Bill Thompson, honorary visiting fellow at City and now head of partnership development at BBC Online, takes us on a trip to the year 2000 in our last edition of Old News.

It was a time when journalists were quaking in their boots at the prospect of the web and the future of paper and ink looked bleak.

New media, new danger – XCity 2000


This is the digital revolution. Its effects are being felt everywhere and it’s going to change your life. The working practices of journalists are being altered and the shape of the global media industry is being morphed – with consolidation and synergy at one end and self-publishing e-zines at the other. The space within which journalism is practised is being radically redefined and we may not recognise the end result. We may not have jobs in it, either.

The existence of these new media has forced all existing players, from the largest transnational to the smallest free press, to rethink their business model. There is a new market out there, or rather the market has just been resegmented in an interesting way. It’s possible for people to read news, features, reviews and even buy things via an Internet connected computer. And – ouch – doing this doesn’t involve any paper or ink.

As a result, every existing publisher has to re-evaluate its usefulness and potential market. Newspapers face the biggest challenge since the emergence of television in the 1950s, and this time they have decided to move onto the new channels instead of redefining their role in news distribution. No newspapers became TV channels in 1955 – although industry consolidation since means that many newspapers are now owned by companies that also have TV interests – but the Web has made newspaper editors and their finance directors realise that the existing model is doomed.

Indeed, the real change for newspapers could well come from accountants, not Web designers. Revenue from classified advertising makes up a significant proportion of the revenue for national and local papers: it is the reason for the proliferation of second sections, supplements and special features that now clutter our daily papers.

Classified ads, however, are leading the move online simply because a searchable database of ads is far more flexible and easy to use than a printed listing. Reading them in print is no fun – searching a well-designed site can be. And this leaves the editorial content of the supplements in a precarious position. Despite the many claims to editorial integrity, the average supplement is wrapping for advertising content – and if the adverts dry up then managing editors will close down the supplements without a second thought.

If newspapers are affected, then so are TV and radio. Apart from the introduction of digital transmission (digital TV is already available, digital radio is still getting off the ground) which allows new things to be done, the Internet and the Web give consumers a real alternative to watching and listening to the radio.

The decision by all the major players – and a lot of the minor ones – to move forward into new media, however little they understand it or its implications, is what has led to the biggest change for journalists: the old distinctions between print and broadcast are breaking down.

Anyone looking at BBC News Online and the rest of the BBC Online could see that this was a broadcaster’s website because of the availability of video and audio feeds which newspaper cannot yet provide.

For working journalists, this creates pressure in several areas. They are required to be multi-skilled, to be able to produce material which will work on the PC screen as well as the page, television and radio. They will soon have to cope with the extra demands of sourcing material which can be displayed on handheld computers, WAP phone and fridge doors. And they will find the rules of the new media journalism are different from those that apply to the publications and programmes they currently work on.

The boundaries between the editorial and business sides of new media publications, even those which are offshoots of existing publications or channels, are vague: what ethical issues are raised when reviewing a book or film which has a “click here to buy” button on the same screen? If a columnist is given site statistics, will this lead to more sensationalism? “See Pam Sucking Tommy Lee” might have been a better headline for this piece, for example, if I was looking for page hits. Journalists and their editors have not yet begun to discuss, never mind resolve these issues.

Looking at the industry, it’s not clear whether it’s possible to be a journalist any more – at least not in the sense the word was used back in the 20th century. The old practice of journalism was rooted in structures of information collection and distribution that are vanishing before our eyes. The Internet gives every reader access to news from a multitude of sources, including the people or organisations creating it. Self-publishing allows anyone to present their own point of view. If they lack any journalistic integrity but know how to lie convincingly and promote themselves then, like Matt Drudge, they can become richer and more famous than most journalists. Who can defend objective reporting of the facts when unattributed gossip is so readily consumed?

The old media world order is disintegrating. Much of what was of value in the past will be lost unless the journalists who find themselves working for whatever information providers evolve in the next 10 years can hold onto the true values of their trade. However, the words and images may be transmitted to our readers, accurate and honest reporting of events as we understand them, without fear or favour, has to remain at the core of what we do.

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