Essay: Internet Killed the Newspaper Baron

I grew up with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the local Journal News in my driveway every morning. Between recycling pickups, the stack of newsprint would be several feet high. Finding something you read a day or two earlier meant shuffling through pounds of paper. Reading the Sunday funnies meant sprawling on the carpet with the colorful pages before you. Doing the crossword meant carefully ripping the puzzle out. The unique tactility, the sectioned physicality, and the auricular malleability made for one of the most satisfying user interfaces possible.

I want a paradigm shift in user interface, and I want it to center on participatory multimedia news. The early applications of multi-touch, through Microsoft’s (MSFT) Surface and Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone, do not seem focused on news. Pro-am journalism and citizen journalism, two distinct ideas, are meanwhile growing quickly due to the enfranchisement of richer media technologies. How will the Fourth Estate move from Gutenberg to Google?

Al Gore, enviro-champion and Current TV cofounder, laments this void in his book The Assault On Reason.

“As exciting as the Internet is, it still — for the time being — lacks the single most powerful characteristic of the television medium; because of its architecture and design it does not support the real-time mass distribution of full motion-video.”

Only a few months after the book’s publication, the former VP was addressing the world in “real-time mass distribution of full motion-video” in holographic form at his Live Earth Concert.

So how has video on the Internet changed journalism and news consumption? According to a recent report from The Pew Research Center, it appears that “the Internet news audience” is quite skeptical and dissatisfied with the news it’s getting, more so than those who get their news from print or network or cable TV. Looking at, for example, the video presence on NYTimes.com, I would say I am dissatisfied.

The Gray Lady has made some great improvements as it moves online. The Times Reader can be a real pleasure to browse, flit, and scroll through. Some of the video is distinctly nuanced, such as with its dichotomous wedding announcements and autobiographical obituaries. The videos do also provide an outlet for much of the photojournalism that would otherwise never be seen. However, much of The Times’s video feels wooden and dissimilar to the deft wordsmiths found in the paper.

My editor, Liz Gannes, recently described the musically inclined videos of the paper’s technology columnist David Pogue as “charming in a Sesame Street kind of way.” While I love “Sesame Street” and I am amused by Mr. Pogue’s self-deprecation, I do not turn to The New York Times for Muppetesque news reporting.

As Internet video news comes of age with original work like Kevin Sites’s Hot Zone and Ze Frank’s The Show, new possibilities arise. However, we need to be careful that we don’t use a video-enhanced Internet to amuse ourselves to death. Active media participation, not consumption, will yield a better informed citizen producer-consumer. So where is YouTube’s Edward Murrow?

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