Thursday, April 14, 2005

Murdoch Says the Web is the Future for News

“Just as people traditionally started their day with coffee and a newspaper, in the future I hope that the way they start their day online will be with coffee and our Web site.”
-- Rupert Murdoch 4/13/05

Ironically, I read this quote on a website while eating a bagel and drinking a green tea (I’ve never even tasted coffee). But that irony aside, and with all due respect, Mr. Murdoch is only half right. Yes, people will start their day online with coffee and a website, but it won’t be “just as people traditionally started their day,” because the web is different.

Newspapers have traditionally been a centralized, biased, flat, stale, push media. The web is different.

A centralized group of individuals, the editorial staff, decides what news their readers will get. They filter through all of the news and select what they believe is important. Then they rank that importance through the prominence given to each article. Does it get the 10 column inches on the front page or 2 column inches buried in the middle of the third section? Have you heard the phrase: “All the news that’s fit to print”? Don’t make that decision for me, I’ll do that myself, thank you very much. The web breaks this model. With RSS feeds, blogs, and news aggregation sites, people can select the news that interests them. Newspapers = centralized news filter; Web = decentralized and personalized news selection.

Don’t even try to tell me news isn’t biased, of course it is. No two articles about the same event are identical. Even when presenting facts, there is bias. The bias begins with the questions asked; each writer introduces their slant on what is important by the direction of the questions. Then there is the issue of which facts are presented and which are not. This too introduces the writer’s or editor’s bias. Only a web neophyte would claim that the web is unbiased, actually it is more biased. But you can get both sides or multiple side of each story. You can read different versions of stories along with user feedback, and develop your own conclusions. Users can also seek out writers that consistently present a bias that aligns with that reader’s sensibilities. Newspapers = 1 bias per story; Web = multiple biases per story.

No doubt there’s a better word for this, but what I mean by flat is that there aren’t links to supporting information. Every story is disconnected from the rest of the world’s body of knowledge. On the web, articles are richly linked. While reading about Terri Schiavo you can become your own researcher and develop your own opinions by following links to videos of Terri, information on her condition, links to what dehydration and starvation do to the human body, and more. The user can dig as deeply as they want to develop their own opinion. Newspaper = flat, articles stand on their own; Web = richly interlinked allowing the reader to dig as deeply as they want.

Newspapers provide day-old news. We pay less for day-old bagels than fresh ones. But we pay more to get day-old news in the newspaper than we do for fresh news on the web, which is free. Does this make sense to you? Hey, they call it "news" it should be new, not stale. Newspaper = day-old paid news; Web = fresh free news.

Newspapers push their information, perspective and bias upon their readers. Information transfer is a one-way street. Users can’t respond in real-time and tell the author that he has his facts wrong or is ignoring history or whatever else. Sure the reader can respond in a letter to the editor, but that too goes through the centralized filter. The web is all about an exchange of information. The web is a place for conversation. People want to provide feedback, rank articles, share their rankings with friends, and more. Newspaper = one-way flow of information and insight, Web = a conversation with ranking, sharing, socializing, etc.

Now much of the benefits of the web are almost a given with the newspapers’ move to the web. The news will be fresher. By adding a few hyperlinks in each article, users will get the richer experience of the web. Newspapers need to break down the centralized filter and allow individuals to select what they want to read, not what the editors deem important.

To be successful newspapers need to make the news a conversation with the people, and foster a community. In the process, people will select the bias they prefer. Individuals will become attached to writers, wherever they reside, not newspapers they work for. People will essentially assemble their own newspaper by selected the news and news sources they prefer. This will really shake things up in newsrooms.

The bottom line is that newspapers no longer shape public opinion; they merely provide the people with access to articles that fits their profile. On the web you no longer have “readers” you’ll have “participants”. In other words Newspapers don’t shape opinion, individual writers and their audiences will shape public opinion. That is probably the most bitter pill for newspapers to swallow, but unless they take their medicine and act soon, the newspapers may themselves be recycled.