The last five years in the news business have at times seemed like a hallucination. For the first and probably last time in history, billions of dollars were placed in the hands of journalists, including some of the profession's noblest and most quixotic dreamers. Overnight, the ruthlessly conformist media hierarchy was turned upside down, and suddenly it was the oddballs, the soreheads and the unusually talented who woke up to find themselves empowered and affluent, and writing themselves job descriptions that were a dream come true. With the invention of the Internet, unhappy writers and editors all over America were handed the opportunity of a lifetime: to create a whole new journalism and replace the mind-numbing mix of "infotainment" and fatheaded moralizing that the mainstream news product had become.
No longer would the old adage that the power of the press belongs to the man who owns one hold true. With the Internet, anyone could be a publisher.
Click onto any of the Web's major (or minor) news sites today and you'll see the results: Journalism on the Web is a rich layer cake of strongly written content, fast-breaking news, fresh analysis, interactives, hyperlinks, community access and multimedia add-ons that include video streaming, graphic simulations and user-directed virtual tours of everything from yesterday's Republican convention to tomorrow's space station prototype. It's global in scope and available to you anytime you want it. And millions of Americans do want it.
Yet the funny thing is: It has no future.
To understand why quality Web journalism won't be a survivor in the Internet industry, it's helpful to look at what happened to America's news industry when television arrived in the 1950s. Within a generation, most metropolitan newspapers folded, and most national magazines disappeared from America's homes. Entertaining television siphoned off too much of their advertising - and in America, advertising is what pays for the news.
Television became the nation's main provider of news, as the Federal Communication Commission made public-interest programming a requirement for holding a broadcast license. Print journalists facing extinction who jumped to TV had a soft landing: Ad revenues from the network's entertainment underwrote the costs of producing quality TV news, even such unpopular budget breakers as full coverage of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and Watergate.
Once cable television gave America an unregulated alternative, and the three networks watched their early-evening ad revenues slip, the networks demanded to be freed of regulation, and Ronald Reagan obliged. TV entertainment divisions are no longer commanded to subsidize news programming. It's been the news division's willingness to do lucrative infotainment shows and lighten up the news that keeps them alive. It's become the job of public broadcasting, subsidized by users and taxpayers, to thoroughly cover the national news.
The motivating belief of Web journalists has been that they wouldn't need to satisfy the mass market to be a commercial success. Their plan has been to cherry-pick a dispersed but sizable audience of underserviced intellectuals who are actively looking for content "outside the box." Such a curious and well-educated audience, it was predicted, would either pay a modest subscription rate or would be irresistible to advertisers. Assuming Internet production and distribution costs would be nothing compared to those incurred by old media, news Web sites invested in experienced journalists and confidently began marketing their new "brand."
But the over-40 editorial staff soon discovered it took an army of Web technicians to get news onto the Internet. The skilled technicians were young, but they were scarce, making them costly to hire and keep. And Internet publishers hadn't anticipated the costs of scaling up bandwidth to keep sites from crashing when dramatic news broke and millions logged on. Keeping those precious new eyeballs meant hiring more staff to produce more news on evermore frequent deadlines. To stay competitive, Web news sites must be "refreshed" several times an hour, 24 by 7, mindful of all four time zones.
Even if Web journalism were less labor-intensive and cheaper to produce, the recent history of quality journalism offers little reason to believe that once Web magazines such as Salon or Slate had established a national brand name, they'd survive on subscriptions or ads.
The topical, glossy and often saucy journals on which Salon and Slate were modeled - Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, The New Republic and The New Yorker - are the longest established brand names in American publishing, but even they'd have disappeared years ago were it not for the largesse of some very loving sugar daddies - Rick MacArthur, Si Newhouse, Marty Peretz and Mort Zuckerman, respectively.
Perhaps Bill Gates will develop such a lasting fondness for Slate, but more likely he's looking to pull the plug at the least personally embarrassing (and least contractually painful) moment. As for Slate's competitor, Salon, the future looks more desperate. The award-winning, community-oriented Web magazine announced last year that it would produce a television show, in conjunction with Bravo, by the end of 2000. By the middle of this year, the site had drastically redesigned itself and fired stellar staff, sending a strong signal to nervous investors that Salon was no longer wedded to its original literary concept.
No one seems to know if the dream of morphing computers into television sets will become reality. But news Web sites are already under pressure to prove they are developing a product that is more like television. For MSNBC.com and other TV-linked news sites, total absorption by TV has always been the end game. No doubt digital technology will someday enable TV watchers to "click through" to files that supplement a 90-second news story and can be conveniently read from six feet away. It seems more sensible for TV news Web sites to forge alliances with major newspapers if they want deeper content.
But interactive television is increasingly seen as the oxymoron it always was. The overwhelming power of television is precisely that it requires no action on the part of the viewer. Simply put: It is a perfect delivery system for advertising.
Likewise, the portable newspaper that arrives on your doorstep - fat with coupons and sales flyers - still looks to retailers like a more reasonable bet for getting your attention than the vast depths of cyberspace. The torrent of money that newspapers are spending to have a presence on the Web out of fear of looking like old media is likely to be the first money saved once TV swallows new-media journalism. Today's newspapers will survive by sticking to what they already do best.
As the smoke from Web journalism's intense burn rate clears, it's becoming easier to see that the job of being journalism's flame keeper still falls to print newspapers, with their solid foundation of local advertising, and to those few remaining national news outlets that are subsidized. Original, quality journalism on the Web simply falls between the cracks: It's too general in content and its audience too dispersed to attract the local or niche advertiser, yet it's too elitist and too complicated for users to access to attract the national advertiser.
Chased by a futuristic daydream on one side and driven by the traditional economics of the news business on the other, Web journalism is racing to become exactly what it ran away from: televised infotainment. If the infrastructure is put in place to deliver broadcast-quality imagery instantaneously over the Internet, the road ahead for journalists will turn out to be a circular driveway, taking us back to where we started.