Editors and news directors today fret about the Internet, as their predecessors worried about radio and TV, and all now see the huge threat the Web represents to the way they distribute their product. They have been slower to see the threat it represents to the product itself. In a day when information pours out of digital spigots, stories that package painstakingly gathered facts on current events — what happened, who said what, when — have lost much of their value. News now not only arrives astoundingly fast from an astounding number of directions, it arrives free of charge. Selling what is elsewhere available free is difficult, even if it isn’t nineteen hours stale. Just ask an encyclopedia salesman, if you can find one.
Mainstream journalists can, of course, try to keep retailing somewhat stale morning-print or evening-television roundups to people who manage to get through the day without any contact with Matt Drudge, Wolf Blitzer, or Robert Siegel. They can continue to attempt to establish themselves online as a kind of après AP — selling news that’s a little slower but a little smarter than what Yahoo displays, which is essentially what The Washington Post and The New York Times were up to when, about four or five hours after Chavez had left the UN podium, they published, online, their own accounts of his speech.
But another, more ambitious option is available to journalists: They could try to sell something besides news.