Call it the morning letdown. Your muffin may be fresh, but the newspaper beside it is decidedly stale. “Chavez bashes Bush on UN Stage” reads the headline, to pick one morning’s example, on the lead story of The Miami Herald. That was a Thursday in September. But Yahoo, AOL, and just about every major news Web site in the country had been displaying that story—President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela had called President Bush “the devil”—since around noon on Wednesday. The news had been all over the radio, all over cable, too: Fox News had carried, with gleeful indignation, twenty-three minutes of the speech live. Indeed, when Katie Couric introduced the Chavez story on the CBS Evening News, at 6:30 Wednesday, her audience may have experienced an evening letdown. By then—half a day before Chavez’s name would appear in newsprint in Miami—his entry on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, had been updated to include an account of the speech in the United Nations.
Editors and news directors today fret about the Internet, as their predecessors worried about radio and TV, and all now see the huge threat the Web represents to the way they distribute their product. They have been slower to see the threat it represents to the product itself. In a day when information pours out of digital spigots, stories that package painstakingly gathered facts on current events—what happened, who said what, when—have lost much of their value. News now not only arrives astoundingly fast from an astounding number of directions, it arrives free of charge. Selling what is elsewhere available free is difficult, even if it isn’t nineteen hours stale. Just ask an encyclopedia salesman, if you can find one.
Mainstream journalists can, of course, try to keep retailing somewhat stale morning-print or evening-television roundups to people who manage to get through the day without any contact with Matt Drudge, Wolf Blitzer, or Robert Siegel. They can continue to attempt to establish themselves online as a kind of après AP—selling news that’s a little slower but a little smarter than what Yahoo displays, which is essentially what The Washington Post and The New York Times were up to when, about four or five hours after Chavez had left the UN podium, they published, online, their own accounts of his speech.
But another, more ambitious option is available to journalists: they could try to sell something besides news.
The notion that journalists might be in a business other than the collection, ordering, and distribution of facts isn’t new. In the days when the latest news was available to more or less anyone who visited the market or chatted in the street, weekly newspapers (at the time, the only newspapers) provided mostly analysis or opinion—something extra. The growth of cities, the arrival of dailies, and the invention of swift fact-transmitting and fact-distributing machines (the telegraph and the steam press) encouraged the development of companies devoted to the mass production and sale of news. Their day lasted more than a hundred years. But the sun is setting.
Information is once again widely available to more or less everyone, and journalists, once again, are having difficulty selling news—at least to people under the age of fifty-five. If news organizations, large and small, remain in the business of routine newsgathering—even if they remain in the business of routine newsgathering for dissemination online—the dismal prophesy currently being proclaimed by their circulation and demographic charts may very well be fulfilled.
“If we don’t do the basic reporting, who will?” journalists counter. Here’s John S. Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, presenting, to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, this notion of mainstream journalists as the indispensable Prime Movers: “Newspapers dig up the news. Others repackage it.” But the widely held belief that the Web is a parasite that lives off the metro desks and foreign bureaus of beleaguered yet civic-minded newspapers and broadcast news organizations is a bit facile.
For much of their breaking news, Yahoo and AOL often tap the same source as Drudge and WashingtonPost.com, The Associated Press, with Reuters, AFP, and a few others also playing a role. (Most of the early online Chavez reports linked to an AP story.) Nothing said here is meant to imply that the wire services, and whatever cousins of theirs may materialize on the Web, should stop gathering and wholesaling news in bulk.