Friday, 15 September 2000

Wired Service: Online Journalism in Europe

This originally appeared in Central Europe Review on 15 September 2000. It was based on a presentation I made at the Journalists' Working Group of the 12th European Television and Film Forum, organised by the European Institute for the Media in Bologna, Italy, a few days before. I think what I said back then about online journlaism has withstood the test of time.

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The topic of this discussion is meant to be "online journalism in transition countries," but that title is immediately suspicious.

First, there are some unfortunate misconceptions inherent in the phrase "transition countries." Like the term "post-Communist," it is a phrase which replaced the term "Communist" or "Soviet bloc" immediately after 1989. Such labels were useful terms back in the early 1990s, but they have no meaning today.

After all, it's been more than a decade: time now to free ourselves of our Cold War thinking. Time to throw out these outdated clichés which lead to incorrect and misleading generalisations about "Eastern" and "Western" Europe.

There are more differences between individual countries within Europe than between "Eastern" and "Western" Europe in general.

This is, by the way, one of the reasons why I named our new journal "Central Europe Review." I wanted to emphasise the commonalities across Europe and to recognise the unique qualities of each individual country and linguistic group.

All the same: different

Like the rest of Europe, each country in this region is different: it has a different culture formed by unique national and sub-national myths and with different expectations of societal institutions, including journalists and journalism in general.

Certainly, no one would think that Hungary or Estonia has a media environment in any way at all comparable to that in Serbia or Belarus. But even countries often thought to be in the same "leading" pack get wrongly lumped together.

Some people would group Poland and the Czech Republic, for example, but in terms of their national media and expectations of journalism, they are hardly similar.

These two countries have very different recent media histories, and those differences exert strong influences to this day.

Poland in the mid-eighties was awash with underground, unofficial publications. Thousands of them.

By contrast, Czechoslovakia was banning even Soviet newspapers in the Gorbachev era of the late eighties.

These very individual histories give these countries very specific media markets today. The Polish media situation is rich and diverse; the Czech Republic is still suffering under the weight of an old Manichean view of the world and rigid, unwritten rules of what can and what cannot be published.

Other countries in the region were different again; the whole approach to publishing and writing often varied: Václav Havel was allowed to write in prison; Ceaus,escu's Romania forced people to register their typewriters.

New medium, old problems

That the East/West divide no longer applies is seen especially in the Internet field. Internet access in many "East European" countries is now far in advance of many countries of the "West."

The Internet may be an international medium, but the markets are still primarily national/linguistic ones, and we need to realise this when talking about Internet journalism: each linguistic group has its media history and its expectations of journalism.

To return to the Czech situation again, one aspect of this particular media market makes it quite special. For a variety of reasons—including recent history and plain laziness—the Czech media are excessively dependent on a single news source: the Czech News Agency, CTK. Czech papers, TV and radio get a majority of their news direct from this agency, and it can be as much as 70 to 80%.

Interestingly, when the Internet appeared on the horizon, the big Czech dailies all said: "We want the Internet." But all they did for the most part was slap on their same daily content—from CTK—so nothing changed.

Later, one or two up-to-the-minute news sites appeared, but still, CTK news dominates there, so it's the same news, the same domination of the single source, despite the addition of a new medium. In the Czech Republic, it's not news until CTK says it's news. CTK very much creates reality.

Ideally and very theoretically, newly accessible news sources should be challenging the old media in medially deficient countries such as the Czech Republic. Foreign outlets should be competing with the local players and driving them to make changes and improvements in their outlook and journalistic practices. It should enhance competition and force Czech journalists to get off their backsides and find the stories themselves rather than rely on CTK.

In reality, language and access prevent this ideal from being realised. CER, like other foreign-language publications, is read by middle- and upper-level management and government and media elites in the region, but I don't think it really forms a part of the national dialogue in any one of these countries.

This brings us to my second contention with this topic of "journalism in transition countries": the idea of what makes good journalism is not universal. Each country, even different regions, different social classes have different expectations.

I am not going to attempt here to come up with a definition of good journalism that would satisfy every person from every culture, but I think we would all agree that three key elements in any definition would be accuracy, independence and credibility.

The first two are straightforward. I'd like to take up on the third. And that brings us to our central question here on this panel...

How reliable is Internet journalism?

About a year ago, after our Internet journal had been up and running for just two months, I telephoned the spokesman of a prominent politician in Prague and asked for an interview with his boss. When the spokesman learned that Central Europe Review was an Internet journal, however, he immediately balked.

"An Internet magazine?" he asked. "We don't give interviews for the Internet. It's all lies and libel, not serious media."

He outright rejected the very idea of an interview.

Six months later, I received an email from this same spokesman - not a phone call, mind you, but an email - asking me if we were still interested in the interview.

What had occurred in that six months to change his mind?

What had brought him to lose his initial, somewhat traditional, view of the Internet as a haven for bad journalistic practices?

I asked him this question, and he told me that, in the intervening period, he had done a little research. His press office had asked staff to scour Czech and European Websites for stories about their man, and, as a by-product of that research, over the course of a few weeks, they had come to appreciate which sites and sources were important and which were not, which sites had to be taken seriously and which could safely be ignored.

After a few months, he had come to understand that the medium itself was not the message but that the medium of the Internet, like any other, had its serious and not-so-serious sides, and he had decided to pay attention to the serious press outlets of the Internet.

And that's the point I want to make today: Internet or no Internet, the manufacture and maintenance of brand-credibility is of primary importance in journalism.

"Information overload" as usual

It is said we live in an age of information overload. That's true enough but also very misleading.

Every era is an age of information overload. Today's information glut is nothing new.

The world will always have more detail, more facts and figures and more events than one mortal can take in.

Who in this room can say they have even seen every printed newspaper in existence let alone read every one, every day. Who's visited every library and read every book?

Long before the Internet, there were already more newspapers at the newsagent's than anyone could ever read; more books in the world's libraries than any one person could catalogue, let alone read.

The fact that huge amounts of information are now more easily accessible does not change the basic truth about man's relationship to information: there is always more information than time.

Because of their limited time, information consumers, like any consumers, are usually selective when shopping around. They choose between competing media forms (TV, radio, print, the Internet), and they choose between various individual sources within each medium.

The information consumer first decides what he or she wants and then decides where to get it, essentially using the criterion "is this source, article or programme worth my time."

To make the best use of one's limited time, one has got to find names one can trust for the particular type of information one wants.

The sports fan looking for sports scores will know exactly where he has to go for the up-to-the-minute information he is seeking, be it the Internet, teletext or CNN for international scores, or the Internet or local radio for local scores. If he's in no hurry, maybe he'll just pick up the newspaper on his way to the train tomorrow. He's not likely to turn on the Weather Channel or buy a glossy fashion magazine, is he?

It's the same with business news. People come to trust certain names and look to them for authoritative business information. Online or offline, the business community relies on publications such as The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

And the situation is again the same for those seeking reliable journalism, informed analysis and intelligent comment. In print, every paper has its reputation for reliability and its resultant readership; there is no difference on the Internet.

It's all about brand-credibility: in the UK, if I say an article appeared in The Sun, it has a different weight to it than if I say it's from the Financial Times. If I say an article appeared in The Drudge Report, it has a different weight to it than if I say it appeared in the Webpages of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

It's important to note here that people looking for high-quality information are not seeking "interactivity," such as chat or other forms of escapist entertainment; they are looking for authority. They want someone who knows what she's talking about to explain matters clearly.

Internet journalism, television journalism and traditional print journalism are all exactly the same in this regard: the info-consumer demands credibility, that is authority, when important issues are at stake.

The only complication is that there are a large number of new Internet publications that the info-consumer has never heard of—that he doesn't know the reputation of. The sceptical info-consumer, however, will treat everything she reads with suspicion, especially the newer names.

Gradually, with time, she learns which sources can be trusted and can be considered reliable; which ones can be considered an authority in their field; and which ones should help her to form her sense of reality and her perception of the world around her.

The gullible will always fall for schlock and sensation, in print, on television or on the Internet, and proper education, that is teaching people to think for themselves, is the only solution for that.

Same old names

Look at what people are reading on the Internet today. One of the most successful content-based sites has been the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times is another popular site, as is CNN, the Financial Times and the wide variety of sites using Reuters and AP news feeds. See a pattern here?

Internet or not, people are turning to names they trust. Yes, rumour rags can create a buzz from time to time, but nothing becomes real, that is, nothing becomes widely accepted as fact by the majority of people, until a trusted media name takes on the story.

The state of journalism on the Internet is the same as that in print and television: a few brands create reality, and the global domination of a few mega-media conglomerates is very difficult to crack. The problems are myriad but generally come down to money: in marketing, bigger organisations have more advertising dollars to lure more readers; on the technical side, the smaller fry also lose out: merging news video into a content-based Website, for example, is a path open only to those organisations with significant financial backing.

The Internet is not a levelling medium, and all sites are not created equal, nor are they treated equally.

Conceptually, the Web is not a net of evenly distributed points but, as people are now coming to realise, something more closely resembling a bow-tie. In that bow-tie, a relatively small number of sites sit in the central knot, gaining all the attention, or hits. The vast majority of sites are out there on the periphery, in the wings of the bow-tie, not considered by the majority to have the necessary weight of a central authority.

This is not what so many people had hoped for five or ten years ago. The Internet was supposed to bring about an explosion of new news sources and information providers that would challenge the big players. Actually, what's happened is that the traditional big media players have used their weight to expand their information dominance into a new media.

The bow-tie is the result.

With no known brand name, a start-up information provider finds it very difficult to compete against the likes of TimeWarner with all their resources. A mega-conglomerate can write off their Internet arm as a loss leader. A content-based Internet start-up, regardless of low initial costs, can't do this and has to face the reality of Web content today: for 99% of Websites, content is not profit-making at present.

If one is in it for the long-term, however, and if one pays careful attention to the development of a quality brand, the situation is not completely impossible. As our magazine, Central Europe Review, has shown, as long as no one expects immediate profits, new media brands can be developed on the Internet. In fact, a new name can draw a strong readership and establish a respected name in a short period of time not by offering schlock and rumour but by offering reliable information and intelligent analysis.

In short, there is a market for good journalism out there, and a few Web-based publications are managing to provide this. Dumbing-down and tabloid tactics are not the only way to draw attention on the Web.

Getting a start-up known is difficult, of course. One thing that can help draw the attention of information consumers to high-quality news sources not backed by the big conglomerates is an awards programme. Internationally recognised online journalism awards and media rating systems from unbiased, independent organisations—NGOs and educational institutions, for example—can boost the credibility of smaller, yet still reliable, Internet magazines and newspapers.

Not all electronic fishwrap

The great "Internet Revolution" has been no revolution for journalism: journalism faces the same basic problem as always: the manufacture and maintenance of brand-credibility.

Consumers also face the same choices as always: small publishing names vs mega-conglomerate McNews; and down-market tabloid publications vs up-market quality broadsheets. Limited by time, the discerning customer will always have to make choices between such outlets, and like that press spokesman, as time passes and as a person becomes more and more familiar with new titles, he will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Like that press spokesman, every information consumer comes to realise that the whole of the Internet cannot be painted with one broad brush. Despite the abundance of schlock and sensationalism on the Web, the Internet also has high-quality, reliable sources of journalism.

The computer screen may be the same width for electronic tabloids and broadsheets, but readers still know the difference and know where to find quality journalism.

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