Reading websites and tea leaves

By Tony Burman

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997

Will there ever be a time when we simply "watch" or "listen" to the New York Times or the Globe and Mail? Or a time when some people will actually be unaware they began years ago as newspapers, and think of them only as websites?

And will there be a day in the future when some people only "read" the BBC — or the CBC, for that matter — and not be aware that they started off as radio and television broadcasters?

As incredible as this would have seemed even five years ago, the answer to these questions is likely "yes." And the implications are profound. They pose unique challenges both to our organizations and our audiences in this new, exciting and uncertain media world we are all entering.

More than ever, audiences are determining how the media will evolve. They want news, information and much of their media on their terms on a variety of platforms — whether TV, radio, newspapers, laptops, personal organizers, cellphones or iPods.

And they want a genuine two-way relationship with their content-providers that is more than simply sitting back and absorbing. As they navigate through this new waterfall of information and media, they want to respond, engage and create — to be contributors, not merely consumers.

In recent months, traditional media companies — newspapers, broadcasters, media conglomerates and the like — have moved significantly to try to keep pace.

A foreshadowing of this was evident in a remarkable speech last month in London by Rupert Murdoch, one of the world's most powerful media barons.

Speaking to a group called "The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers," the head of News Corporation said the rise of the internet and the digital future mean that he will be "the last of a dying breed."

"Power is moving away from the old elite in our industry — the editors, the chief executives and, let's face it, the proprietors. A new generation of media consumers has risen demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it and very much as they want it."

There was considerable media attention a few weeks ago when CBS News announced that Katie Couric would soon occupy the fabled anchor chair of its evening newscast. But at the same time, an arguably more important development that may have more influence on the shape of tomorrow's media was receiving far less attention.

Disney Corporation announced that some of its most popular programs will be streamed free of charge online. It was the latest example of traditional media companies trying to develop "new media" revenue streams by completely rewriting the rule book about commercial television.

Time Warner Inc., the world's biggest media company, has just announced it will allow its customers to watch replays of its cable TV shows for free the next day. NBC and CBS are also now allowing their programs to be downloaded.

Last month, CBS Sports caused a sensation by streaming live on the internet the annual U.S. college basketball tournament free of charge but with advertisements. The network even provided daytime viewers in offices across the country with a helpful "Boss Button," which allowed them to switch instantly to a fake spreadsheet if the occasion warranted.

Newspapers are also heavily involved in experiments involving their websites as well as video. For the first time, this week's list of Pulitzer Prizes in the United States included many entries that had important online elements to their submissions.

Nicholas Kristof, the brilliant New York Times columnist who has just won the Pulitzer for commentary partly because of his columns about Sudan, regularly contributes video reports to the newspaper's website, which is now a corporate priority. Overall, the Times says more people now read its website than its newspaper. And that is not a bad thing — as long as a company's business strategy remains viable and its "brand' achieves primacy.

In very real ways, CBC Radio, TV and online — most notably CBC News — have been involved in these types of initiatives on a variety of fronts. We're gradually becoming a world of audio, video and text — with bits and bytes being channelled and repurposed on different networks and platforms to serve a multitude of audiences. In news and current affairs, efforts in recent years to "integrate" our operations was done with this strategy in mind.

As in everything, there are risks. From the perspective of the organization, the plan has to work and quality needs to be maintained. The wine needs to be spread around, not watered down. With the world of media these days a moving target, it is difficult to predict the future — let alone plan for it — when so many variables are at play.

From the perspective of the audience, there are also risks. On the surface, it sounds pretty good. More choice, engagement, empowerment. Alleluia. How can life be better? But wait a minute.

There are warning bells. They were listed very clearly a few months ago in the annual report on American journalism titled "The State of the News Media." It concluded that the "new paradox of journalism" with all of today's budget pressures is "more outlets covering fewer stories ... with fewer staff."

And squaring that circle is a challenge that will confront us all.

Do you share Tony Burman’s view about the future of online news? Do you foresee a time when some people will be unaware of the origins of TV and radio stations and newspapers, and think of them only as websites?

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This column originally appeared in April 2006 as part of Tony Burman’s Letters from the Editor in Chief.

Tony Burman is Editor in Chief of CBC News – which includes news, current affairs and Newsworld. He is CBC's chief journalist, in charge of editorial content on radio, television and the internet. With more than 30 years' experience, he has produced many award-winning news and documentary programs for both CBC-TV and Radio. He has covered stories in more than 30 countries, including the Ethiopian Famine of 1984, the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.