In the beginning: Why the media couldn’t charge for content.


If only, if only, my colleagues say, if only the news media had started charging for content when they launched their first websites.

If only the media had charged, then none of the current problems of free content would have happened, the public would know that content costs money and the newspapers and TV stations would have a second, strong income stream and all would be well. There would be lots of good, high paying jobs and the money to do real journalism rather than celebrity silliness.


If only……


So now there is a search for scapegoats. Media managers who have shown that they are completely incompetent in running traditional print and broadcast are an easy and obvious target.

Others blame the tech community and a misunderstanding of the truncated quoting of Stewart Brand, “information wants to be free.”

Then came Wired editor Chris Anderson’s nasty tract, Free. The main flaw in “free” is the assumption that the concept can transfer outside the tech and science fiction communities.  Unlike commodity (or atom)  based corporations, for creative individuals and most of the media, “Free” usually doesn’t work outside those arenas, an inconvenience that the advocates of “free” constantly ignore. What is left is  basically a schoolyard bully taunt: “So there, free is the future, so take your medicine and work for nothing.”

Most of the people who ask the question and provide answers were not around in the earliest days of online news media. So that is why there is a belief that if somehow the media had charged in the early days, today all would be well.

Yes, there was one day and just one day, when, if the media had got its act together, it could have started charging for online news, September 1, 1993. The trouble was that  there were no major media on the Internet in a big way come that September.


I was present at the creation of online media


I was working in “online media” long before the launch of the World Wide Web, back in the days of videotex and teletext from 1981-1985.

The Internet played a role in my science fiction short story Wait Till Next Year, published in Analog in November, 1988 (although I got some of the tech details wrong).

I got my first Internet account in August 1993. Note I am a very early adopter and got in just before the Internet tsunami a month later in September 1993.


I co-wrote the first book on Researching on the Internet, published in the fall of 1995. So I was researching the state of the internet, the web, and the media at the first moments of news on the web.

I was the third employee assigned to CBC News Online, April 1, 1996.

The cold, hard fact is that web evolved with free content. It had little to do with Stewart Brand. So when the media first ventured onto the web, the media had to play by the rules at the time. Those rules appeared to say, “commerce on the Internet is a no- no.”

The Genesis of the media on the Internet



In the beginning, (in 1968-1969) US Department of Defence created ARPANET.

And DOD saw that it was good.

DOD said let the military and the scientists communicate.

And the military and the scientists communicated.

And DOD saw that it was good. The American was getting a good return for their money.

But then there was darkness on the face of ARPANET,

DOD saw that too many people had access to the ARPANET and most of the users didn’t have security clearances.

DOD said in 1983, we will create a separate MILNET and give the scholars ARPANET
In 1984, the National Science Foundation created NSFNET.

And DOD and NSF saw that it was good.

Thus TCP/IP spread to universities around the world.
And the scholars saw that it was good.

The techs improved a system called UUCP and created protocols for e-mail, ftp and newsgroups.

And the techs saw that UUCP was good and said GNU, thus, this protocol shall be free to all.

The campus deans said let us have more access to ARPANET, NSFNET,TCP/IP and UUCP NET via private sector telecoms who can do the wiring.

Verily the private sector telecoms wired the universities and the laboratories and created dial up for scholars in their homes.

The telecoms reaped great profits of gold and silver and precious things from those wires.

And DOD and NSF and the scholars and the techs and the telecoms saw that it was good.

NSF decreed that NSFNET and ARAPNET shall be free from commerce, for it was the will of the community that the networks are for education and the spread of human knowledge.
And so NSF said we shall cast out UUCP NET because it can be used for commerce (but we will still use the free software they developed).

And thus UUCP NET was cast out.

The telecoms and the nations of the world far from North America agreed that this networked system was good and created their own networks.

And they all saw that it was good.

Thus it came to pass that the universities which had journalism schools gave their students access to what was now known as the Internet.

And lo and behold it appeared to be free (although their accounts were paid for, in part, by tuition fees). The students were taught that the Internet was educational and thus should be free for all.

At the same time their elders in journalism who loved tech were using another system called CompuServe (which the elders had to pay for with their credit cards).
The journalism students and j-professors came on to CompuServe said “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy. There is this wonderful thing called the Internet and it is free.”

It came to pass that Tim Berners-Lee at CERN created the World Wide Web.
And all saw that the World Wide Web was good.

So the professors, and the students and the reporters and the editors, all of whom loved tech, all rejoiced when they saw the World Wide Web. For they thought they had found the perfect way to deliver the news.
Out of a whirlwind came Netscape.245-netscapes.jpg

At first only the techies loved Netscape.

Then Netscape said we shalt have an IPO.

In the year of our Lord 1995, on the ninth day of August, the IPO came to pass, and it was wonderful and the Netscape stock set a record on Wall Street.

So Netscape became front page news and was high on the evening newscasts.

The media barons and all priests and scribes of the news temples saw that much gold and silver was going to Netscape and asked “What is going on?”

So the barons and the priests and the scribes summoned those of their followers who were techies and said “Tell us, what is this Internet? What is this World Wide Web? Why is Wall Street giving gold and silver and precious things to Netscape?”
The techie reporters and editors said to the barons, the priests and the scribes, this is the Internet, this is the Web.

The techie followers showed the barons, the priests and the scribes their personal websites. Thetechie editors showed the barons, priests and scribes the under the table news sites they had created. They told the exalted ones this World Wide Web is perfect for delivering news, you can have text, you can have pictures, you can have audio and you can even have video.

The barons and the priests and scribes decreed to their techie followers and editors. “Thou shalt build websites for our news operations.”

So the techie news people and the tech techies laboured mightily and created websites. They presented the websites to the barons, priests and scribes.

The barons, priests and scribes looked at the websites and saw that they were good. So they told the news people and techies that they had done a great service and would be rewarded from the gold and silver we get from this new World Wide Web (although the barons, scribes and priests, like all their kind, were lying and did not intend to really reward their followers).

The techie news people and the tech techies trembled and quaked but bravely told the barons, priests and scribes, “No, oh exalted ones, that is forbidden. It has been decreed from on high that there will be no commerce on the Internet.” And they were sore afraid.

The barons, priests and scribes said to themselves, “What the fuck is going on?”

So that’s the story.
 From creation to evolution

There are two key points.

First, as is well known, the Internet did evolve from military, scientific and university communications systems which were, on the surface, free, although, of course, largely paid for by the American taxpayer and university endowments

The culture of free exchange of information is the basis of scholarship, but is, of course, paid for behind the scenes, by government, foundation and endowment funding. Thus the culture of freeinformation existed at the core of Internet use at the time the media first began to be interested in putting news on the web.


Second, in the early 1990s, before the rise of the independent Internet Service Providers and the expansion of services by the telecoms, large and small, the main communication network for the Internet in North America was the NSF Backbone, the high speed Internet communications network run by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which as part of its policy, forbade the use of the backbone for commercial purposes.

Thus in theory, and the conventional wisdom believed, no one using the Internet for commercial purposes, and that would have included charging for news, could use the main North American Internet information communications backbone.

But, in reality, the situation was a lot greyer and not so black and white.

I kept all my research material from the time in 1993-1994 (which I recently donated to the York University Computer Museum)when I was writing Researching on the Internet.

Here is what a couple of the leading books of the time said (books which most libraries, I suspect, discarded long ago and so are no longer available to those who lament the media if only)

Internet Companion A beginners guide to global networking
Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne C Ryer, Addison Wesley, May 1993, put it this way:

Probably the best known and most widely applied is NSFNETs Acceptable Use Policy , which basically states the transmission of “commercial” information or traffic is not allowed across the NSFNET backbone, whereas all information in support of academic and research activities is acceptable.

It sounds somewhat complicated, but you need to remember the original Internet began as US government‑funded experiment and no one expected it to become the widespread, heavily used production network it is today.

It’s going to take a while for commercialization and privatization of these networks to occur. The Internet as whole continues to move to support‑‑or at least allow access to‑‑more and more commercial activity. We may have to deal with some conflicting policies while the process evolves, but at some point in the Internet future, free enterprise will likely prevail and commercial activity will have a defined place, making the whole issue moot, In the meantime, if you’re planning to use the Internet for commercial reasons, make sure the networks you’re using support your kind of activity.


Another book, just a little later, Kevin M Savetz Your Internet Consultant The FAQs of Life Online. Sams, 1994

Commercial activity isn’t allowed on the Internet? It’s purely an academic and educational network, right?

People who advertise and sell stuff on the net should be flogged, right?
Yes and no. As mentioned earlier in this book the Internet is composed of a variety of different networks. Each network has its own set of rules, called acceptable use policies.

Certain networks [particularly the National Science Foundation network, the NSFnet, have strict acceptable use policies that ban most types of commercial use.

On the other hand, another backbone network within the Internet world has been finding considerable interest among commercial internet users‑‑the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX). The acceptable use policies of CIX are much more broad and advertising and selling are both within its purview. So although commercial activity isn’t allowed on certain parts of the Internet, it is allowed on others.

People who advertise on the Internet should only be flogged for heinous violations of Internet culture, such as sending unsolicited junk e‑mail or posting commercial messages to Usenet groups that aren’t supposed to be used for commercial messages.

In the same book, another writer, Michael Strangelove, answered the question (key for the media in retrospect and somewhat prescient as well)

Is advertising allowed on the Internet?

…many people see internet as a noncommercial, academic, purely technical environment. Not so: today about fifty per cent of the Internet is populated by commercial users, The commercial Internet is the fastest growing part of cyberspace,

Businesses are discovering that they can advertise to the Internet community at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. With tens of millions of electronic mail users out there in cyberspace today . Internet advertising is an intriguing opportunity not be overlooked. When the turn of the century rolls around and there are one hundred million consumers on the Internet, we may see many ad agencies and advertising supported magazines go under as businesses learn to communicate directly with consumers in cyberspace.


Those were print books aimed at the newbie Internet user.

But it also means that if the media had had the foresight to get on the Internet in the earliest years of the 1990s, they would have had to become part of the proposed Commercial Internet Exchange.

But in 1991, 92, 93, online in a newsroom was confined to what was called in many American (and Canadian) newsrooms, the “geek in the corner.”

The situation was already changing even as those books went to press.

Here is how Wikipedia explained the changes.

The interest in commercial use of the Internet became a hotly debated topic. Although commercial use was forbidden, the exact definition of commercial use could be unclear and subjective. UUCPNet and the X.25 IPSS had no such restrictions, which would eventually see the official barring of UUCPNet use of ARPANET and NSFNet connections. Some UUCP links still remained connecting to these networks however, as administrators cast a blind eye to their operation….

In 1992, Congress allowed commercial activity on NSFNet with the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1862(g), permitting NSFNet to interconnect with commercial networks.[31] This caused controversy amongst university users, who were outraged at the idea of noneducational use of their network


So, the US Congress had opened up the Internet to commercial activities in that country.


The geeks, bearing content


Most of the media was still clueless and didn’t jump to the opportunity, even if they ran Sunday feature stories on the geeks or closing items on the evening news about this thing called “The Internet.”

It is likely that the vast majority of executives with their eyes on Wall Street and paying consultants pushing 1970s media models had no idea that they employed a “geek in the corner,” much less what the geek was doing.

Apart from tech companies, both hardware and software’s growing giants plus the small office start ups and computer science grad students with big ideas, which made up most of Strangelove’s “commercial activity,” the private sector around the world was slow to take up the challenge.


The CBC, as Canada’s public broadcaster, had, at least in those days, a mandate to experiment and innovate. So in 1993, CBC began an experiment working toward streaming radio on the Internet, in cooperation with the Communications Research Council. But as an experiment and coming from a public broadcaster there was no thought of charging for the service. (The history of the early days of shows the kinds of problems that executives faced. And it was a lot harder for the private sector which was expected to make money and even harder now  in the era of bean counting consultants and their talk of profit centers).

When business executives finally realized that the Internet was open to commerce, the news media was one of the first industries to make a major effort to invest on posting their material, most of it repurposed on the World Wide Web. The move was most often driven by those managers and employees who were still around from the videotex and teletext days, who saw web based news might succeed where the 1980s projects failed. Usually, these experiments were not sanctioned by head office and the money came from a little creative budgeting.

That meant the content had to be free, right from the beginning.


There’s one factor, that today’s audience metrics obsessed media bean counters have never considered when they say “If only. ” Their all important audience. The audience for online news in the mid-1990s were Internet and Web early adopters and most had adopted the culture of free information. In those early days, no media was willing to make an investment in online content that was actually worth paying for. Most of the news was repurposed from existing print, radio or television, which was readily available (for a price, of course)

So when the first media pioneers ventured on to the Internet in the mid-1990s (including CNN, NBC, the CBC where I worked, the Raleigh News and Observer, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star and others) the media was caught in an evolutionary feedback mechanism.

To attract the early adopter audience, the news had to be free. The audience that might have paid was not yet online (although the richer business types were using proprietary electronic services–which meant they didn’t need to pay for web content either. That pre-web willingness to pay for business information is why the  Wall Street Journal paywall has worked while others failed). 250-timecover2s.jpg

Where was the money to come from? The early click through rates for the first banner ads (which many in the audience actually objected to) were dismal.

Development of good websites cost time and money and the media was already facing the culture of free. (I predicted trouble for newspapers when I was interviewed by Craig Saila for the Ryerson Review of Journalism in fall 1996, an article published in spring 1997 (Registration required)   (Also available on Craig Saila’s site)

The headline pretty much sums up the attitude the students of the time had to media management which was failing to adapt to the fast changing environment.

Looks like the students were right. The Ryerson article was just about the media that had had the courage to venture on to the web by the fall of 1996.

Most of the news media were late comers and took almost a decade to catch up in page views with the early starters. The late comers couldn’t charge for their content because 95% of those early online services, their competitors, were free. Neither were putting that much money into real web content.

If only


There was one day that all the media could have made sure they could charge for content. September 1, 1993.

For it was in September 1993 that the Internet (not yet the web) took an evolutionary leap from a government, military and academic information network and communication system to one used by the public.

In September 1993, America Online, then the largest paid service, opened a gateway to Usenet, the “newsgroups” of the Internet for its subscribers. It was a time for those who then thought the Internet was their exclusive domain remember with horror, called by some the tsunami or the beginning, as described by Wikipedia as the “Eternal September,” when their private party ended.

Yes there were a few news organizations with a presence on CompuServe or America Online on September 1, 1993 but far too few and the content was far too thin.

If the media wanted to charge for content, after September 1993, when the thousands of AOL subscribers ventured on to the adolescent Internet of the time and embraced the culture where they expected free content, it was already too late.


A tectonic collision occurred that September, the leading edge of one continent collided with another.

Invasive species penetrated the long balanced media ecosystem and disrupted it beyond imagination. So will evolutionary forces work, will the news media adapt to the new environment​?


Thirty Years in New Media

Thirty Years in New Media Part II The Veteran Strikes Back


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Garbage in Garbage out: How bad data will cripple the future of news

(Note I haven’t been doing much blogging for the past several months. I took early retirement from CBC News and moved back to my old hometown of  Kitimat, British Columbia, a process that took much longer than I anticipated and is still ongoing as I wait for electricians to finish some electrical upgrades on my new house. I am now resuming my quest to find hints on the long term future of news and so the blog and related projects will slowly appear here.)

The old adage from the earliest days of computing, Garbage In Garbage Out still holds.

The beleaguered news industry is obsessed with metrics, too obsessed in my view. That obsession also seems to be based on the idea that the data being gathered is good data, not junk. 

Yet this week, up popped on my iPad a sad example of what is wrong with the efforts to save journalism, sad because it comes from one of the United States’ most respected journalism schools. It is a survey, a survey that shows just how out of touch with reality some studying the future of news are, a survey that is so seriously flawed that when I was teaching journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, in the 1990s, I could have used as an example to teach students what to avoid.

When I lived in big cities, and being part of the generation raised on print, I would devour the morning paper along with my breakfast, mostly the Globe and Mail in Toronto, but  in the  various other cities I have lived, also the Ottawa Citizen, the Times and the Guardian in London, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, the Vancouver Sun and The Province.

Now, in Kitimat, British Columbia,  there is no newsprint waiting on my doorstep at dawn.

The iPad (as opposed to a netbook computer) is the next best thing.  I can prop the tablet up on the breakfast table and still get my morning news fix (I mean update) without having to go to the computer in my home office.  I check the Globe and Mail, AP, the BBC,  New York Times and the Daily Telegraph. I enjoy the Guardian’s Eyewitness best of the day  photo gallery. (And I would actually consider paying for a Guardian iPad app, but for some mysterious reason, it  is  only available for the iPhone and I’m an Android user.)

So there I was Saturday morning, scanning the Associated Press app, when there appeared at the bottom of the screen, a very enticing ad.


Since I am interested in shaping the future of news, I tapped.

The first page was both a further enticement and the usual academic disclaimer needed when surveying  human subjects.  The survey was from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the best institutions south of the border,  so I was quite optimistic.

There were warning signs. The disclaimer added a further enticement for ongoing participants, but only to Americans,  saying that to win the goodies, an  iTunes gift card, you had to be United States resident over 18.


I am interested in shaping the future of news. So I tapped.  The first screen came up. My heart sank.

The first question asked for the subject’s five digit US zip code.


That meant immediately that everyone outside the United States didn’t count. I filled in the field to let me see if  I could continue.  I could, but now the survey has no idea where I’m from.

So much for shaping the future of news.

Here’s the first problem, just the day before the ad popped onto my iPad, on Friday, October 22, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Morgan Stanley estimates that about 13 million Apple tablets will be sold this year, out of 15 million total tablet sales world-wide.
For 2011, Morgan Stanley estimates that Apple’s number will rise to 30 million, while non-Apple tablets will skyrocket to 20 million.

So assuming the figures are correct (and if you check these other links, the Morgan Stanley figures appear to be in the right ball park), 15 million people around the world use tablets at this moment.

iPad Impact: Tablets contribute to PC market pain

iPad/iPhone shipments drive up Apples Q4 profits

Tablet Sales to Hit 19.5M in 2010,

 Associated Press, even though it is based in the United States, is a world-wide news organization with staff, stringers and affiliates in every spot on this planet. Even if a lot of those 15 million users don’t read the Associated Press app, you must assume  that the majority of the people get their news from their tablet and many use multiple news sources.

So how can a genuine survey aimed at shaping the future of news exclude the majority of  iPad users?

When I worked for, (which unfortunately doesn’t yet have a news app) our audience figures showed consistently over the years that 20 per cent of our  web audience came from the United States and another 10 per cent of the audience came from the rest of the world.  The BBC site has a huge world-wide audience, and I can only presume that is reflected on the audience figures for the BBC app on the iPad.

When Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke about the future of news in the Hugh Cudlipp lecture earlier this year, he said:

More Americans are now reading the Guardian than read the Los Angeles Times. This readership has found us, rather than the other way round.

So as a Canadian, I sighed, it looked like just yet another case of American exceptionalism and parochialism.

Unfortunately, it got worse.

The next question asked the birth year of the participant. But the drop down menu stopped at 1994, excluding everyone younger.


Again one has to ask what is going on here?   We know from multiple studies that news reading habits are formed at an early age.  Yet the university survey is excluding everyone under the age of  16. If a lot of  12-year-olds are suddenly getting excited over the journalism they see on their iPad, good news for shaping the future of news, you would never know it from this survey. (I hope a lot of 12-year-olds are getting excited about news on their iPads)

So why the exclusion?  I wondered for a moment if it was the US law  where for many internet activities magic age is 13. So if so, the survey is still excluding three years of users. Or one must ask is it something to do with the giveaway of the iTunes gift card, rules set by who. Apple?  A university ethics committee? The state of Missouri? The state of California? Then why not 18​?

Are these giveaway rules skewing and distorting the survey?

One more note, about the United States resident restriction, especially if it is tied to the giveaway. Again it conflicts with what we do know about web journalism and probably tablet journalism.   That people who move away keep in touch with local news by checking hometown web sites and often that it  is a huge part of a news site’s web audience (even if the corporate side is reluctant to point it out to local advertisers). So once again this survey is excluding all those American ex-pats around the world who may be reading the AP and New York Times apps. And what about all those members of the American military deployed overseas,  most of whom technically are not on US soil, checking their local news on tablets? Do they count?


Finally, while the questions were fairly routine, asking about how I consume news on paper, on my smart phone and in my iPad, I detected a bias (or perhaps over simplification) in the questions.  It may be an urban bias, despite the fact that the University of  Missouri in is in the heartland of a largely agricultural state.  (I was at Missouri for a beautiful August week in 1993 when I attended IRE computer-assisted reporting boot camp).  There was no way I could tell the survey that journalism on paper is not as available in the far Pacific northwest as it is in downtown Toronto, New York or St. Louis. It assumes an almost “either or attitude,”  that the one reason you give up a newspaper on paper is to switch to electronic delivery because you just love your iPad.   Yet there are other reasons, for giving up reading papers on paper. A lot  of the more environmentally active refuse to read paper (even though the electronic versions are probably just as bad for the environment).  As mentioned, for many people today, your home town paper isn’t delivered in Kandahar or Kuala Lumpur or Kingston-upon-Thames.

There is also a second factor, it is much easier to read a newspaper on the way to work in a city with a good public transportation system, where you can read the paper on the bus, subway or train. So how much has commuting habits to do with consuming news on a smart phone or tablet?

It’s unclear if AP has anything to do with the survey (i.e. Was the ad on the AP app paid for by the university or is  it a “house ad,” with AP participating and working with the data? Perhaps someone can clarify in comments)

But this is clear, with the crisis in journalism, this type of survey is not a help, it’s a hindrance.  If it’s American parochialism,  same old same old  will continue to fail with a world-wide audience and increasing world-wide tablet sales. If it’s the iTunes giveaway setting the survey parameters, it’s a bad as any survey that  is paid for by a corporate sponsor with a pre-determined outcome.  If it’s because of a lack of budget due to current restraints that make it impossible to crunch numbers from 15 million tablet owners, then the survey should have been done like someone like Pew who can look at the planetary picture.

Garbage in, Garbage out has no place in shaping the future of news.

:  I can get Canadian news, via The Canadian Press (an organization I occasionally string for) via the AP app on my Android smart phone.   But the Local News function on the AP Ipad doesn’t work, My Ipad insists that I live in Manhattan, not Kitimat.

Two days after I made the initial post, on Oct. 27, 2010, I sent a note via my Ipad to AP tech support asking why can I get Canadian news on the Android and not on the iPad? I got a reply  “A Customer Support representative will respond within the next 24 hours.”
It is now Nov 14 and I still haven’t had a reply,

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ALERT: Journalism students are an indicator species.

Journalism is in crisis.

So it’s now time to realize that journalism students are an “indicator species.”

Wikipedia defines an indicator species in biology  this way:

An indicator species is any biological species that defines a trait or characteristic of the environment… Indicator species can be among the most sensitive species in a region, and sometimes act as an early warning to monitoring biologists.

Wikipedia goes on to give seven sub definitions  for indicator species.  In my view, in the current media environment journalism students fit sub definitions 6 and 7.

  • a species thought to be sensitive to and therefore to serve as an early warning indicator of environmental changes such as global warming or modified fire regimes (sometimes called a bioindicator species)
  • a management indicator species, which is a species that reflects the effects of a disturbance regime or the efficacy of efforts to mitigate disturbance effects.

(my emphasis)

For the past twenty years, journalism students have been serving as an early warning indicator of the changes coming in the media.  Those warnings have, for the most part,  been ignored by the faculty of most journalism schools, and more important, by the executives and managers of most media organizations.

 How journalism students have regarded the media, the newspapers, television, the web,  reflect in the effects of a disturbance regime in the media ecosystem– the rise of the World Wide Web and  the failure of the majority of media executives and managers to adapt realistically to a rapidly changing world.

Earlier today, a posting by a journalism professor at Carleton University in Ottawa  called  “My students don’t have TVs” triggered a lot of Tweets and interest

Marilyn Mercer, as is common among j-profs, assigned her broadcast news students to watch the major Canadian national network newscasts.

She says:

I began this course assigning weekly analysis of the flagship nightly newscasts at CTV and CBC.  At first, some students panicked. “I don’t have cable,” said one. “Nor TV,” said another. Knowing this was about marks, they went online to or and started watching stories that often begin with [CBC Anchor} Peter [Mansbridge] or [CTV anchor]  Lloyd [Robertson].

(Note I currently work for CBC News as a photo editor and in my career at both CBC and at CTV  I have worked with both Peter Mansbridge and Lloyd Robertson)

Mercer asked her students to take a look at the controversial relaunch of CBC news on October 26, including the change from CBC Newsworld to the new CBC News Network.
Mercer says:

None of them had yet watched CBC NN, but said they’d heard about “how people don’t like it.”

She is concerned in her post about the content of the news, which I won’t go into for the purpose of this post.

But on the medium itself, Mercer also says:

CBC’s The National can probably forget about getting my class demographic, even if they are j-school students. This generation wears the news in their clothing and won’t make an appointment to view it late in the evening. They monitor their hand-held devices throughout the day often after texts from friends to check out something, on YouTube, or like the boy in the balloon.

The first  reaction in online comments to Mercer’s post  is typical

So… these kids want to be broadcast journalists but don’t even own/watch TV?
This is a joke, right?

Claude Adams, another former CBC journalist, now a freelancer and teacher responded in the comments:

Alas, not a joke at all. I got the same general response a few years ago from a class of graduate-level broadcast journalism students here on the west coast. Many didn’t watch TV news unless it  was assigned.

A number of them said “it isn’t relevant” although they thought that [Comedy Central’s] Jon Stewart and  [CBC’s] George Stroumboulopoulos were cool.
Two weeks ago, I asked a class of 4th year communications students at the U of Windsor what they thought of The National’s new look. Not a single one had watched. “You are exactly the demographic that the CBC is courting,” I told them. They shrugged.

Here is proof that J-students are an indicator species.

That attitude is not limited to the journalism schools. Another study, also tweeted today, of American students, Alloy Media + Marketing’s 9th annual College Explorer Survey, projected annual technology spending among college students (ages 18-30), showed that

Students are spending twice as much time on their computers as compared to television viewing 33% of 18-24 year old students have increased their consumption of webisodes or user-generated videos since last year, and 30% of 18-30 year olds report frequent video viewing on social networking sites

Let’s turn the clock back about 15 years, when I began teaching (as a part -time instructor)  investigative reporting at Ryerson University School of Journalism.
In the winter semester of 1995, when I introduced final year and grad students to Computer-Assisted Reporting, I had to teach half the students a lot about computers.

 Two years later,  that sort of basic teaching was no longer necessary, the students were all computer wizards and so I could get right to the heart of Computer-Assisted Reporting.

That was the same time journalism faculty across the continent began to ring alarm bells.  “They’re not reading newspapers!”  

By that time of course, most major news organizations (but not all)  had created news websites and that was where many students were already getting their news.

The first reaction at most journalism schools was something like this: “So the little monsters aren’t  reading newspapers. Well, we’ll make them read newspapers by giving them news quizzes.”

Then there were the usual remarks about how bad, lazy, the younger generation was.  Of course,  older adults have been saying that at least since students in ancient Athens gathered to listen to Socrates. (It probably goes back at least to the first scribe schools in ancient Sumeria but so far as I know there wasn’t a Sumerian Plato to record the remarks).

When I was a grad student at Carleton (74-75) we did have a couple of  news quizzes,  but they were challenging scavenger hunts.

We devoured newspapers. 

First thing I did each morning was open the door of my old Ottawa apartment (if it was New York or Boston it would be probably be called brownstone)  and grab The Globe and Mail, which had a new investigative story almost every morning.

Assigning a news quiz didn’t make the students of the late 1990s grab a newspapers first thing in the morning.

I stopped working at Ryerson in 2001.  I returned for one semester in 2004, to help teach first year students. By then the news quiz  had changed.  No longer a scavenger hunt for kids who devoured  newspapers (the carrot) nor a way of forcing them to read newspapers (the stick), instead the news quiz was now a time limited exercise in searching Google News.

If those students  from the mid-1990s are still lucky enough to have jobs in newspapers, they may read their own rag in print, but are highly unlikely to read the opposition in print, instead they are going online.

Their contemporaries are not reading newspapers. That’s why the business is in trouble.

Journalism students were and are an indicator species.

This is similar to what Mercer notes her post, “Knowing this was about marks….”  that made the students rush to their computers to watch the online versions of the network newscasts.

Now we see the same trend in broadcast and cable television, as we saw in newspapers a decade ago,  where the younger audience is drifting away.

It is the same argument I had with journalism profs (most weren’t listening)  when I attended conferences in the 90s.  If you can’t get journalism students to read your product, how to expect the rest of the generation to read it?

Broadcast executives around the world say they want the younger audience, the 18-34 or 40 demographic demanded by advertisers.  But they want that audience to fit into their metrics. They don’t want to give the audience what they want to see or hear.

Ask anyone of that age  and you quickly learn that broadcasting is not serving that audience.

Last summer, on Vancouver Island, I went to photograph some Canada Day fireworks with a friend who is in his 20s,  more than 30 years younger than me.   That evening I hung out with some of his friends (none of them in journalism).  They told me that they didn’t listen to the three private-sector radio stations in the area.

“They’re all the same,” one guy said.

Of course, they all sound  the same, the days of a individual DJ are decades dead. 

What those stations broadcast is “mix,”  play-list pap that comes out some consultant’s office, likely in Los Angeles. 

My friend who is a part time DJ,  says these days if anyone requests a tune that he doesn’t have in his system, he (honestly paying for it) downloads it from Itunes into his Iphone and then transfers it to his music system. Who needs playlist pap?

What I did find interesting was that these 20-odd year-olds liked and listened to CBC’s information radio at a time when the stereotype, even within the CBC, is that the audience consists of aging boomers.

Those guys also listened to the online CBC Radio 3.  I found the same thing last weekend at a session of a conference of student newspaper journalists at Wilfred Laurier University where I was one of the speakers.  Most of the students listened to Radio 3’s eclectic mix of largely Canadian original music.


Then New Democratic Party leader David Lewis (right) and political columnist Anthony Westell speak to Carleton University grad journalism students in the fall of 1975. (copyright Robin Rowland)

Back to Carleton for a moment.  It’s in Canada’s capital, blocks from Parliament Hill.  The Carleton Journalism program has a well-earned reputation for turning out political reporters.  In 74-75. we had guest speakers,  party leaders and top journalists, come to our class.  I am pretty sure people from the Hill  still show up at Carleton from time to time.

Now in 2009, you can’t get journalism students in the national capital to watch the major national newscasts?   If you can’t get journalism students in a political city to watch the major newscasts, how do you expect the rest of the generation to watch those shows?

There are reasons, of course, not just that the times they are a changing,  that the students don’t have TVs and cable.

Cable is too expensive, my Rogers bill is $71.72 a month. I wonder if it is worth it.
Cable certainly isn’t worth it for a student, likely overburdened by student loan debt, with not that many job prospects in the current economy, who can get specifically online what they want they want to watch.

 I  know more and more  friends actually in broadcasting, from people in their 20s, through boomers to retired folks, who are canceling their cable and relying on over-the-air HD antennas or HD USB antennas plugged into their laptops to watch broadcasts and who watch everything else online.

Enjoying their current multimillion dollar incomes, the cable companies aren’t noticing.  Yet

Just as newspapers didn’t notice a decade ago.

 The networks around the world are likely feeling a bit of a chill wind, but they prefer to continue on a consultant driven path to who knows where.

Journalism students are an indicator species.

I am not saying (yet) that journalism schools give up their mission.

But let’s get real.  The majority of students in journalism school or working on student newspapers these days are entering the profession knowing that the media is  in a big mess and they still want to be journalists.  That really is reason for optimism.

So J-schools, it’s time to stop worrying about the delivery system, the newspapers, the television, the web or whatever appears out of the silicon universe a year or two from now.

Do what you should be doing.   Teach strong story telling. No matter what the medium.

Did I say that journalism students are an indicator species?

Yes. I did.

That mean’s there’s good news for journalism.
From the young folks I know, from the ones I’ve met either in person or online, I have confidence that the new generation of journalism students and young working journalists will be remembered as “a greatest generation” and I will tell you why in my next post in a couple of days.

Journalism students ARE an indicator species.