Why The Latest News About Online News Ain't So Good

When you are new to the Internet, it seems so overwhelming. So many choices. So much information. So many sites to visit. A whole new world!

That period of individual discovery is often brief. Surfing can easily lead to a feeling of overload. Soon, like many users, you find yourself gravitating to the same Web sites over and over again. MediaMetrix, which tracks the hits that sites receive, says U.S. web users "now spend almost 20 percent of their time on the Web visiting only the top 10 sites," up from 16 percent a year earlier. Further, the percentage of time spent at the top 50 and 100 sites has risen even more since 1998.

If you, like millions of Webbies are "prisoners" of AOL, that suits Mr. Case and Co. just fine. They want you to remain forever within the world of AOL channels because it features content they've been paid to carry. Most of the other well-advertised Top 10 portal or search sites like Yahoo! or Lycos seek to become your home page and principal destination, offering advanced search engines and consumer features to keep you coming back. These are also the sites that advertise the most, as well as market the most effectively in pursuit of "mind share." They are in the brand-building business, putting together audiences to sell to advertisers. Not much "new" about that.

Among their attractions, these sites offer news to put you in touch with the nation and the world. Some carry news tickers, others, easy-to-access headlines. Increasingly, people are going online to find out what's happening. So are news people. According to a report by the Middleberg Group, a high-priced PR firm that carries out studies of Internet use to publicize their business of servicing Internet sites, "Almost 75 percent of all U.S. journalists use the Internet daily, up from 48 percent last year. Half of the journalists surveyed said they browse the Net for story ideas."

So citizens who want news and the journalists who construct news are increasingly turning to the Net as their prime resource. But what kind of medium is the Internet as a place to keep in touch with a changing world?

For starters, it is not very diverse, even though it appears to be. The concentration in ownership that is restructuring old media has led to conglomeration in news transmission and a narrowing of sourcing in new media. It is cheaper for Web sites to buy someone else's news than generate their own.

Provocative, if still somewhat preliminary, research by Chris Paterson, Ph.D., at Leicester University's Center for Mass Communications Research in England, takes a close look at dominant news sites on the web. What he found is that when it comes to international news, the web's top 10 commercial sites -- Yahoo!, AOL, MSN, Geocities, Netscape, GO, Microsoft, Lycos, Excite and Anglefire -- act primarily as a "cyber mediator" or a transmitter and distributor of news produced and packaged by others, those others being just two news agencies. "Through monopolistic control of international news production, effective brand marketing, efficient use of economies of scale in news production and useful alliances in both news gathering and online distribution, news agencies play a dominant and generally unacknowledged role in determining the vast majority of international news in cyberspace," he says. All of the top sites rely on this content and, in effect, retransmit to all. In a pilot study of stories online, Paterson found that "the information provided rarely comes from news providers other than the Associated Press or Reuters, with the exception of major broadcaster- and newspaper-run services, which mix original with agency content." Moreover, these two sources are more alike than different, so, in effect, two sources effectively become one on many stories. He cites the BBC as an exception. And it is, as I discovered during a recent visit there. (More on that in a minute.)

Why this matters, especially in the case of international news, is that other studies have shown that online-news consumers tend to follow overseas news more via their computers than by national or local news outlets. Paterson cites an industry study showing that "61 percent of Internet users read national and international news on-line, while just 26 percent do so for local news. Indeed, a July, 1999, industry survey in the U.S. indicated that news consumers are dissatisfied with the quality of local news available on the Internet, and that users prefer to get their national and international news from major news sites rather than their local newspaper."

This does not mean there is no other or independent content, but only that most offerings are similar if not the same, relying on the same sources and even using the same language. Sites run by broadcasters offer on-line content closely tied to their television content. In this respect, the Web is becoming an echo chamber and, occasionally, an expansion or distribution platform for what broadcasters are offering TV viewers. CNN is said to have more readers on-line than television viewers, with online content closely mirroring TV content. In the newspaper world, hyper competition between sites has led to constant updating as stories break. But even there, as one daily media reporter told me, that often means that a newspaper story that appears on the Web in the morning will be supplanted by an updated version drawn from wire-service copy in the afternoon. Hence, one by-product of the constantly changing news cycles: original reports giving way to news-agency copy.

"The problem is that the wires care only about one thing: who gets it first," he told me. "The time stamp on the report is everything to them. What that means is that news developed with far less reporting -- fewer calls, less research and checking -- often supplants more substantive coverage. This is what leads to rumors being passed along as news and other unsubstantiated stories."

For years agencies have remained in the background as news wholesalers -- selling their services to news outlets, not the public. But now this is changing. Some companies, like Reuters, now want to be retailers. Explains Paterson, "News agencies have historically sought to minimize their public exposure, for their success had previously rested largely with their ability to make news audiences believe that their own local media outlet -- not an international agency -- has brought them the news of the world. But now they depend on the popular appeal of their brand names for audience loyalty in cyberspace, and so they market their names aggressively."

This reliance on the wires can mean lower quality news. We are all getting short-changed when fed a limited news diet that often distorts our perceptions of other countries. A content analysis by John Clare of 251 stories from Associated Press Television (APTV) -- which, ironically, brags about how different it is -- found that it presents two types of news. Reporting from elite and rich countries in the West and North focuses overwhelmingly on strong leaders, peace brokers, cultural pursuits, stable business, innovative technology and peaceful protests. News from non-elite nations highlights violence, natural disasters, corrupt, crisis-hit governments, volatile people and rigged elections.

This pattern is evident in print and on TV as well, since up-to-the-minute wire coverage often drives TV coverage. Paterson feels that this has become a threat to democracy in that these coverage patterns distort our understanding of the world around us. "A few large organizations generate and broadcast -- with essentially no feedback -- most of the content for most of the audience. Further, it is a very limited and homogenous content dictated by the ideological, structural and cultural nature of these organizations."

There are alternatives -- but can they and will they be able to compete effectively? In London recently, I was invited to tour BBC Online. With 170 staff members, it provides quality and credible news and information that does not rely on or simply relay the droppings of the two principal news agencies. All of the content is original, with frequent use of audio and video drawn from BBC reports and archives. If there is a breaking story, BBC Online promises to post it within one minute. And they do live up to that promise, as I watched when the outcome of the Taiwan elections was announced on the Saturday morning I visited.

Bob Eggington, the savvy BBC veteran who oversaw the site's creation, is proudest of their in-depth background reports, like the one on the run-up to the Russian elections. As Bob explains, "It's got the kind of breadth and depth that we try to produce on all substantial international stories." In short, they take pains to explain news and respect the intelligence of their readers. What a difference between the Bob Eggingtons of the world and, say, the Matt Drudges and his wannabes who use information as an entertainment and advocacy platform! Does BBC journalism attract traffic? You bet. BBC Online had three million hits in its first three months. It has three million now on most days, with more when a big story is popping. One can only hope that this valuable service will not be slashed in the latest round of staff cuts just announced by new BBC boss Greg Dyke. He should know -- as do the millions who already visit the BBC's site daily -- that when real news is available, people want it.

What we need to do now is create new services that will add even more depth, diversity and dimension by going beyond staid mainstream news approaches and rigid templates. We especially need to create platforms to offer those stories that are sidelined, censored or self-censored, sanitized and superficial. We need the news that's not in the news.

One outfit that is doing something like that right now is Out There News run in the UK by Paul Eedle, a Reuters vet. His company put together a global network of local journalists -- what he calls a "People's Army" -- not only to report what's happening, but to do so in an engaging and innovative style that is very different from the "just the facts, ma'am" approach taken by traditional news outlets. His site encourages the audience to interact with journalists in the field. Many MediaChannel affiliates and One World Online also offer distinctive news and information, as do we everyday on our Media News page, drawn from many, many more sources than most other sites offer.

Our challenge is to challenge the Web-using public to break their big-brand addiction. As individuals, we also have to take responsibility for our own media choices. Faked and fudged news and reliance on minimal sources can be dangerous to mental health and growth.

So, why not join those of us who are trying to create a different type of news environment? Choose news that matters and lose the rest.

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