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Online – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Look into cyberspace and the picture for journalism seems fractured. There is real hope in the numbers of people who seek news online, particularly the young, a group that shows scant interest in traditional media. The capability of people to get what they want when they want it, and to manipulate it, edit it and seek more depth, could bring a needed revival to journalism. The economic numbers are also growing – and dramatically – each year. Yet look at the content offered in online journalism in 2004 and there are signs of frustration, lack of innovation and the caution of the old media applied to the new.

The audience for online journalism is still growing – a little. And in the future, the likely growth in broadband and the heavy orientation among the young toward the Web suggests that growth will continue and maybe accelerate again. The Web – and a converged multimedia news environment – seem more clearly than ever to be journalism’s future.

There is more evidence than before, too, that the Web is taking viewers away from television, and that people who read newspapers are doing that increasingly on-screen rather than in print.

Online news is also beginning to make money, though no clear economic model as profitable as the old media’s used to be has yet emerged. There were new signs heading into 2005 that competition for revenues would get even tougher as sites like Craigslist, which offers free classifieds and draws four million visitors a month, gain popularity and drain some of the highest-margin revenues from newspapers.

If the innovative edge for online media is to come from great media institutions with their resources and experience, the signs so far are disappointing. The content they offer on the Web, while improving in volume, timeliness and technological sophistication, remains still significantly a morgue for wire copy, second-hand material and recycled stories from the morning paper.

That jibes with evidence that despite growing profits and audience, most news organizations were limiting resources in 2004. They seem to be taking a pay-as-you-go approach to the Web, and since online ad rates and margins lag those of the old media, there seems little prospect for robust growth of the journalism at their sites.

Maybe the innovation will be left to citizens, entrepreneurs and bloggers who see themselves – perhaps mistakenly – as working in opposition to mainstream journalism. If so, the online trajectory is doubly problematic: The energy is coming from sources with a dearth of journalism essentials like verification and editing. Meanwhile, the economic base supporting the most difficult and expensive journalistic undertakings is eroding.