Amid the many useful findings in "The State of the News Media 2004" - a just-released media wonk's dream from the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) - is a 39-page reminder of precisely how far the internet has to go in terms of becoming a vital news medium in and of itself.
More than a decade since it began to grow rapidly in terms of availability and popularity to become a major part of how Americans consume their news, the internet still looks like little more than a bullhorn for old media, a way for CNN and The New York Times and Fox to disseminate their coverage to a larger audience. With its breakdown of who's looking at what sites, the PEJ study puts this into perspective. Two of the four most popular sites are extensions of television brands, and the other two are the portals AOL and Yahoo, familiar names from dot-com days but nothing more than receptacles for wire stories. The top 12 is rounded out by newspaper and TV websites.
What's striking is how little of a dent websites have made on the news that Americans get. For all the talk about the rise of blogs and high-quality content sites like Slate and Salon, Americans are using the web the way that they've used newspapers for decades, for text-based narratives gleaned from no-less traditional sources than the Associated Press, Reuters or Dow Jones.
The PEJ study shows how the internet is lagging in improving the way we consume news, even as it makes so many other parts of life easier, better, or quicker. From online bill-paying to travel reservation websites, the internet has made many other daily chores less painful or time-consuming. As far as journalism goes, the most I can say is that it makes consuming a lot of media from disparate places much, much easier.
But where does being able to read 10 or 20 papers a day get me if their news-gathering approach and presentation merely echo each other? The promise of the internet was its potential to get us out of the either/or situation of dry, text-only accounts of breaking news and issues on one hand and vapid, surface-level television reports on the other. With the internet, we could envision rich, multi-media accounts of the events of the day, thick with context and presented with an eye toward offering a variety of ways of looking at a single topic.
To be sure, some websites have succeeded in carving out lasting niches for themselves, the Smoking Gun being just one rather popular example. But by and large, the internet remains unexploited territory as far as news media innovators go, even as buzz about a tech renaissance grows. This is sure to change as broadband connections become more and more common and entrepreneurs figure out ways to make money off of online content. In the meantime, it's hard not to be frustrated by how much the dot-com flameout stunted the growth and development of online journalism.