How Google and the Internet Are Challenging Traditional Media

by on April 22, 2005 · 2 comments

[[cross-posted from the PFF Blog]]

There’s a crowd of people out there who still think that nothing has changed in our modern media world. They think that the same old newspapers, television, and radio outlets that dominated the media marketplace 30 years ago are still the only media outlets of importance today.

For example, Farhad Manjoo of Salon claims that “it’s hard to find anyone in the media world… who can furnish proof that new technologies are shaking the foundations beneath entrenched media giants. If anything, the Web and cable and satellite have expanded the reach of media conglomerates.” Using similar conspiratorial rhetoric, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps argues that “those who believe the Internet alone will save us from this fate should realize that the dominating Internet news sources are controlled by the same media giants who control radio, TV, newspapers, and cable.” And the ever-pessimistic Mark Cooper of the Consumers Federation of America has complained that “the Internet has not lived up to its hope or hype. It has become more of an extension of two dominant, 20th century communications media [television and telephony] than a revolutionary new 21st century technology.”

To these critics, left me just respectfully say, get a grip! Wake up and take a whiff of reality because the media world has already changed in amazing ways and the Internet and cyberspace ARE shaking the foundations of traditional media.


Need some proof? Well, turn to page A3 of today’s Wall Street Journal and read about how Google net income has increased nearly sixfold in the first quarter of 2005 on the strength of its advertising. “Its quarterly advertising revenue now outstrips the advertising revenue of most major newspaper publishers, including New York Times Co., Washington Post Co., Knight Ridder Inc., and Dow Jones & Co.,” notes the story.

But wait, you say, can we really consider Google a media outlet? Well, last February, Google reported that its collection of 6 billion items includes “4.28 billion web pages, 880 million images, 845 million Usenet messages, and a growing collection of book-related information pages.” And take a look at Google News and Google Scholar some time if you don’t think Google is a media provider. So, while some still speak of Google as a search engine provider, they are really a multimedia information provider and retreval service that is radically changing the way news and information get collected and distributed in our Digital Age.

OK, a critic might say, that’s just Google. Perhaps they are shaking the foundations of traditional media in some important ways, but that’s just because they are big and well-funded. Nonsense. It’s not just Google that is shaking up the media world, it’s the little guys too.

Consider the power of blogs in our society already. In May 2004, The New York Times profiled Brian Stelter, the author of the increasingly influential “Cablenewser.com” Web blog, which discusses cable news networks and issue coverage. The blog attracts about 3,500 readers daily including some top cable news executives and personalities who read or even comment on his posts. And then the Times article revealed the jaw-dropping fact that Mr. Stelter is an 18-year old-college student!

More impressively, in July 2004, The Wall Street Journal reported on the impact of the “Sentencing Law and Policy” Web blog operated by 35-year-old Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman. His judicial blog has grown so influential that it is now cited in congressional testimony and by federal judges in major decisions and speeches.

And in January of 2005, several news reports documented the impact of Nicholas Ciarelli’s “ThinkSecret.com,” an online magazine focused on breaking news about Apple Computer products. Ciarelli and his blog have come under frequent fire from Apple for breaking leaked news about new product development, and a lawsuit was eventually filed accusing him of illegally misappropriating trade secrets. Amazingly, Ciarelli, currently a 19-year old freshman studying at Harvard University, started the website when he was just 13 years old!

Keeping Stelter, Berman, and Ciarelli’s blogging impact in mind, we can recall Farhad Manjoo’s argument that “it’s hard to find anyone in the media world… who can furnish proof that new technologies are shaking the foundations beneath entrenched media giants.” Well, what would Mr. Manjoo say about Mr. Stelter, Mr. Berman, and Mr. Ciarelli? Likewise, what would Mr. Manjoo and other critics say about the role blogs played in exposing Dan Rather and CBS News’ reliance on questionable documents about President Bush’s military service record in a September 8th, 2004, report on 60 Minutes II? Rather’s report wasn’t even a few hours old before many Internet websites and independent Web blogs were buzzing with critical commentary. Soon, the trickle of online criticism turned into a flood, and everyone was debating the issue online, on the radio, on cable and satellite TV, in newspapers and magazines, and, eventually, even on CBS News itself. This controversy shows the remarkable effectiveness of media to police itself and, in particular, the ability of new media outlets–and the audience itself–to act as a check on the traditional media.

Consider, by contrast, how this incident might have played out 30 years ago when just three networks dominated television news and no cable, satellite, or online outlets were available. Newspaper and magazine journalists were the most reliable (and perhaps only) check on suspect reporting by TV news organizations at the time. But many errors were probably never caught. Today, thanks to the relentless march of new communications and media technologies, citizens have access to hundreds of other outlets and can, on occasion, even help break news themselves.

This is a truly remarkable development that many still fail to appreciate, but it has ushered in a veritable revolution in the way news is gathered, delivered and–as we see with the “Rathergate” controversy–reviewed and verified. It is unlikely that any other society has ever had such a diversity of checks and balances in place to guard against misrepresentation or misreporting of the facts. Indeed, what is most remarkable about the Rathergate controversy is its duration. Mr. Rather and CBS admitted their mistake just 11 days after the original report aired. Thirty years ago, it would likely have taken much longer for the facts to surface, if they did at all. Indeed, many were quick to label the episode “a media watershed” (from a Wall Street Journal editorial) that highlights the “de-massification of the media” (columnist James Pinkerton) and “the final collapse of network television’s dominance over the news.” (columnist Anne Applebaum).

As if you needed any more proof of just how wrong the critics are to claim that the Internet and new media have not changed anything, let me just leave you with a few stats:

* Scholars at the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California-Berkeley estimate that the World Wide Web contains about 170 terabytes of information on its surface; in volume this is 17 times the size of the Library of Congress print collections.

* The Internet Archive “Wayback Machine” (www.archive.org) offers 30 billion Web pages archived from 1996 to the present. It contains approximately 1 petabyte of data and is currently growing at a rate of 20 terabytes per month. The site notes, “This eclipses the amount of text contained in the world’s largest libraries, including the Library of Congress. If you tried to place the entire contents of the archive onto floppy disks… and laid them end to end, it would stretch from New York, past Los Angeles, and halfway to Hawaii.”

* Finally, one of the more amazing online collaborations is the “Wikipedia” open-content encyclopedia. Started in January 2001, the site allows anyone to freely access and alter any of the over 300,000 entries in multiple languages. Each entry contains dozens of hyperlinks to other Wikipedia entries for easy cross-reference. Essentially, Wikipedia is an organic, spontaneous information archive that owes it success to a bottom-up, user-driven model of data organization.

I could go on but you get the point. The media critics have zero appreciation for just how radically the world has changed in such a short period of time.

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[For more info on this issue, make sure to see Chapter 7 "New Technologies and the Future" in my new book Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership."]

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