2. The Future of News: The Consumer Wakes

You are in your kitchen on a rainy Monday morning in the year 2005. You pour a cup of coffee and turn to the blank kitchen wall. “Give me the news,” you say, and the wall, actually a giant computer/television screen, changes into a gorgeous full-color map of the world. Headlines, pictures, or icons pinpoint the locations of news stories that your personal computer program has culled from a variety of sources around the world. You ask for each story in the order you prefer, or you receive an automatic sequence in television, voice, or text.

You are saving time by getting only what you want, when you want it, while your hands make toast. To learn more about the stock market crash in Tokyo, you call up the Internet, cruising the computers and videoservers of the world, to gather items from C-SPAN, NHK, The Wall Street JournalThe EconomistLe Monde, Reuters, and countless digital databases and video files. You stay with a developing issue as long as your interest, money, and time permit. Some of the information comes free as part of your monthly cable or online service, some is subsidized by imbedded advertising, and some requires an access or per-minute-of-usage charge. If you don’t like advertising, you can pay more to get ad-free material. If you don’t mind getting information that’s not so fresh, you can pay less.(5) When you want something on paper, you say “print” and your printer whirs into action.

You ask for a map of your state, and finally your town. Weather and traffic situations are overlaid onto a grid of your neighborhood, showing that construction on the highway will block your usual route to work. The computer “guide” draws a logical detour. Next you call your message center, your “virtual community” of friends and colleagues who have posted news for each other from around the world, and you check out a video email postcard from your cousin in Hawaii. Finally, you say goodbye to the screen, which turns back into a kitchen wall.

If you are still commuting to work (instead of telecommuting) and don’t have time for any of this, you grab your portable computer or “personal digital assistant,” a combination of cellular telephone, computer, television, radio, and fax machine that is no larger than a small paperback book. Plugged in all night to the multimedia center at your home, this tiny device has been receiving updated versions of customized news.

On the way to work, you remember to check up on last week’s local election returns in Seattle, where a friend was running for school board. You click a button, and the cellular phone function automatically calls the Internet. Your computer guide searches through highlighted words or pictures in last week’s Seattle news stories to bring up the returns; you send an instant consolation email message that will be waiting for your friend when she wakes up.

Suddenly it hits you: there’s another issue that must be raised at the morning business meeting. You dash off a fax in longhand on the screen of your personal digital assistant and press a button. Your fax will emerge in clean typescript from each of your colleagues’ printers around the world before everyone gathers for the 9:00 a.m. teleconference.

Arriving back home after work, you plug the portable communicator back into your home media center and ask the system to archive Dave Barry’s column. You call up new messages, news, and special advertising information on the screen; make theater and plane reservations for next week; and order a pizza. You and your family watch a new custom newscast and catch a favorite movie or television program. Then you fall asleep watching the baseball game while your spouse chooses the camera angles and calls up instant replays.

Is this science fiction? Does the world really want this kind of interactive, multimedia lifestyle? Can middle-class Americans afford it? Will people ever order customized news and pizza from their television sets? Certainly, such a high-tech future isn’t for everyone. Some of these gadgets may cost too much, take too much time, or remain too daunting. Skeptics point out, for example, that the picture phone has been available for years, yet most consumers have not bought it. VCRs everywhere are still blinking “12:00” because folks haven’t had time to figure out how to set their clocks, and World Wide Web searches may appeal only to a small, niche market.(6) But consider how many pieces of the above picture already are in place:

• About 23 million American homes—one in every five households—now have personal computers, and that market is expected to grow at a 24 percent compounded annual rate for the next three years, according to Forrester Research, Inc.

• Anyone with a basic computer and modem who pays about $10 a month for a text account or $30 a month for a SLIP account to a gateway service can access the Internet with a browser or guide, moving through the World Wide Web by clicking on hypertext words and pictures. Video, audio, photos, and text can be downloaded for personal use. Home computer modems have become fast enough to make this process less cumbersome and thus more appealing to the mass consumer market.

• Personal digital assistants by Apple, Sony, Motorola, and others are available and improving by the day, including the feature that reads handwriting and turns it into typescript. They retail at prices ranging from $600 to $1,500 apiece.

• The Washington Post’s Digital Ink service, an online system that offers participants the day’s official version of The Washington Post, also plans to offer automatically updated versions of a given story or the whole newspaper downloaded to home computers throughout the night. The service includes more than an online computer version of the daily print newspaper; it packages related stories and pictures, archival material, and sound and video clips. A recent review of The Bell Curve, for example, offered an opportunity to download an IQ test to take at home. In addition, customers, in their email “chat” lobby, can converse electronically about the news they are experiencing.

• Satellite vehicle mapping services for cars enable drivers to see en route which road to take next, to discover alternative routes in traffic jams, and to find their way when lost.(7)

• Joint television and computer monitors are already in use. Gary Griffith, Hearst Broadcasting Washington Bureau Chief, keeps “CNN Headline News” running all the time in the corner of his computer screen, so he can catch it with peripheral vision while working at his computer. Giant screens are available everywhere, and their $5,000 price tag is declining.(8)

• Time Warner is offering video-on-demand on a trial basis to homes in Orlando, Florida. Its “Full Service Network” uses a cable television system to provide customer-on-demand movies, instant television news, interactive shopping, and other functions, all accessed through a remote control-operated cable box on top of the television set. The interactive set-top box is still prohibitively expensive at an estimated $4,000 dollars per unit, but its developers predict an eventual cost of between $200 and $300.(9)

• Scores of newspapers and magazines, from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to U.S. News and World Report, offer online versions of their news and advertising, including online discussion groups and reporters’and editors’ email addresses for consumer feedback and story ideas. The Raleigh News & Observer‘s Nando.net service is one of the best of these first-generation online news systems; its income stream is from subscribers, advertisers on the system, and additional charges for deeper database searches. Nando.net provides its own subset of niche publications, offering special subscribers more detailed information on politicians’ votes and other issues.

• Television programs like PBS’s “Washington Week in Review” and some networks have Internet home pages for information and feedback. While viewers watched the O.J. Simpson trial on CNN, for example, a message scrolled under the picture that gave viewers a number to call if they wished to “download evidence” to their computers through an arrangement with CompuServe.

The history of earlier media innovations teaches us to take the vision of the future seriously. All of these newly digitized tools—voice-activated computers linked to the Internet, “smart” cellular telephones, interactive cable television, video-on-demand, handwriting-to-text, CD-ROM, and expanded bandwidth—are in use today, and costs are declining as they improve. One doesn’t want to make the same mistake that William Orton, President of Western Union, made when he rejected an opportunity to buy Alexander Graham Bell’s patents for $100,000. “What use could this company make of an electrical toy?” he said.(10) Many technological glitches, still a serious barrier for most consumers trying to enter the digital world, are being conquered with amazing speed. Recognizing that the future is digital and that information will be available in multiple formats; many telephone, broadcast, newspaper, cable, and computer companies are scrambling toward the same goal: to provide the consumer with a constant stream of merged communications into the home, combining news, entertainment, advertising, mail, voice and video communications, and home shopping through some form of multimedia computer- television-telephone-fax-CD-ROM device.

A CBS/New York Times poll taken in June 1993 found that most Americans would like to interact more with their televisions: watching programs that they had missed simply by pressing a few buttons; making video phone calls that allow them to see other people on their televisions; playing television game shows; and choosing camera angles as they watch sporting events. They were willing to pay about $10 a month more for a package of these new features, according to the poll.(11) The speed of this change depends heavily on the software designers, who haven’t yet provided the technologically inept customer with a comfortable way to use the Internet. But this is considered just a matter of time.(12) Nicholas Negroponte, founding director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) Media Lab, predicts that by the year 2005, Americans will spend more time on the Internet than watching network television and that videocassette rentals will have been replaced by easily available video-on-demand services. (13)

The “Niched” Marketplace

These new technologies are accelerating a shift of power away from traditional voices of authority in journalism and politics.(14) Both institutions are uneasy, for good reason: their roles are being challenged by new competitors and their audiences are restless. Some citizens are sidestepping the traditional news media altogether. They are turning to opinion journalism like the American Spectator or the raw experience of C-SPAN or talk radio,(15) or they are watching the latest courtroom drama.(16) Some mass media almost certainly will survive side by side with the new niched media technologies. Advertisers don’t want to lose the chance to reach millions of people at once. After all, when television developed, radio and print did not die out.(17) People still want to know what other people are thinking and still gather for huge consumer, entertainment, and news events, such as the Super Bowl, the Persian Gulf War, the O.J. Simpson trial, andPocohontas.

However, new media designers at the M.I.T. Media Lab and elsewhere predict that the day-to-day mass audience will splinter further into niches, not just because hundreds of channels are offering programs where once there were just three, but also because people will want to create their own customized flows of information.

Niche marketing already has arrived, in both commerce and politics. Instead of offering a single product to the greatest possible number of customers, marketers now try to sell as many specially tailored products as possible—over time—to the same loyal customers.(18) The seller is giving up an anonymous mass audience to reach a smaller group that is more likely to buy.

As a result, the media marketplace is becoming more competitive. As the total daily circulation of newspapers declined from 62.3 million in 1990 to 60.7 million in 1991, the newspapers were vying with 12,000 magazines and newsletters, 8,500 weeklies, 350 commercial television stations, 500 public service television stations, 10,684 cable television systems, 9,500 radio stations, and 2,650 database services.(19)

In politics, citizens already are treated as demographic niches, and our common values rarely are addressed. Candidates and political interest groups deepen our divisions by fashioning single-issue appeals to narrow voter populations. If we are looking for a national sense of citizenship, of shared interests and goals, we will have even more difficulty finding them in the niched media. Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam has documented that Americans’ direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation, even though average levels of education (traditionally the best predictor of political participation) have risen. Part of the explanation, Putnam suggests, is that technological trends are radically privatizing or individualizing how we spend our limited free time.(20)

Some social scientists fear that the arrival of new media technologies, from the explosion of cable television channels to the endless offerings of the Internet, will shatter both the mass media audience and our common American experience. Alternatively, some enthusiasts see these communications technologies as the dawn of a new age for democracy, enabling ordinary citizens finally to break through the elite barriers of politics and public discourse. Still others choose to ignore their potential impact. But anyone who believes that politicians and journalists can carry on as usual hasn’t been paying attention.

The fundamental values of both journalism and politics are being challenged, in part because of the new technologies. Their problems—and their revitalization—are inextricably linked. The future of both depends on how effectively they can revive their core standards and regain the public’s trust.

Today, American “news,” an artificial construct that has changed constantly during the past 200 years, is under assault. Unless journalists work now to save it, the ethic of objectivity that developed in journalism at the turn of the last century as both a reform effort and a response to market opportunities may be doomed.(21)

“The smell of death permeates the newspaper business these days,” observes media critic Howard Kurtz, noting that even deep-pocket chains have proved as helpless at preserving their papers as small-town owners; more than 150 dailies have folded in the past 25 years.(22) According to an April 1995 Times Mirror Center poll, only 45 percent of those surveyed said they had read a newspaper the day before, down from 58 percent in 1993.(23)

The idea that these audiences simply have fled to television news is not an adequate explanation for the drop in newspaper readership. The same poll also found that only 48 percent of those surveyed had watched network news the night before, down from 60 percent in 1993. Indeed, the national television networks, which once enjoyed the attention of a captive nation, now compete with hundreds of alternative offerings on cable. Now that legal obstacles have been removed, the telephone companies are replacing their copper wire networks with fiber optics, enabling them to transmit their own news and classified services directly into the home.(24) Pseudonews competitors like talk radio, advertorials, and infotainment, which don’t pretend to provide verified information or balanced viewpoints, also are claiming their share of established “objective” news customers.

Ironically, we are losing our gatekeepers just when we need them most. People are overwhelmed by news products and imitations: infotainment magazine shows, infomercials, docudramas, home videos, talk shows, and Internet gossip, all competing with traditional news stories in the old and new media. Citizens need a trustworthy guide not just for stories about what “officially happened” around the world each day but for the enormous flow of information that is gushing into their homes.(25)

One would think that journalists are ideally positioned to offer this guidance. However, new competitors, including Microsoft, TCI, Bell Atlantic, and Rush Limbaugh, are poised to take their place.

Journalists have great opportunities to improve as the public gains access to new communications tools. But so far, many journalists are responding by doing exactly the wrong things, undermining instead of strengthening their future prospects.