Friday, February 27, 2009

Internet - the Good and the Bad

Sixteen years ago I started on a long and strange adventure that began when I answered a job posting in the Washington Post - the major newspaper in the Washington DC area. Please remember the word "newspaper" - it becomes ironic later on. The job was an assistant producer at America Online. I went, I nailed the interview and the long, strange trip started.

My job was to help entertainment companies bring their content online to our world within walls. We were an online service - not completely open to the full Internet at first. It was only after I had been there about 6 months that we started seeing the walls come down - both literally and figuratively. Figuratively because we started opening up to the World Wide Web with an internal browser supplied by our purchase of Netscape. Literally because someone decided that we really didn't need walls and doors anymore. Cubes would do just fine, thanks. (I missed my walls.)

While at AOL, our competition was Seinfeld, Friends, ER. It wasn't newspapers, books or magazines. For those institutions we saw ourselves as a companion - a place to add content and focus on innovative marketing. But then again, this was also in the days when we were more concerned with the bottom line and good content than the stock price. OK, we were always concerned with the stock price - but that didn't rule every minute of every hour, just ever 5th minute if we knew we were doing something big with the business. Content was not involved in that part of the world when I was there. We were more interested in building communities around stories and helping those stories get out in the world.

My first day at AOL was February 23, 1995 and I loved every second I was there. Today, 14 years later, I have had the experience to witness both the good that came from my work there and the bad. First the good. As I have mentioned several times on this blog I am amazed by the miracles Facebook can perform. I know that it is a matter of a statistical algorithm, but it is still incredible when someone I haven't spoken to in about 17 years suddenly asks to be your friend. Of course I friended her - I've been trying to find her for 17 years! Ever since our graduation from college. She was already married and expecting her first child, I was ever so anxious to run away from our college town so we both had reasons not to keep in touch. I am just thrilled I got to speak with her today. If it weren't for the Internet the odds of us ever getting back in touch would have diminished in 1993 when I left for Los Angeles the first time. Back then, if I didn't have your phone number I didn't know how to find you. So, thank you Internet for the social networking and community building you do.

Not everything you do, however, is good. Perhaps I shouldn't put this directly on you as much as on the people who do not know how to harness the power you offer. In order to understand this next part, you need to know I was a reporter - a newspaper girl - while I was in college. I was pretty good too - won awards and was part of the Society of Collegiate Journalists. I even have a by-line in the local county paper. I sat in on school board meetings, talked to people, watched as the first anti-war protest in more than 20 years graced the school and then wrote about it for the Hanover Herald-Progress. My photos graced the Yellow Jacket Weekly (which came out every 2 weeks) for at least 2 years as did my writing and editing. I never meant for newspapers to face the issue they do now. How can you satisfy millions of hungry readers who all expect their news to be instantaneous and free? How do you make the paper version relevant when everything is on the web page? As an optomist, I am certain there is a way. As a pragmatic business person, I am not sure there is time to figure that out.

Unfortunately, as always seems to happen, the business suits won the day in Denver. It is the city that has lost, and lost a lot. The newsroom found out yesterday at noon that the Friday paper would be their last. Denver woke up to "Good Bye, Colorado" splashed across the many column inches above the fold. At the bottom of this post I have included a link to the video they produced regarding the last few weeks of the paper. Its a good watch - makes you think about the future of news reporting in this country.

Think about it. Since the yellow journalism issues at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, reporting has become a great deal more reliable. Sure, news organizations have opinions - of course they do, they are not robots. However, they have a built in filter and layers of checks and balances to ensure that stories aren't skewed or at least not too much. They receive Letters to the Editor which are reviewed and, in some cases, printed. They live, breathe and exist purely on the reliability of the words that have been strung together to create the story. That story has the power to make you think, it touches you emotionally and in some cases it can cause you to act.

Now, let's talk about blogs. These are typically volunteer driven brain dumpings with a few exceptions. Typically a blog has no editor and no publisher to ensure the words that are about to be put out in the world show the face the newspaper wants to put forward so the words you see most probably went from brain to keyboard to publish in a matter of minutes. That works for some people - but not for all. At a blog, this is most probably not your only gig. In my case I have several other gigs - one of which pays - that take my time during the day making it so that writing my blog is not the first thing I do every day. I shoehorn it in. None of these realistic statements about most blogs make me very concerned for the historical record of this country.

Yes, the historical record. History is written by historians who puruse every first source piece of material of the time they are studying - letters, memos, grocery lists, etc. They also review the newspapers of the time. What if, years from now, someone comes to study us and we are newspaperless? How will historians be able to do their job? That is a small concern, I know, but there has to be a way to marry newspapers and the Internet in such away that those needing revenue are happy but that those hard hitting news men and women out there still have an outlet that will permit them to get the news out to an even larger audience.

Rocky Mountain News, I feel your pain. My organization, the United States Postal Service, is suffering due to the downturn in mailing in general. We are looking at long term solutions, however, and hopefully one of them will work. The difference between us as the Rocky Mountain News? We are looking at several years to reinvent ourselves - not a single month to dump the paper in one of two ways sale or shutter - were other options even considered?

Obviously, they chose shutter.

I feel for the Rocky Mountain News family. I hope you all stay in touch and push each other to greatness as you have in the past. I mourn for the death of a great paper. You did your job well for almost 150 years. I only wish it could be 150 more.

Final Edition from Matthew Roberts on Vimeo.

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