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Guest Essay

Guest Essay

A Year to Remember in Internet News

By Merrill Brown

The year 2004 demonstrated both the opportunity for the Internet news business to bring millions of news consumers extraordinary coverage of both politics and world affairs and the threat the Web itself poses for those who make that coverage possible. For while Internet news sites continued to play a growing role in how people get their news and information, their viability has been called into question by the emergence of literally thousands of bloggers, community journalists and news tools starting what amounts to a revolution in newsgathering.

It was a year to remember in Internet news, but the shape of the medium and the future of the news industry grew murkier by the month. And while the role of the Internet as a dominant medium never seemed more certain and Internet advertising set new records, most Internet news managers acknowledge that there is in fact little evidence of growth, hiring, creativity or other advances in Internet journalism.

It was an election year in which 63 million Americans accessed political news online and 31% of Internet broadband customers described the Web as their primary source of political news, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That’s double the total for the national election just four years ago. To be sure, Internet news sites had strong years in viewership and sales. Internet advertising continued its dramatic growth; the Interactive Advertising Bureau reported that for the first three quarters of 2004 the medium pulled in over $7 billion compared to $7.3 billion for all of 2003. The annual figure was expected to exceed $8.4 billion.

But ultimately those successes and accomplishments were not the story. On the institutional end, the parent companies of most successful news sites and journalism in general were the story. Evidence of the erosion of credibility and readership intensified amid fundamental questions about the viability of big-city newspapers. The wave of scandals about the accuracy and character of news coverage and journalists continued. And the news business, even at institutions of extraordinary impact, quality and financial capabilities, continued to erode as new forms of both content and advertising gained more and more audience and commerce.

Over the past two years, for instance, The Washington Post’s daily circulation has dropped 10% even as its market thrived and an intense election year grabbed the attention of the paper’s community, while advertising alternatives like CraigsList began to significantly erode historic newspaper revenue streams. At the same time, RSS (Really simple syndication) feeds and sites that aggregate the work of news organizations like Google News are drawing meaningful numbers of news viewers without directly providing the funding for Internet news sites to actually prosper.

So while news institutions struggled to map their futures, what became clearer than ever in 2004 was the emergence of a decentralized media universe. New forms of journalism evolved in ways that weren’t widely anticipated. Much of the attention on the Internet as a news source moved away from large institutional news sites to the world of the blog. In 2004 reporting in blogs prompted the CBS News scandal involving Dan Rather and the network’s use of documents it could not verify in reporting about the military record of President George W. Bush. CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, resigned after bloggers jumped on him for seeming to suggest, at the Davos economic conference in January of 2005, that members of the U.S. military fired on reporters in Iraq.

The journalism of bloggers had enormous impact in 2004 and on into 2005, and some writers from blogs gained national profiles, such as Ana Marie Cox, the blogger known as Wonkette, who became a television pundit. Cox, obscure as recently as 2003, found herself appearing as an NBC news analyst during political convention coverage.

At the same time, a serious-minded grassroots, community journalism movement gained momentum as Mark Potts, one of the founders of Washingtonpost.com, launched Backfence.com, a venture designed to create ad-supported neighborhood news sites throughout the country. And the San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor published a widely discussed book, “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People,” and left the paper at year’s end to encourage more citizen-based media. Newspapers like the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. and The Bakersfield Californian began important experiments in creating new forms of journalism with community participation.

In the larger Internet universe there was a stream of intriguing business developments. The Washington Post Company bought Slate.com for an undisclosed price. Dow Jones Inc. acquired CBS Marketwatch for a stunning $519 million. Yahoo demonstrated its commitment to building consequential news and original-content products by hiring the founding editor and publisher of Wall Street Journal Online, Neil Budde.

So, while business might appear prosperous, beneath the success lies a perplexing reality. Many of the news organizations that make most Web site journalism possible, either through their dollars or the work of the journalists reporting for their traditional products, are in some combination of strategic, journalistic and financial peril. It is those organizations that make large-scale Internet news sites viable. In a world of dwindling resources, a world of falling daily newspaper readership and fragmented television news audiences, who will produce the journalism of scale and importance that informs citizens about national political campaigns and international conflict? Bloggers? Citizen journalists? The software developers who produce RSS readers?

The answers that emerge over this decade to those questions are certain to impact the future not just of Internet news but of journalism itself.

Media industry consultant Merrill Brown was from 1996 to 2002 founding Editor in Chief of MSNBC.com, and previously was a founder and Senior Vice President of Court TV, a magazine editor and a reporter and Wall Street Correspondent for The Washington Post.