The question occurred to me over lunch in the press lounge at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta. As hundreds of journalists dressed in everything from tie-dyed T-shirts to suits fed from the buffet trough, I wondered: Who is the press?
The question is not a particularly new one. A decade ago, when I was still a broadcast news reporter, there was debate over whether publications like the National Enquirer should be accorded the privileges of "real" journalists. There was even discussion about whether radio and TV broadcasters were legitimate news reporters or simply walking voices and hairstyles that knew how to hold a microphone.
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Increasingly, though, the question is not academic or limited to intermedia sniping. At E3 last month, there were more than 2,000 people (out of 41,000 total attendees) registered as media, all requiring phones, computers, attention, and food. That's a lot of overhead for anyone trying to court "the press." And thanks to technology developments of the past decade, when it comes to covering news stories, the press has become a crush.
New media—such as personal computers, desktop publishing software, and
the Internet—have made it possible for nearly anyone to become the news media. Indeed, it's inspired a new term used by a publicist at E3: "garage media." But the same technological advancements also make it increasingly difficult for news events to screen media attendance without relying on convoluted or time-consuming procedures.
At one time, the criteria for news media were simple: Present a business card, bylined article, or "letter of assignment" from your editor on the news outlet's letterhead. You were sanctioned and could wear the coveted "Press" card in your hat, even if you didn't have a head to put it on.
These days, simply spend a few hours with Microsoft FrontPage Express and sign up for a personal Web site with an Internet service provider or online service, and presto—you're a publisher! Need proof you're publishing regularly, like a newspaper or magazine? Post a few new articles on your home page each month. Need to show you're in it to make money? Set aside space for advertising banners and join LinkExchange or a similar service that trades exposure on your site for advertising on other sites. Need a professional-looking business card? Go to Kinko's. Have to wield a masthead with your name on it? Turn on a PC, surf to your Web site, and hit "Print."
And the Web is merely one way new media can equal news media. A good newsletter can exist only as e-mail, such as Mark Anderson's Strategic News Service (www.tapsns.com), Michael Tchong's Iconocast (www.iconocast.com), and Robert Seidman's Online Insider (www.onlineinsider.com). Engaging radio "broadcasts" don't require a tower or satellite, just RealAudio or a similar online player tuned to CNet Radio (www.news.com) or Imagine Radio (www.imagineradio.com).
Six years ago, in an essay titled "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Airwaves" (www.catalanoconsulting.com/dinosaurs.html), I speculated that the combination of cheap satellite time, inexpensive video cameras, early cellular telephones, and powerful personal computers tied to online bulletin boards on Prodigy and CompuServe would threaten the existing top-down media structure. The ultimate effect would be the Democratization of Information, after passing through a rather messy period of Information Chaos—which likely explains not only the difficulty that events like E3 are having in determining who is a "real" reporter, but also the Associated Press' premature burial of Bob Hope on its Web site and the rise and free-fall of online rumormongers like Matt Drudge.
Yet the essay appeared in Analog Science Fiction magazine—itself a pretty good indication of how realistic it was thought to be in mid-1992. Admittedly, the essay appeared before release of the first World Wide Web browser, a development that made it possible to quickly and broadly distribute what other advanced technologies had allowed to be quickly and cheaply gathered.
But the answer to the question "Who is the press?" may simply be "Whom do you believe?"
A news outlet isn't much of one if it doesn't have a constituency to flow to—whether that outlet is mass media, international, trade, or online. It's not the transmission medium that makes it news media, it's how much of an audience the outlet can attract and retain. Just as the little old lady who devotedly writes with a quill pen on parchment only to read the finished work to her cat is hardly a novelist, a new media publisher who only appeals to the reflection in the monitor isn't acting as a representative for, and informing, a larger public. That requires appealing to an audience that believes what the media outlet is telling it, even if the tale is not something everyone agrees with.
New media may make it easier for those who find it fashionable to be a reporter to mass-produce the professional-looking threads that used to be tailor-made for the likes of Edward R. Murrow. However, it's one thing to put on the outfit, and another to convince everyone who sees it that they can consistently count on, trust, and believe the clothes horse's ability to wear it properly.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for computer industry companies and the co-author of Marketing Online for Dummies, can be reached at email@example.com.
Related Links and information:
Strategic News Service
The Online Insider
"When Dinosaurs Ruled the Airwaves"