The rise of infotainment was in large part, of course, a response to the physical and psychic ubiquity of television. And the web, for its part, engendered a similar convergence of the Serious and the Silly—and encouraged, at the same time, the kind of ambient attention that has been TV’s hallmark. Writing in 1996, Todd Oppenheimer, then an associate editor at the new Newsweek Interactive, compared online audiences to crowds on a street. Of the web and its denizens, he wrote: “Its audience is a restless bunch. Grabbing them, let alone holding their attention, requires one to reach out with much, much more. This is no world for docile publishers. This is street journalism.”
Bordewich was talking about ad hoc interest, the kind of hit-and-run engagement that is both a bane and a boon to the business of online publishing. But he was also describing the way the web shapes social interactions. Oppenheimer talked of the potential offered by interactivity—the new insights, the new relationships—but he also discussed the “on-line” audience with just a hint of disdain. He talked of web communities’ penchant for typos and interpersonal vitriol and communicative frenzy, characteristics that are now so common as to be matters of cliché. “In chat,” he wrote, “those who are on-line at the same time (called ‘real-time’ in cyber-jargon) can type to us, or to each other, no matter where they’re located. As the ‘conversation’ proceeds, everyone’s messages scroll madly across your screen.”
Compare that to today’s conventional wisdom, which holds that conversation is key to a whole range of journalistic values: engagement, interactivity, community. CJR foreshadowed that, too. As Katherine Fulton put it in a 1996 article, “Content is people, as well as information, and new media change the equation. For all the talk of interactivity, I find very few journalists who really understand its import.”
Fulton quoted Melinda McAdams, who had helped in the formation of The Washington Post’s online news service: “A journalist with little on-line experience tends to think in terms of stories, news value, public service, and things that are good to read. But a person with a lot of on-line experience thinks more about connections, organization, movement with and among sets of information, and communication among different people.”
What Fulton saw was the increasing—and increasingly pivotal—role that community would play in the previously product-driven work of news reporting. The phrase “content is people” recognizes that journalism can’t be, fundamentally, a product when it is also, fundamentally, a relationship. “The newspaper’s approach to news has to change in order to be successful in transmitting information electronically,” CompuServe’s Richard Baker told Doug Underwood in 1992. “Newspapers and magazines have to embrace the concept of sharing the creation of the news.” They’ve done so, tentatively. Increasingly, journalism-as-product and journalism-as-process are finding ways to coexist under the same news brand, within the same journalistic framework. Journalism in the late twentieth century began to revisit its coffee-house roots, convening communities and conversations that can play out regardless of geographic and temporal divisions.
“Where can people listen to each other?” Fulton asked in 1996. “Where can they be heard? Where can they meet new people? The answer to those questions could turn out to be as important a factor in the long-term survival of some journalism institutions as the quality of their information.”
The More Things Change . . .
It’s remarkable how enduring these questions have proven. And remarkable, too, how much of CJR’s wisdom from the 1960s and beyond holds up today. “There may be a contradiction between the newspaper’s role as a business and its role as a medium charged with informing the public.” (Lawrence Pinkham, 1961.) “The craft of journalism is losing its old-time meaning. The ‘communicator’ with broader skills and knowledge may be the man of the future.” (Edward McSweeney, 1966.) “Nothing on the horizon indicates that the trend toward concentration of power in the news business and the mixing of news with other enterprises will diminish.” (Ben Bagdikian, 1977.) “The newsweeklies: Is the species doomed?” (Bruce Porter, 1989.) “As the explosion of information continues, there will be even more need for highly skilled journalists to root through it, filter out what’s important, and help put it into perspective.” (Doug Underwood, 1992.) “There’s an awful lot of junk on the Internet, and it’s very difficult separating the wheat from the chaff.” (Joe Burgess, 1993.) “Strip away some of the more profitable or popular items under this current umbrella, and you could strip away the means of paying for serious reporting aimed at mass audiences. . . . Classified ads, that huge profit center for every newspaper, are particularly vulnerable.” (Katherine Fulton, 1996.)