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Text written in conjunction with a presentation for the ISOC Geneva Chapter about the role of the Media in relation to Internet. Particular thanks to Bruno Lanvin, Mark Selby and Hannes Lubich for their comments about this article.

Internet: Challenges to the Press

There is an apparent Catch-22 in the relationship of the press to Internet: whether they get on-line or not, the press stand to lose out. On the one hand, if they don't take the step they will lose not only the potential market but also a part of their traditional market to others who, like Microsoft with their costly magazine project, are trying to move into the field. On the other hand, if they do get on-line, there's a risk that it will be at their own expense as, in doing so, they compete with their traditional paper based publication(s).

There is growing social pressure to be on the Net - commonly called ensuring "net presence" - even if it is not so clear to many what else is to be done there. Be that as it may, for every day that goes by, the doubtful and the hesitant concede a growing head-start to their competitors who continue to accumulate on-line publishing skills and experience.

The changing role of media

As we move progressively to an information society, traditional boundaries are blurring. This is certainly the case with Media. Major actors from different fields are coming together to pool know-how and forces to rise to the challenge of a fast changing context in which it is necessary to be present on multiple fronts (press, TV, cable, telecoms, software,...).

At the same time technological changes are modifying underlying processes. The use of the Web, for example, makes it possible to combine the discrete nature of the written press with a process-based approach more akin to radio and television in which contributions are constantly up-dated throughout the day but archives can be accessed at any time. As Bruno Lanvin pointed out, this may well be one of the specific characteristics of media on the Internet. Certainly, managing such a hybrid medium will be a major challenge. Check out the CNN site for an example.

The changing relationship to the reader

In the apparently seamlessly interconnected world of hyperlinks, the reader has to go out into Cyberspace and retrieve want he or she wants. Both the technology and the culture of Internet lead to a more active and interactive reader. The response from information providers has been an increased drive to interactivity, not initially foreseen in Web protocols. Feedback channels, forums, chat have been introduced. For the press, this means a challenge to the expert role of the journalist: as the person who formulates information. The newspaper or the magazine become increasingly an enlarged community: an evolution that fits in well with modifications in the nature of advertising.

The changing ways of working

Journalists have a number of skills that may well be lacking on many Web sites, in particular, the ability to collect information about a subject, collate it and write interesting articles about it. They also have a long standing tradition concerning the deontology of the profession which is absent from the Net. At the same time, technological and contextual changes, require an up-dating of these skills and the development of new ones. Both in the press and in TV, journalists are increasingly expected to be polyvalent. Put bluntly, in the quest to cut costs, they are required to do everything from research to layout.

The quality and innovation in form and content

Barriers to publishing on the Internet are much lower than in the traditional press and it is not possible for large concerns to get a quasi-monopoly on distribution. Competition has, as a consequence, shifted to form and content, and beyond them to the ability to create a "community spirit" that links readers to the publication. Quality of service and reader satisfaction take on a new meaning in this context, as do innovation and the ability to respond and change.

The changing nature of advertising

As hinted at above, the Internet allows wide-scale mediation of the relationship between the service provider and the user with a potential strengthening and enriching of that relationship. The specificity of advertising on the Internet hinges on this fact. Rather than being a question of momentarily capturing the reader's attention and passing on subliminal brand messages, net-based advertising will increasingly have to do with setting up and maintaining an on-going relationship with the (potential) customer. As the rules of the game change, those on-line magazines that establish a solid "community" of readers stand a better chance with advertisers. The quality of the relationship between the press and its readers - even if it is difficult to quantify - could well be a more appropriate indicator of the worth of a Web publication for potential advertisers than the number of hits.

Avoiding the temptation of closed, proprietary solutions

The temptation is great - on the part of the large press groups - to opt for closed, proprietary solutions. Such options create the illusion of being able to control the situation but in the long term will turn against them. At the same time, closed, proprietary systems are seen as a short-term solution to failings of the Internet: lack of security, absence of guarantees of privacy, unsatisfactory payment methods,... This short-sighted approach is clearly no answer. The only viable long term solution is a concerted effort to create the technical, legal and socio-cultural conditions necessary for the satisfactory functioning of an open, on-line market. For the press this also includes reaching an agreement with all the parties involved (software makers, access providers, telecoms, content providers, other intermediaries,....) on the satisfactory sharing of revenue.

Responsibility in developing Internet

As the recent OECD Guidelines on the security of information systems quite rightly pointed out, there's a need both to develop confidence on the part of the general public about the use of such information systems as Internet, but also to raise public awareness about the workings of such systems and about rights and responsibilities. The press clearly has a key role to play in this task. At the same time, the press has a long-term vested interest in making sure that the information society turns out well and with it the evolution of a number of important institutions such as democracy, the educational system and health-care.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: May 30th, 1995 - Last up-dated: May 30th, 1995