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Free for All: The Internet's Transformation of Journalism

Free for All: The Internet's Transformation of Journalism

by Elliot King, Jeff Jarvis (Foreword by)

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In Free for All, longtime scholar of digital media Elliot King begins with a brief history of the technological development of news media from the appearance of newspapers in the sixteenth century to the rise of broadcasting and the Internet.

Within that context, King demystifies the emergence of online communication and social media as the third major


In Free for All, longtime scholar of digital media Elliot King begins with a brief history of the technological development of news media from the appearance of newspapers in the sixteenth century to the rise of broadcasting and the Internet.

Within that context, King demystifies the emergence of online communication and social media as the third major technological platform for news, making the current pace of change appear less vertiginous. Free for All provides anyone with an interest in the future of journalism the grounding necessary for an informed discussion.

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Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Medill Visions of the American Press
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

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By Elliot King

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2010 Elliot King
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2328-1

Chapter One


Nicholas Carr probably never met Neil Postman. In 2003, Carr wrote an influential article in the Harvard Business Review, which he later turned into a book, called IT Doesn't Matter. In the article, he contended that the use of information technology in business was following the same evolutionary arc as other infrastructure technologies like railroads and electric power. Carr argued that as those technologies were being built into the infrastructure of commerce, for a brief period of time, opportunities opened for progressive and forward-thinking companies to gain a competitive advantage. The first companies to "plug" into the electric grid or to use rail transportation, for example, could potentially gain an advantage over those that were slower to adapt.

But as these technologies become commonplace and their costs drop, they no longer offer companies competitive advantages. They become commodities and no longer matter from a strategic perspective. Along the same lines, in Carr's view, the first companies to network their computers may have enjoyed a competitive advantage over those that hadn't. But once all companies had networks installed, the networks in and of themselves no longer provided an edge.

In 1985, Neil Postman wrote an influential book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he argued that communication technology itself—the media—inexorably and definitively shapes and constrains the information that is exchanged between people. Certain information could not exist without the media to give expression to it. In essence, Postman claimed that rational, linear thought was inextricably intertwined with print technology. Sentences were linear constructions, with beginnings, middles, and ends, as was logical, rational thought. Print effectively archived knowledge, changing the definition of who was smart from people with experience to people who could read and remember. Finally, "the printed page revealed the world, line by line, page by page, to be a serious, coherent place, capable of management by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant criticism."

Television, Postman argued, was an altogether different matter. Nonlinear and based on the image rather than the word, the highest value electronic media held was not in educating the audience but amusing it. No matter how serious the issue, the first and dominant value of television production was to keep the audience amused. As opposed to a serious, coherent world capable of improvement, television, because of the demands of the technology itself, presents the world as fragmented, without context, without value, and essentially not serious. As television technology became ubiquitous, far from becoming invisible, it extended its domination over the ways we see the world. Postman's argument was bold and far reaching: print technology enabled rational thought and democratic self governance. Television technology did not.

Though both Carr and Postman were seemingly trying to understand the same issue—how new ways to disseminate information have an impact on society—their arguments are independent of each other. Carr was talking about the use of information technology, basically computers, in a business setting. He was reflecting primarily on the growth of the personal computer, accessible databases in which information could be stored and reused by many applications, computer networks, and all the high technology that has shaped the way we live over the past twenty-five years. Postman was writing before the use of personal computing became widespread. He was reflecting on television not within the context of the development of information technology but within the context of the development of communication. Societies experienced profound shifts when they moved from oral cultures to written cultures. The world was fundamentally changed again with the introduction of the printing press and mass communication. Broadcasting represented another revolution in communication, and one that was not for the better in Postman's estimation. At the bottom line, Carr was assessing the impact of the new computer infrastructure, particularly on commerce; Postman was assessing the impact of television, particularly on social life.

In many ways, online journalism reflects the nexus of each of the developmental paths Carr and Postman described. The desire to know the news seems to be an intrinsic part of human nature. As far back as the Greeks and before, people communicated the events of the day both orally and through other media ranging from letters to obelisks. Over time, however, three great technology platforms for the dissemination of news have emerged. The first to come was printing, which made the mass distribution of news possible. The second was broadcasting, which made news more readily available to large audiences more quickly and in a dramatically different format. The third great platform for the distribution of news is emerging now with the Internet and the different technologies for the production and consumption of information and content that the Internet supports.

Of course, the emergence of online journalism is no longer news. It has been the subject of study for at least the past fifteen years. Studies have explored early efforts of news organizations to move online. The way that news organizations have tried to employ the new possibilities offered by computer-based communication such as interactivity and the potential to build community has been assessed. There have been a raft of academic studies examining the credibility of online news; the relationship of online news to agenda setting and the diffusion of information; the legal issues involved in online news; and, initially, simply tracking the spread of online news efforts. And there have been serious attempts to place the emergence of online news within an appropriate theoretical context.

One of the more interesting aspects of online journalism is that computer-based communications served not only as a platform for disseminating the news but provided a host of new tools for reporting the news. Starting with The Online Journalist, several books explored how the Internet can assist reporters. This book takes a different approach. The premise here is that understanding the emergence of online journalism requires an understanding of the online world in general. Along the lines of Postman, it argues that the kind of journalism that is practiced online is deeply shaped by both the technology and the culture associated with the development of the Internet. Therefore, it tells two parallel tales—the development of the computer-based communication networks culminating with the beginnings of collaborative computer-based social media and what has been called Web 2.0, and the efforts of news media and others to take advantage of those technologies for the dissemination of the news.

These two tales are told in this way. Chapter Two very broadly examines the relationship of the technological development of journalism starting with the emergence of newspapers in the 1500s through the ascendency of cable television in the early 1990s. It suggests that the characteristics of specific technologies themselves play pivotal roles in who produces and consumes news; the kind of content that is considered news and how it is presented; and the social, political, and legal framework that shapes the news. Chapter Three traces the development of computer technology from its beginning as a military technology and the first attempts to provide news and information via computer networks. While computers were not conceived of as communication devices, almost from their inception, visionary thinkers like Vannevar Bush saw the opportunity to use computing technology to capture the world's knowledge and to make it more readily available to everybody. This chapter reflects on the first attempts of news media to exploit the potential of computer networks to disseminate the news through the successful launch of the videotex network Minitel in France and the unsuccessful experiment with videotex in the United States. It also relates efforts to provide news through commercial online services like CompuServe and Prodigy.

Chapter Four sketches the creation of the Internet and its first uses as a mechanism to distribute information. While vibrant communities like Usenet news groups and LISTSERV email groups emerged, the traditional news companies were not yet deeply involved with the Internet. They had been scarred by their experience with videotex and cautious about the possibility of commercial online services. For much of this time, the Internet itself was not yet open for commercial use. Nevertheless, the culture that developed around the Internet at this point would influence the development of online journalism in the future. In addition, in this period the Internet became a common tool for reporters, exercising an influence on reporting.

Chapter Five traces the emergence of the World Wide Web both as a technology and as a platform for news. The rush for news organizations to get on the Web did not happen in a vacuum. The Web beckoned everybody from the largest companies in the world to teenagers who created personal Web pages. While the Web clearly presented a great opportunity as a news medium, for established companies it also presented many threats and posed many barriers to entry of specific concern to news organizations. In fact, during the 1990s it looked as though unencumbered start-up companies would have a significant advantage over established companies that had long operated under radically different cost structures. Despite the threat to their established economic and newsgathering models, however, news media had no choice but to invest in building Web sites. The online world was attracting new participants at an exponential rate. If the established organizations did not offer the news online, other organizations would.

The World Wide Web, however, was just the first compelling broad-based platform for news on the Internet. In the late 1990s, another technology emerged that had an important influence on practice of journalism online. In Chapter Six, the rise and impact of blogging is traced. Blogging deeply embodies many cultural elements and ideological perspectives drawn directly from the open source computing community, including the idea that a community of producers will develop a better product than a top-down organization. It also reflects a deep-seated notion in the open source computing community that, at a fundamental level, information should be free, at least free to be changed and altered by anyone whose information might be of better quality. As important, the technologies that enabled blogging were developed as open source products and were free for anyone to use.

Blogging represents one of the first applications in what has been called Web 2.0. Web 2.0 technologies shift the emphasis of the Web from easing access to static information to easing the ability to share user-generated content and collaborate in creating content. Once again, these technologies offer both opportunities for, and threats to, journalism.

The final chapter explores some of the emerging network technologies being deployed on behalf of journalism. It also reflects on the questions first explored for print and broadcast technologies in Chapter Two: What has been the impact of online journalism on who produces and consumes news? What content is considered news? And what is the social, political, and economic context for the production of news?

In trying to determine how the journalistic value of objectivity emerged over time, Michael Schudson argued that understanding the technological changes could not provide a sufficient answer. If so, in a way, Nicholas Carr was correct. When the underlying technologies that allowed for the production of the modern newspaper were in place in the 1890s, all newspapers began to look the same. The New York Times did not ultimately gain a competitive advantage over the New York Herald Tribune because the Times could print a banner headline or seven columns instead of six. And when all the technologies that enabled the modern television news broadcast were in place by the late 1980s, CBS could not claim a competitive advantage over NBC, for example, because it could transmit its broadcast via satellite or because it used videotape.

But, in a way, Neil Postman is correct. The form of the newspaper itself does provide a framework for what is reported, how it is reported, by whom it is read, and the expectations of the readers. The presentation of news on television is different than the presentation of news in the newspapers, because the technology of television is different than the technology of newspapers. Those differences are important.

The technologies associated with online journalism are still in the process of being developed. Therefore news media that appropriately incorporate them can, for a time, enjoy a competitive advantage over established news organizations as well as new initiatives that do not discover the right formula. But once these emerging technologies become established, the technology itself will shape the reporting and presentation of the news online. So, while understanding the technological developments that provide the foundation for computer-based communication networks may not tell the whole story, understanding those changes tell an important part of the story and is absolutely necessary for understanding the transformation of the journalism being driven by the Internet.

Chapter Two


In November 1951, CBS launched a new television program called See It Now, produced by Edward R. Murrow and his partner and colleague Fred Friendly. Murrow was already famous for his radio broadcasts from London during World War II, and in many ways, See It Now was intended to compete with, or perhaps replace, the March of Time newsreels that appeared in movie theaters prior to the main feature films. The March of Time differed from other newsreel operations in that it did not focus on headline news, celebrity events, or sports, the most common newsreel content. Instead, The March of Time tried to bring to light the deeper issues underlying the news of the day. The producers of The March of Time saw themselves more as documentary filmmakers than newsreel producers.

See It Now would carry on that tradition in the new medium of television, building on Murrow and Friendly's experience with I Can Hear It Now, a series of audio recordings Murrow and Friendly produced that combined historical events and speeches with narration by Murrow. I Can Hear It Now was such a commercial success that CBS adapted it as a radio series called Hear It Now, combining sound from events with narration from Murrow and other experts.

Murrow and Friendly were cautious in their first telecast. At a cost of three thousand dollars, they rented a video line from San Francisco for the broadcast. Using a split screen, they showed first the Brooklyn Bridge and then the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco standing side by side. Murrow narrated the scene. Despite the mundane images—it was a broadcast of two bridges, after all—Murrow's amazement was palpable. He marveled that through the wonders of television, the image could instantly switch from San Francisco to Brooklyn and back again. It was the first live coast-to-coast transmission. The debut of See It Now demonstrated to Murrow the potential of television as a news medium. "There are new and great possibilities in TV," he said at the time of the broadcast.

See It Now did not mark the debut of television as a news medium. In 1946, CBS had begun airing the CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards on Saturday nights in New York City. It also aired news broadcasts on Thursday and Friday nights. And in August 1948, four television networks with a total of eighteen television stations broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions to nine cities along the East Coast connected by a coaxial cable. The broadcast from the Republican National Convention contained the first live press conference, when Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York who ultimately claimed the Republican nomination, took questions from reporters.

The networks decided to cover the conventions not because they believed that television was an important news medium but because it was less expensive to cover the conventions than to fill the air time with entertainment programming. In fact, at that point, many of the most prominent radio journalists of the era, including Edward R. Murrow, stayed as far away from television as possible. Much of the material that NBC broadcast was actually produced by reporters from Life magazine, a major advertiser. Nevertheless, the convention represented the first live broadcast of a major news event.


Excerpted from FREE FOR ALL by Elliot King Copyright © 2010 by Elliot King. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Elliot King, a veteran technology reporter, has been on the cutting edge of communication technology since he opened his first e-mail account in 1984. He is professor of communication at Loyola University in Maryland, founder of his school’s digital media lab, coauthor of The Online Journalist (2000), and special editor of three volumes of the Electronic Journal of Communication about journalism and the Internet.

Jeff Jarvis is an associate professor and the director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's new Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of What Would Google Do? (2009) and blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com.

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