Thus there would be two Internets, in a sense. There would be the big media, the handful of places where large audiences assemble, and where huge multi-platform news organizations would deliver news on demand worldwide in sophisticated ways, perhaps better than they do now. And then there would be the open Internet – the water cooler, bloggers and clamoring citizens, off in their niches, in chat rooms and grass roots organizations, creating movements and confounding the establishment. And the Internet would be home to both. As of 2004, the signs are pointing in that direction.