Remember the Internet's primordial period, when caveman Webmasters thought the best way to keep an audience was to ban links to other sites? Visitors immediately saw how uncool that was, and Web managers had to stop pretending the rest of the Internet didn't exist.
The idea of confining visitors to one's own site sounds ridiculous now, but we haven't evolved as far as we'd like to believe. News sites are no longer unwilling to link to supplemental information, but they are strangely hesitant to use the troves of freely available content and technologies that could make their coverage so much richer.
By content I mean photo sharing site Flickr, video sharing site YouTube, and all the other deep wells of publicly generated media and information on the Web. By technologies I mean applications such as Google Maps, which has been made available to Webmasters to combine with their own data points in a so-called "mashup" that provides a geographical interface to information. The fact that online news sites are ambivalent about these opportunities is reason to wonder whether they still think of themselves as self-contained islands of information.
In June, when Connie Chung's unforgettable swan song marking the cancellation of her MSNBC show spread virally across the Web via YouTube, the media covered the story in print and online. Some news sites, such as NYTimes.com, provided a direct link to the clip on YouTube. Others, such as BaltimoreSun.com and USAToday.com, reported the clip's popularity on YouTube, but maddeningly failed to link to the clip in at least some of their coverage. Whatever their reasons, the failure of these sites to provide an obvious, helpful link is precisely why people still think mainstream media sites are uncool.
Connie Chung's disturbing lounge act is the tip of the iceberg. YouTube isn't only about celebrity blunders, amateur comics and painfully embarrassing moments caught on tape (see Broadcast Views); its video library also features high school sports footage, community events and sometimes even hard news. Every day more people are taking photos and recording video, and this vast supply of personal media is free for the taking on the Web. But very few news sites are reaching for it. Citizen media site ChiTownDailyNews.org recently started asking readers to submit photos to Flickr and then displayed them on its front page, but you won't see that on many traditional news sites.
Likewise, Google Maps has obvious applications for news sites, yet few are using them. Across the Internet, all kinds of high- and low-budget sites are "mashing" Google Maps with their own information to create geographical guides to restaurants, events and even fictional stories. Visit the Web site for HBO's "The Sopranos", and you'll find a mashup showing locations in New Jersey where key scenes occurred. News sites could use Google Maps to show where news is happening, or emerging patterns in traffic accidents and crime. That idea is years old, but few news sites have embraced it. One of the best known uses was NYTimes.com's map of citizen reports during the New York City transit strike of December 2005. People described their commuting experiences in text reports, which were plotted on a map of the city.
At a time when bold statements about collaborative journalism abound, why are so few news managers taking advantage of open-source technology and personal media sites?
Some aren't aware of the depth and quality of available content. A few arrogantly believe that nothing the public provides will be better than what reporters and photographers can create. Others may be intimidated by the technology.
The most likely reason is that news organizations still follow their old instinct to control and own everything they do. There are probably a hundred newspaper editors and TV news managers out there asking their developers to replicate YouTube. That's slightly less ambitious than asking Bob's Construction Company to build the Taj Mahal. Very few news organizations have the creative and financial wherewithal to build a tool that can ingest a video clip recorded by a technical novice, reformat it, store it on a server with thousands of other clips and provide a foolproof way for other people to search for it.
Even if news organizations can build or buy their own YouTube and Flickr-like tools, they shouldn't assume that visitors, particularly the younger ones, will choose to share their personal media with a news site. YouTube and Flickr are appealing not only because they're beautifully easy to use, but because they're communal and agnostic. They also have more reach and recognition among the Web savvy than a typical news site. Rather than expecting people to submit their content to us, news organizations need to start going where the people are.
Of course news sites should continue their efforts to gather news images, video, information and insight directly from their audiences. But they should also incorporate the rich resources available on the Web. If a small local site doesn't have the ability to accept viewer-submitted video on its own, why not leverage a site like YouTube to do the heavy lifting?
To news organizations that are still obsessed with content control, that idea probably sounds as radical as off-site linking sounded 10 years ago.