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Online – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2005, the Web continued to grow as a source for news in America. The picture also began to look more nuanced. Rather than just something new and growing, we were beginning to see strengths, weaknesses and signs of maturity.

The universe of people who used the Web, for instance — for news or anything else — was not growing as fast anymore, but the frequency with which people turned to the medium was increasing. Rather than something more people were discovering, the Internet was becoming more a part of their daily life.

The economics of the Web were beginning to mature as well. More sites were becoming profitable, and there were more signs that producers could begin to charge for content on the Web, at least some content. And while revenues were continuing to grow rapidly, just how far the Web has to go financially to compete with the old media was also becoming clearer. The Web still does not appear to be as desirable a medium for advertisers as what it is replacing. Rivals on the Web that offer classified listings or aggregate other people’s work, but produce very little journalistic content of their own, were continuing to steal revenues away. There still appears no clear path for transferring to this new medium all the wealth that has long financed journalism for the good of civil society. For now, unless things change, it appears that the resources devoted to skilled journalism will continue to shrink as the Web grows.

The wild cards that could change that involve technology, at least in part. Will broadband, searchable video, wireless devices and downloading TV news on a phone or iPod change the financial equation? If people won’t pay for video on their computers, will they pay to get it so it is mobile on their PDA?

There was further evidence, too, that the big corporate owners of old media will continue to try to buy the Web. The explosive growth of citizen blogs (more formally, web logs) appeared to be slowing. Some prominent bloggers were moving to work inside corporate-owned Web sites to make a living. And the sites that get the most traffic continued to be owned by the biggest companies.

Perhaps, for journalism, the most promising news was that there finally appeared to be more investment in producing online journalism. In their rhetoric, too, the Web is becoming central. A major reason was likely that much of the financial growth many of those companies saw in 2005 came from new media. Yet that also suggests the Internet may still be a pay-as-you-go equation for many companies. The evidence, while sketchy, suggests that more of the investment is in technology, not in human resources to gather news. It is still not clear whether the old media have it in their corporate culture to be the innovators of the new.

Heading into 2006, it was clear that Americans eye the Internet with an increasingly complicated perspective. The appeal of the Web is its convenience, interactivity, diversity and control. Yet the more people use the Web, they less they trust it. The most trusted sites of all increasingly are those from the old-legacy media. Even people who enjoy blogs, for instance, are suspicious of them. They go for the energy, argument and authenticity they find there, not hard information. The public, it increasingly appears, accesses different parts of the Internet for different reasons.

The biggest questions remain those that touch the bottom line. Online journalism, in 2006, is still young. Like an adolescent, it is learning what it can do. It is even making a little money. But it is still not really paying its own way. And it isn’t entirely sure what it will be doing when it grows up.