Wednesday, June 25, 2008

News-oriented websites not yet ready to be our primary source for news, information

The thought that Internet-based sites will replace newspapers as a primary source of news and information would not scare me so much if these sites were producing content that was worth reading.

Yet all too often, the sites that like to think they are creating a media revolution are doing little more than recycling the same stuff that any worthwhile newspaper is offering. For those people who think the Internet is superior because they can include snippets of related video, all I have to say is that anyone with a brain knows a good still photograph taken at the “moment of impact” will more dramatically tell a story than any video clip.

SO WHILE I am curious to see the project being undertaken by Arianna Huffington, the socialite who likes to think she’s the queen of Internet news, I am not expecting to see the “future” of Chicago newsgathering.

Specifically, Huffington is the politically oriented pundit who constantly turns up on television to pontificate about everything who three years ago started up her own website, the Huffington Post, as a way of creating and distributing half-intelligent features and commentary about the news.

Now, she wants to start creating sites oriented toward local markets across the United States, and she plans to start with the Second City. She has hopes of having a Chicago version of her website up and running before the August date on which Barack Obama (our hometown U.S. senator) formally receives the Democratic party’s nomination for president.

In theory, this means more competition on an already clogged Internet landscape, although the prospect of yet another Chicago-oriented site commenting on the news doesn’t scare me so much. Very few of these sites generate much in the way of content – other than telling me why they think the Chicago Tribune “stinks.”

I HAVE MY own reasons for believing that (and for realizing that the Tribune at times also does some of the finest work in journalism today). I don’t need some Internet geek to reinforce it.

Doing a local news report of any substance is a labor-intensive operation. It takes people actually doing the legwork to root around the much of facts and figure out which are of any substance and worthy of being written up into stories. There are times I realize how much better this weblog’s offerings would be if more were done in the way of reporting.

Which stories then deserve further analysis or commentary is another skill that takes time to acquire as one learns the intricacies of the Chicago market (I’m not saying only a native Chicagoan can learn, but it takes someone who is willing to become a Chicagoan “in spirit” to truly accomplish this).

From what I hear, the Chicago version of the Huffington Post (I’m not sure exactly what she plans to name the new site) is not going to be generating much in the way of copy. It plans to follow the business plan of many websites – scour through existing news and information and collect them in one place, with links taking a reader to specific places across the Internet where the news is really being reported.

BASICALLY, THE PERSON who puts together this new report is going to be someone who is content to sit in front of a laptop or some other computer and read other people’s work – rather than getting off his or her duff and come up with information that would allow them to create original journalism.

Why should I bother to read this new site when (in all likelihood) it will do little more than guide me to stories in the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times that Arianna’s editor thinks I should read? I’m already scanning through those sites and many others (and reading the actual papers, which is a superior reading experience than any website can offer).

When it becomes a reality, I will read through her site a few times to figure out what it is actually adding to the mix of news and features. A pure aggregator of other peoples’ content would be worthless.

On the off chance that the site does generate a piece or two of original content, I’m not concerned. I believe the original content and commentary of the Chicago Argus (and its sister weblog, The South Chicagoan) is superior to anything her people will generate.

BUT THERE ARE not a lot of websites that are generating much in the way of original content. In fact, the business model of too many Internet-oriented information businesses seems predicated on the concept that someone else is paying for the actual compilation of facts into copy and other content that goes on the sites.

So what’s my point here?

I welcome Arianna Huffington to Chicago. I’m also awaiting the arrival of the Politicker, the New York Observer-affiliated collection of political websites meant to cover government intensely in each state. For some reason, these people think sites in places like Vermont and Nevada were more important to start up than a site for a place like Illinois – or anything in the Midwest region surrounding the Great Lakes.

Let them come and try to put together something that pretends to be a local news report.

UNLESS THEY ARE willing to start significant amounts of time and money (in short, to conduct herself like she is publishing one of those dastardly newspapers that the Internet is supposedly exterminating) into compiling the news, their products won’t be all that significant. Huffington will find that the existing newsgathering organizations are doing a more detailed job of informing people than she can dream of.

Advertising on the Internet is not yet at the point where it can support such an intensive newsgathering effort, so they likely would have to kick in some of their own cash to start things off. That is not likely.

For all we know, the Politicker will never arrive in Illinois. And Huffington could easily come and go from Chicago by year’s end, unless she views this project similar to how Rupert Murdoch views the New York Post.

Old Rupert (who some people think still owns the Sun-Times, even though he sold it off 22 years ago) views ownership of a local newspaper in New York City as being something that adds a touch of personal pride to NewsCorp and cannot be measured by accountants and therefore is worthwhile, no matter how much money it loses.

Somehow, I don’t think she has Rupert’s spirit in her.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Some news organizations view places such as the Huffington Post as a way of (,0,534813.column) directing more people to read their content.

I’m not alone in being skeptical that a Chicago-oriented version of the Huffington Post will have much of a chance ( of catching on among people who want news of the Second City.

Arianna Huffington has a vision that a one-person staff can put together a site that ( out-reports the existing news media. Take it from someone who is a one-person staff for this site – no one should ever be deluded enough to think the Chicago Argus does anything more than supplements existing news organizations.

1 comment:

Rich Miller said...

One person can take on the bigs and win. The Capitol Fax does it almost every day. Also, the Capitol Fax Blog routinely breaks stories long before the papers.

But it's a huge amount of work. I doubt Arianna's people will do that sort of work.