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What has been the impact of the Internet on global news services?

This essay will outline the history of the Internet and news services available on the net, along with its positive aspects and pitfalls. It will then compare the medium of Internet news to that of other global news services, before discussing how the two affect one another. In the conclusion, this essay will try to ascertain what the future of Internet news is, and - as a corollary - what the place of other news media will be as Internet news becomes more popular.  

The Internet

The Internet - along with so many other technological advances - has its roots in the military world, and was born in its first incarnation in the mid-70s, inspired by an idea developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early 1960s. In 1972, the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) completed research on a project which was designed to interconnect computer networks (hence, Inter-net - later called "Internet"). Because all of these networks were of different types and classifications - most of which were unable to communicate with each other - two new technologies were developed: The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which described how information could be requested and received, and the Internet Protocol (IP), which described how information could be encoded en route between the different incompatible networks. TCP/IP are today - roughly 30 years later - the most-used protocols for transferring information from one computer to another. (ISOC 2002)

The basic technology needed for the Internet to function was available by the early 1980s, and by the mid-1980s, about a hundred different internets were in function: Networks linking universities, networks linking the military, and networks linking various large businesses together. None of this had much impact on the world of global news, however (although it arguably became easier to file copy from regional offices, when computer systems were introduced into the news production process): not only was the general public blissfully unaware of this whole Internet-thing, but most people had never even used a computer and far less owned one themselves. (Leiner 2003)

As technology evolved, computers stopped being full-room installations, and the microcomputer was born. These machines are today known as a Personal Computer - or just "a computer". From 1994 onwards, the technology exploded, and within 10 years, "everybody in the civilized world" had access to the Internet - usually in the form of the World Wide Web and e-mail. (ISOC 2002 & Zakon 2004)

Internet News: A revolution

When businesses and private people started using the Internet at home, many national and some regional newspapers and other news providers (such as television- and radio news channels) realised there was a potential to reach users with the news at the reader's leisure - a concept largely unheard of outside the murky worlds of Teletext (which has significant limitations of its own - especially the amount of text that can be fitted on a page).

Initially, news providers merely offered a copy of some of their news stories on their web sites. A major newspaper, for example, could offer the full (or partial) content of some of their news stories, in the hope that readers would go out and buy the hard copy.

When the Internet really started catching on, in tandem with the economic boom of the late 1990s, the seemingly endless optimism around the dot-com businesses and the fact that many people wanted to find out what the Internet was all about, the internet news started developing into an entity of itself. Many internet news services had before merely copied the news from the main news provider (radio stories, newspaper articles etc), or perhaps even updated them now and again, if new facts become available. The majority of internet news services got their own newsdesks with separate editors and agendas - some desks (such as the Norwegian VG Nett) even had completely different content, and would write up news stories about computer technology that would never - and have never - be printed in the paper edition of Verdens Gang (VG).

The advantages of Internet news sites are significant, in that they offer a completely new way of thinking. Teletext was mentioned earlier, and is probably the closest relative to Internet news: the reader enters a front page, goes to look at subsections, and can then choose a news story to read. The problem with Teletext is that it is not truly on-demand: the entire contents of teletext are transmitted continually, and when a user tunes in to a particular page, the television set has to wait until that particular page is transmitted, before showing it on-screen. In effect, Teletext is a one-way communication stream, and the more pages there are on a teletext channel, the slower it all works, with all the obvious disadvantages - such as the max length of articles being about three to four paragraphs - added on top. This means that while Teletext is the Internet news' closest cousin, it is more a competitor to radio newscasts, in that it only delivers the headlines and bare-bone essentials of news stories.

The Internet differs in the sense that the experience is far more interactive: When a user goes to a page, the internet browser requests a particular page, and the web server will return the page to the user's computer for viewing. If the user clicks a link, the process is repeated. Furthermore, there are no technical limitations to how long a news story can be: It is possible to read anything from a 20-word headline story detailing the main points of breaking news, to a 70,000-word doctorate thesis on-line. Combining this with the facts that the Internet is always available, it is easy to imagine how Internet news has had an impact on the production of global news.

The place of Internet News services

Traditionally, a socially aware citizen who is interested in the news would watch the evening news on Television, perhaps listen to a few news broadcasts on radio, and pick up a newspaper the following day. The radio provides the main headlines and some detail. Television news has a different impact in that it adds the visual aspect of news stories, but its longer transmission times (usually 30 to 60 minutes, as opposed to the typical 3 to 7 minutes of a radio news broadcast) also allow for more in-depth reporting.

Newspapers are another matter altogether: they usually have at least 6 hours delay between the content being created and the finished product appearing in newsagents'. This means that the strength of the newspaper is not that they break news stories (not the major news events, anyway), but that they exploit the strengths of the particular format - the ability to go in depth. If a television news package fails to grab a viewer's attention, at least the viewer has the option of switching over, or waiting for the next package. In a newspaper, this process is even simpler, and does not even require waiting: The reader just thumbs to the next page. Because of this, newspapers have the option of printing some more obscure news stories that may only affect or interest a minority of its readers.

The Internet is very much like the newspaper format in several respects: News stories can be long and in depth and obscure stories can appear without annoying too many readers: They just won't click the link to read the story. What is very different for Internet news, is that there is no 6-hour lead time - when a news story is deemed publishable, it is a matter of seconds before it is available to the public.

It would appear, therefore, that Internet news has all the advantages of newspapers, and most of the advantages of radio and television: The internet media is able to break stories quickly, but it is also able to offer the in-depth coverage and analysis that we have grown accustomed to in the print press.

While the theoretical disadvantages of the Internet as a medium for news propagation are minimal, the practical disadvantages are more significant: Despite it being possible for the internet media to deliver in-depth coverage, as a general rule, this possibility is not being exploited - certainly not by the mainstream media. Large newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent publish many of their large investigative journalism articles on the web, but often with a delay, and it could be argued that this is merely recycling of already existing material, rather than the creation of original Internet material.

Most Internet-specific news-desks concentrate on the same things that radio does: Find the news fast, knock out a quick article, get it 'on the air', and get onto the next news story. This process is interesting, as the competition to break new news stories can be extremely hard, but some media experts claim that the hunt for hard, cutting-edge news is effectively wasting the potential of internet news: The internet is an active medium, and the readers have to actively make a choice to come to a web site in order to read the news. Because of this, whichever media organisation gets to a certain story first is irrelevant, as readers come on-line to access the news in a random fashion. This is unlike other media, such as the radio, which interrupts the regular programming every hour or every second hour, effectively "forcing" itself on the listener. The exception in the case of the Internet news, is if something extraordinary happens, and a lot of people suddenly want information about something. The obvious example was in the morning (British time) of the 11 th of September 2001 - from the first hi-jacked plane hitting the World Trade Centre in New York, it only took 15 minutes before web traffic was up by 400% at VG Nett. Within an hour, the Internet was grinding to a halt, as millions upon millions of people tried to get to the news servers of Sky, BBC, CNN and other large news providers. This proves that the Internet works as intended: The public finds out about an item of news through another medium (radio, TV or - as the case may be with something like 11/9/2001 - word-of-mouth), and then logs on to the Internet to get the full picture of the situation.

Of course, there are honourable exceptions to the criticism of churning out news - most famously the case of president Clinton, Lewinsky and the cigar: The story was known in various news media for a while - in fact, Newsweek were planning to run the story, but then withdrew it for whatever reason - possibly because they feared the repercussions from the white house, or because they had second thoughts about the veracity of the news story. A young man in his New York apartment came across the story from one of his friends, did some further research, and then published the story on his web site. The young man was Matt Drudge, and the web site was his Drudge Report. Within hours, the story had been read by hundreds of thousands of readers, and when the story was broken, the US nationals dived on as well, which resulted in the media frenzy and near impeachment of president Clinton. (Wikipedia 2004)

The Drudge report's publication of the Clinton / Lewinsky story proved that there could be a market for independent media, and a multitude of new news outlets were started as a result - including the fully independent and voluntarily run Indymedia: "Triggered by discontent with the mainstream media and supported by the widespread availability of media technologies, groups all over the world are creating their own channels of information and distribution in order to bypass the (mainstream) corporate media." (Indymedia 2002)

The Internet versus the Media Conglomerates

In the past 15-20 years - predominantly in the past 10 years - media organisations have started merging, buying each other up, and becoming massive news- and media production factories with a relatively concentrated ownership. The obvious examples are AOL Time Warner, Viacom, News Corporation and Disney - these four companies together own a significant section of the American media. (Shah 2004)

The media owners are not only involved in the media, however. One example is NBC, whose coverage of wars in general - and the most recent campaigns to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussain in particular - has a notably up-beat ring to it. Interspersed with the news coverage, many of the NBC television channels have features about how "smart weapons" work, and about how great the technological advances in wartime machinery are. Incidentally, NBC (all 28 of its channels, plus a score of radio content providers) is owned by General Electrics (JCR 2004), who also happen to be one of the largest weapons manufacturers in the world. As one media expert pointed out: The footage from NBC's Iraq war coverage is actually being used as advertisements during weapons fairs and conferences. (Brækhus 2002)

While the ownership of media conglomerates is transparent, it is difficult to ascertain to what degree the owners influence the editorial content of the news channels. The fact that the connection is there , however, makes many people nervous, and has led them to stop trusting the news at face value. (Shah 2004) Some of these people have started considering (and in some cases, actually implementing) alternative sources of news. However, setting up a television channel demands massive amounts of money (the transmission licence for Channel 5 (now known as five) in the UK alone cost £20 million) - the same goes for a radio channel. A regional or national channel is difficult enough: setting up a global television or radio channel is nigh on impossible without significant economical backing. (Wiseman 2002)

What if there was a medium where someone could set up their own global news service for next to no money? Enter the golden age of the Internet: Anybody who has some technical skills (which is easy enough to learn), a computer connected to the Internet (not the biggest expense in the world), and the interest to do so, could run their own news service. In fact, with the popularity of keeping Web logs ("Blogging"), many people do exactly that. This means that unmediated thought - the exact key phrase describing what is feared to be suppressed by the media conglomerates - has once again made its way into the public sphere, at least if you know where to look for it, namely on the World Wide Web.

Conclusion

This essay has shown that the Internet has an incredible potential for the distribution of news. Its speed and expandability mean it could be a direct competitor both to the radio and newspaper media. Despite all of these latent possibilities inherent in the distribution technology, with the current funding schemes (i.e advertising, primarily), today's Internet news media fails to realise its full capability - presumably to the great relief of the media conglomerates: If the internet news media managed to take a two-pronged approach of speed and comprehensive content, the global television and press may well find themselves threatened.

It is difficult to predict how the news media is going to develop further, but it is probably safe to conclude that the development is tightly connected to the progress of the Internet technologies themselves. Around 2012, it is expected that the fourth generation (G4) of mobile telephony will launch - giving data transmission rates of around 100 mbit from anywhere in the G4 area: currently, broadband connections are between 0.5 mbit - 2 mbit. Obviously, 100 mbit network wirelessly over the mobile network would greatly improve the accessibility of news media. Another type of development we have been seeing, but not experiencing much as of yet, is cross-platform internet: We already have access to the internet on mobile phones (WAP and e-mail) and in some expensive cars, but it is safe to assume that we will soon have internet capabilities on just about any electronic device we can possibly imagine. When this happens, it seems fair to assume that more people will start using the Internet to consume their daily news.

This also means that the biggest shifts of power and news media influence are yet to happen: Unless the media conglomerates manage to keep their current appeal, they may well find their readers and viewers seeking out the likes of Matt Drudge - not because he is more neutral than the conglomerates, but because his bias is the opposite of theirs.

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Bibliography

Brækhus, K (2002) Wartime Journalism: The Construction of Images http://www.peace2.uit.no/hefp/labyrinth_newspaper/labyrinth_1_12.html

Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) (2004) Who owns What - media ownership database. http://www.cjr.org/tools/owners/

ISOC (2002) A Brief History of the Internet and Related Networks
http://www.isoc.org/internet/history/cerf.shtml

Leiner et al (2003) A Brief History of the Internet
http://www.isoc.org/internet/history/brief.shtml

Shah, A (2004) Media Conglomerates, Mergers, Concentration of Ownership  
http://www.globalissues.org/HumanRights/Media/Corporations/Owners.asp

Wikipedia (2004) The Lewinsky Scandal.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewinsky_scandal

Wiseman, A (2002) The History of Channel 5
http://625.uk.com/channel5/

Zakon (2004 ) Hobbes Internet Timeline
http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/

Indymedia (2002) Indymedia UK: About us http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/static/about_us.html

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