The Difference a Year Makes
If you think you know the new-media landscape, wait a year--or a few months--
and it will change.
By Barb Palser
The number of U.S. homes with high-speed Internet connections ballooned nearly 50 percent from May 2002 to May 2003. In 2002 news video on the Web wasn't much of a factor; 2003 proved there is an audience that will watch, even pay, if it's good enough. In 2002 search engine Google raised journalistic eyebrows when it launched a beta version of its computer-driven news service; the next year Google News won an international Webby Award for best news site.
Barb Palser (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
The price of this thrill ride is that we can't always see what's in front of us. Some trends, such as Internet growth and newsroom convergence, move in a straight and steady path. But others, such as paid-subscription models, personalization and online video, have tracked a wild zigzag over the years. The road to 2004 is littered with wrong and premature predictions.
The key to telling the future of online news is to focus on the near-term trends that are already happening--or that have been announced in press releases. (Is that cheating?) Here are a few developments that will advance in the coming year:
MORE PEOPLE-POWERED CONTENT
Visitor-generated content, the best old idea on the Internet, is finally making inroads on news sites. Some recruit citizens to write regular neighborhood Weblogs about local sports, politics, schools and whatever else. Many more invite people to post pictures and comments about big news events. After Hurricane Isabel hit the East Coast in September, WVEC-TV in Hampton Roads, Virginia, created a Weblog that included not only personal accounts and photos, but conversations among people helping one another learn whether loved ones were safe.
Such projects offer ultralocal community information at a time when media companies are battling perceptions of cookie-cutter, corporate-controlled news. It's a stretch to call this "citizen journalism"--but whatever it is, look for more of it this year.
PRINT AND BROADCAST REPORTERS TRY IT, LIKE IT
Throughout 2003 and particularly during the war in Iraq, many traditional newsrooms launched reporter Weblogs and other Web-only coverage. Despite a few skirmishes between blogging reporters and their managers over editing policy (see The Online Frontier, June/July, and Free Press, December/January), it was a good year for leading print and broadcast reporters to the Web. This year presents at least two ripe opportunities to showcase original, real-time Web reporting, with the summer Olympic Games and the presidential campaigns. If we can't squeeze some groundbreaking convergence out of those two stories, we're not even trying.
POP-UPS POP OUT
This year could be the beginning of the end for pop-up advertising. (Go ahead, do the happy dance.) Late in 2003, Yahoo! and Google rolled out free toolbars that include pop-up blockers. Last March, AOL launched a similar tool for its subscribers. The big whammy will be Microsoft's new version of Internet Explorer, scheduled for release this year, which will prompt users to enable a blocker the first time they encounter a pop-up.
As the backlash against pop-ups reaches critical mass, advertisers will be forced to look at new--hopefully less irritating--options. (But beware: Generally pop-up blockers don't distinguish between advertisements and editorial content that uses pop-up windows.)
Now, if we could just do something about the spam....
NEWS AGGREGATORS GET BETTER
Google News, AOL News and Yahoo! News aren't successful just because they have built-in audiences--although that helps. They're good because they know the Internet; their core businesses are managing information and helping people get what they want from the Web. Emphasizing "personalization and relevancy," AOL's 2004 Election Guide will automatically generate a page of news and information for each visitor based on his or her zip code. There's a good chance the next innovations in distributing online news will come from news aggregators.
OLD MEDIA HOLDOUTS WAKE UP, SMELL COFFEE?
After all this time, there are still some news managers who embargo breaking news from the Web and refuse to promote their Web sites to protect their traditional media properties--or who simply don't believe the Web has enough value to put resources into it. They don't see that their audiences and advertisers are waiting for them to make online news valuable by making it good, and that by treating the Web like a second-class medium they fulfill their own prophecy. Will they ever pull their heads out of the sand? Consider it a wish to grow on.
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