How to escape from the newsagent and survive the attempt

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
29 October, 2016
Editorial: 44
Fecha de publicación original: 5 noviembre, 1996

Date of publication: 5/11/1996. Editorial 044.

*Sixth article in a series on digital journalism

You can’t see the wood for the trees

All the media were quite content in their respective niches (producing printed, broadcast or audio-visual information) and then suddenly the Internet turned up and spoilt the party. Overnight the dikes opened and everything was suddenly available simultaneously in one medium. The way it broke onto the scene was so brutal and rapid that the response it elicited was not surprising: the first being a group reaction. All the media continued to do was what they had been doing, although they suspected that cyberspace was changing the rules of the game. Today, that policy has reached rock bottom.

Doing the same as they have always done while including a little of the other’s craft is not enough now. The media companies, including those that aspire to being multimedia consortiums, have been confronted with a meta-media which implies an about face  of Copernican proportions in their communication policies.

And the changeover is not proving to be an easy one. This is not only because of the particular circumstances of each company, but also because the Net reinvents itself as a communications media at a vertiginous rate and, in passing, modifies the core of what has been known up to now as “the information business”. If the Internet is a meta-medium, then it is not strange that it has turned into a meta-newsagent’s where thousands of other media enterprises fight for a place in the digital sun. A newspaper costs on average one dollar, but now, in one session which costs roughly the same, we can have all of the press at our disposal (and then some). And, in addition, thanks to the Internet’s unwritten maxim of exploiting interactivity to make life easier for users, they can be found all grouped together in the same place. Newspapers in Castilian, Catalan and Galician also have their own newsagent’s (Quiosco) equipped, of course, with search engines for locating information by topic or date. The fact that sites like these exist within the Net highlights something which I have pointed out in previous articles: the printed press which limits its participation in cyberspace to transposing its printed content into a digital framework has less future than a deer at a meeting of lions. Neither its brand name nor its prestige will be enough to attract internauts, innately violent individuals, armed to the teeth as they are with a mouse that unceasingly shoots off rounds of clicks the moment it spies something it has already seen some place else, or something that it is not interested in, even on paper. Merely transposing content onto the Net is a dead end when compared to the extraordinary diversity of information on offer in the new medium.

The fact that all the newspapers are available in just one place and that they all have more or less the same format, de-personalises them. And, at the same time, their own space within the Net is dramatically reduced because of the vast flow of digital information no longer subject to the rules and regulations of an organisation whose main products are alien to cyberspace. This is not a matter of little consequence. Media companies have to resolve an enormous dilemma: either they are enterprises which produce newspapers (or radio, or T.V.), or they are organisations which supply information. The fact that this doubt continues to exist has curious, and even ironic, consequences: on the Internet, it seems that the communications media have forgotten that their primary aim is to communicate. They have at their disposal the best professionals in the field, their own archives which the Net would dearly love for itself and they operate under brand names which stand out like lighthouses in the turbulent seas of information, blinking their message: “We are the specialists, we are the best.” And yet this is exactly what is not happening. On the contrary, it is other kinds of companies that are starting to develop more innovative communication services on the Net and who are most concerned about maintaining high information service standards within this new environment. The reasons for this paradox are clear for all to see: a business which invests many millions in printing presses and other similar equipment in order to get its product onto the market, is, at the same time, investing in the maintenance of a certain hierarchical order (what John Perry Barlow calls “investing in authority”),  helping to fuel an understandably conservative attitude to the new medium. The Internet, on the other hand, works in such a way that it breaks down this hierarchy into a generally decentralized relationship between the producer of information and the receiver. Their roles become interchangeable and its importance lies more in the process which is generated between them than in the final product. Interaction is the wedge which has been driven into the information business, a wedge which is at the same time an irritating thorn in the side of the media companies who have taken the first fundamental step towards understanding that they cannot stay away from the Internet.

The communications media will have to rediscover a taste for communication, in other words, for the informative content of what they offer digitally. It is here that the question of the relationship, for example, between the printed and digital media will be resolved: the quality of what they offer and how each can most profitably take advantage of their own particular features. In the case of the digital media, the written press has its newsroom, its know-how and a historical background to offer. The temptation to turn one’s back on all this accumulated knowledge by creating parallel newsrooms –a trap which a number of companies, some of them very well-known, have fallen into and are now sorely regretting– means that their own continuity in the information business is seriously breached and that they are wasting their own resources.

In the first place, they should reorientate their policies precisely towards investment. As is already happening in the more innovative media companies, what the Net demands is the formation of R+D teams made up of journalists to investigate what information needs to be put into the Net, how to introduce it (what the language of the new media is), how to integrate it into already existing information, and, above all, by means of which digital devices (i.e. looking for the ideal combination between WWW, e-mail, discussion lists, chats, texts and images, etc.) they can create their own network of users. In the second place, this research should try to unveil the real possibilities for information cost-effectiveness on the Internet and not, as is now the case, by simply transposing the advertising, marketing and promotional criteria that have ripened under the heat of the printing press. This means, among other things, taking advantage of the social “drawing power” of the Net to create conditions which will permit a solid position within it and in the marketing possibilities which are developing there. In the third place, research should outline the role that journalists will play in the world of electronic publishing. In this, still incipient, area some things are already clear: they cannot compete only with the considerable volume of information which they have produced for paper and then post it on the Net. The digital journalist will have to learn how to create new elements for communication, in which the analysis, interpretation and integration of information processes will provide added value. Finally, this minimal R+D programme should explore a crucial aspect of the digital model of communication: the alliances –the cooperation– with all those initiatives which reinforce the position of the medium within its own terrain, in its own location. This last aspect also implies substantial changes to what media companies have understood as information up to now. Their metropolitan services, for example, will be subject to fierce competition from a multitude of new media spawned by the Net, whose ability to rapidly impose themselves on the scene is due to their greater flexibility, interactivity and capacity for joining together with similar providers, as well as their reduced capital overheads. The printed media will need to shake up their culture, shielded up to now by their prestigious brand names, in order to establish relevant relationships with the new media and by so doing enrich the information they offer. In short, they will have to create and design digital communication services, which does not mean simply opening a web in Internet. That, these days, is not even making a start.

Translation: Bridget King.


* Other articles dedicated to digital journalism

1.- In search of the digital journalist
2.- From the dictatorship of the technicians…
3.- …to the rebellion of the masses
4.- The birth of “soft power”
5.- The postman knocks a thousand times
6.- How to escape from the newsagent and survive the attempt
7.- The floating university
8.- The knowledge correspondent
9.- Hard disc journalism