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A May 1994 speech by Denise Caruso at a Nieman Foundation Journalism & Technology Conference

The Democratization of News and the Future of Democracy

Nieman Foundation Journalism & Technology conference
May 1994

Denise Caruso
Editorial Director, Technology & Media Group, Inc.

Premise: Effective democracy is predicated on the notion that the public is
regularly informed about the characters and issues of the day. Journalism in
the public interest will have to reclaim its authority in a world of interactive
infotainment, talk shows and unfiltered video. Just what is the journalist’s
franchise and responsibility?

One of the biggest mistakes media companies make today is to look at the
online environment as just another package in which to distribute the
information they already generate.

Although the information itself may be the same to some degree, interactive
media is fundamentally different from mass media. I will refrain from
quoting McLuhan yet again, but very simply put, the message of this new
medium is, “I want what I want, and nothing more.” A low estimate of more
than 25 million online consumers today choose and control the information
they want. They assume interactivity and an active role in selecting precisely
what they want to read or see.

So you might say that interactive media is transforming our democratic
“marketplace of ideas” into a shopping list of “topics” and “keyword

Is the interactive media-buying public better informed than we schlubs who
still read the newspapers? I don’t know, and I don’t think they know, either.
But since I believe that the successful practice of good journalism — in
whatever media — is one of the best ways to ensure an effective democracy,
first I’m going to edit myself and then I’m going to address only three issues
(I’m sure there are 20 more) about electronic media that will have a profound
effect on how successful journalism can continue to exist in a networked

• The first is the proliferation of information on networks.

In order to keep this brief, I am going to assume we agree that the means of
media production — and increasingly, electronic media distribution — are in
the hands of the people, as well as the media companies. Desktop publishing,
fax machines and modems, and increasingly, desktop video and audio editing
tools, are within reach of almost anyone, whether they buy or borrow them.
The result in the print media is hundreds of new magazines, newsletters and
alternative weeklies.

The news business was one of the first beneficiaries of electronic production,
but ironically, the efficiencies of electronic distribution have already shrunk
its street value. By keeping an eye on the national wires, you can take great
advantage of your time zone and your competitor’s scoops and easily get your
version of their story into the same day’s paper or broadcast.

Taking the “wire” concept a step farther into the online world paints an even
grimmer picture. On a network that carries news wires from several news
organizations, as most of them do, news has virtually no brand recognition:
you type in the keyword “news” on America Online, for example, and you
can see screen after screen of headlines with no source ID.

PR Newswire, the Mercury News and a column by one computer columnist
or another all look the same on the computer screen, if they all contain the
correct topic or keyword. In today’s popular electronic news environment,
there is no equivalent of a newspaper’s distinctive flag or typeface, or a TV
network’s logo.

Last, and perhaps scariest to the profession, is the exponential increase in raw
information being created by regular, non-journalist people. Reams of this
“news” are posted every day in so-called “newsgroups” on the Internet and
on various online services. Ordinary people can expect to be deluged with
increasing amounts this pseudo-news, and it will become increasingly
difficult for real news organizations to be heard above the din.

• On-demand information.

As the sheer volume of information continues to increase, people
automatically recoil from the overload. Increasingly, they are dealing with it
by using online technology to make contact with only the specific topics they
request. As you know, this is called “information on demand.”

On-demand information has some troubling components for those of us who
believe it is dangerous to let the people choose their news.

If I just want to know the latest about Barry Diller and Time Warner, or AIDS
research,I may not ever see what’s happening in Rwanda or on the Supreme
Court. And even if I did want to be more broadly informed, today I can’t ask
the network about something that I didn’t know happened — natural
disasters, deaths, breaking news, etc.

Information on demand raises many other questions as well.

For example:

• One of the sales pitches to consumers for online news is that you will be
able to get more information on the stories you really care about, and less on
the ones you don’t. How do you support the non-trivial extra cost of
reporting, producing and editing every news story to feature length?

And there’s another interesting problem for publications that have chosen to
go online. One of the big selling points to customers is that they can have
access — direct access via their computers — to the publication’s staff. Great
idea, except for one thing: who has the time?

I personally don’t know anybody in journalism who isn’t working flat-out
just to keep their heads above water. Now we’re asking them to hang out on
line with people who have been known to be incredibly vocal and unabashed
about their ignorance. I would not be surprised if this became a guild issue.

• Then there’s the question of how you ask your customers to pay for on-
demand information. The prevailing model for the future is that each of us
will “pay per view” — we’ll buy stories piecemeal, whether in print or
broadcast — instead of getting a pre-set package of news for the price of a

Though this model might be useful for entertainment products, it has the
potential to put news organizations at great financial risk.

What happens if the staff has a bad run and no one reads or chooses to view
your stories for a few days in a row? What happens if your server goes down?
Your competition sabotages your network? Any break in your popularity on
a daily basis, and you’ll take an immediate financial hit. The pay-per-view
model makes news organizations as volatile as the stock market.

And I’ve not even addressed how you’ll assign value to stories and collect
the money, or how such a model changes the content of “marketable” stories,

• Last but certainly not least is the issue of Advertising and the Death of
Subsidized Mass Media.

On-demand, interactive media flips the traditional economic structure of
mass media on its back. It removes a key component of what makes mass
media work. It’s called serendipity, and it’s an integral part of how we
consume media.

Creating serendipity is the stock in trade of every editor, and creates as much
value for the advertisers as it does for those who research and produce the
stories. Editing and page layout are about encouraging people to keep
scanning and turning pages; our eye travels from story to story, to the ad for a
sale at Macys. Or you’re sitting on the sofa, stunned by the latest onTonya and
Nancy, when the Nike ad comes on. Both editors and advertisers want you to
get a message you didn’t necessarily set out to find.

There is no electronic equivalent of serendipity. Without it, how do
advertisers get their messages to your eyeballs — and how do news
organizations finance their operations? Especially since, as I mentioned
earlier, on-demand information is likely to require that you produce some
multiple of the amount of news you produce now.

Embedding. Even more troublesome to news organizations should be the
kinds of discussions underway in the advertising community about how to
“embed” or directly connect advertising messages with specific pieces of
programming. In an on-demand world where people are far less likely to
request commercials as part of their media consumption package, advertisers
see great opportunity in making their products a part of the landscape.

So Murphy Brown might start looking more like a tournament tennis court
than a comedy, with Compaq computers and Microsoft software prominently
displayed on Steelcase desks, Pampers and Gap Kids stuff on the shelves of
her office, maybe a big ol’ poster for Garth Brooks’ new CD on the wall near
the elevator.

What would be the equivalent in the world of on-demand news? If
advertisers become accustomed to tying product pitches to other types of
programming, won’t they want to be sure their messages are somehow
germaine to the specific news story that’s been selected? And isn’t that in
direct opposition to the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial —
where it’s considered to be a screw-up to put a car ad next to a story on the
auto industry, for example? How long do you think they’re going to be happy
with a subtle little b/w button at the bottom of a screen, as Michael showed in
Newsweek Interactive? Advertisers are NOT convinced this has to be

So number one in my proposals for action is:

1. Deal with the advertising situation. Clearly this issue and all its
ramifications is one of the biggest that news organizations face today. How
can you provide clear, unbiased reporting if your information is subsidized by
on-demand advertising tied directly to a specific message or story? But how
can you move ahead in new media without subsidy?

Making this bridge between old and new media requires that journalism re-
engineer its corporate DNA and rethink its business charter. Work with your
staff and with advertisers to invent a useful place for ads in the online
environment. We know the Prodigy model — sharing the information
screen with an ad — doesn’t work. Come up with something that does work,
and that doesn’t compromise your integrity as a news organization.

2. Use your skills as critical thinkers to hone your strategies. You also must
reengineer your editorial DNA. At a time when in-your-face, pack reporting
has pushed journalism into the gutter of public esteem, where “cybersleaze”
newsgroups can and do and will continue to proliferate, and where online
news is just a pile of headlines on a screen, news organizations must take on
the task of educating the public about the difference between journalism,
public relations, eyewitness reports and analysis.

Somebody should be talking about “good” information v. “bad” information,
and the difference between informed and uninformed opinion.

The journalism community is one of the very few groups in the world suited
to teach these critical thinking skills. After all, one hopes that you employ
them every day as part of doing your job. Being willing to meet your own
standards is the first step toward moving out of “commodity” mode into one
that’s based on added value — which in an on-demand world is literal, not

And at the most basic level, somebody should be working on how to “brand”
legitimate news organizations on a computer screen.

3. Create electronic serendipity. In addition to its ability to create valuable
editorial products, the journalism community holds an ace in a world of
information overload: a stockpile of skilled editors who know how to
separate wheat from chaff. In the lingo of the interactive world, they already
are “intelligent agents.” Many people won’t want to drink from the firehose
of information that’s available; that’s why they come to you now, whether
they know it or not. Even outside of your existing products, a great business
is waiting to be made by becoming a trustworthy nozzle.

4. Be very careful with whom you ally. The “pack” mentality is just as
obvious in the rush today to get “online” as it is in the pages of the daily
papers. One way to avoid the problem of getting lost in the crowd is to not
become part of the crowd to begin with. Don’t give away your most precious
commodities — your customer lists and your information — in venues that
do not serve you.

5. Use technology appropriately. Don’t do electronic media just because
everyone else is doing it. Have a compelling reason, a good idea, something
that you know customers need, want and will pay for. Make sure that your
message is consistent with the media you use to deliver it. As anyone knows
who’s covered Silicon Valley, those on the cutting edge run the risk of death
by hemorrhage. In the long run, those who succeed are not always the
pioneers but those with original ideas for products that solve a problem. As
one market researcher says, “It is far more important to be right than to be

6. Don’t chase the money. If you follow the discussions of organizations like
the Electronic Frontier Foundation, on whose board I serve, and the Advisory
Council for the National Information Infrastructure, which Del Lewis will
talk about later today, you know one of the gravest concerns is that the
networks of the future will only serve the rich.

The same could be said of the content providers of the future, since
information is what flows over those networks. It would be easy today to
sacrifice your duty to inform the public in order to attain higher profits by
serving the information needs of the wealthy few. God knows they have
intense information needs; certainly no one on Wall Street would fault you
for it, and of course without profits you cannot operate.

7. But keep in mind that the world is a very large place. In a world where
both bandwidth and information are virtually infinite, I think it’s a fabulous
challenge to find a way to deal with abundance, rather than scarcity. We all
stand to gain a great deal — financially and personally — by finding creative,
supportable ways to keep more of the world, not less of it, properly informed.
There is much to be lost if we set our sights too low as we head into the next
– – –
Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman,
but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.
– Dorothy Sayers