First-week readings: How we got the Web, and what that means for media


Before we can understand online journalism and its many forms and functions, we have to understand the Web itself. That means not only grasping the technical terminology and general architecture—which you got from the “Journalism 2.0” reading—but also digging a little deeper into the very ethos of the Web. That’s prerequisite. To “get” Web journalism, we have to get the Web.

So, let’s start with a little history. Watch:

Now: Who invented the Web, and why? What does the Web’s very makeup—its structure, its linking, etc.—have to do with big-picture issues regarding how we communicate, on a mass scale and in an interpersonal way? Should we care? Does any of this matter for journalism? (OK, that’s rhetorical. But, really: why does this matter?)

Bring some of those questions as you jump into this piece from Vanity Fair. It’s a long but rather interesting history of the medium, as told by the key players themselves. Try not to get bogged down with names and dates; I’d rather you skim that stuff and instead focus on the larger (and perhaps more subtle) issues at work here—the socio-cultural elements and implications of the Web’s development during the past 50 years. What are some of the takeaway lessons as we think about rebooting journalism for the 21st century?

Lastly: I would like you to layer into this two seminal readings that help us understand the “how did we get here?” question—which is one of THE big questions we need to grapple with in this class … (in this order)

Old Growth Media and the Future of News, by Steven Berlin Johnson

Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, by Clay Shirky

Please respond with your comments (approximately 150-200 words) by 8 a.m. the day of class—in this case, by Tuesday morning.

p.s. We don’t have time to watch all of “Download: The Story of the Internet,” which aired on the Discovery Channel a while back, but a couple of clips are useful, such as this one on social networking:

19 Responses to “First-week readings: How we got the Web, and what that means for media”

  1. 1 donniehogan January 25, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Wow, that was a lot of information, but I will try to communicate my interpretation.
    I agree completely with Johnson and Shirky’s assessments on the state of journalism today. One thing that really angers me is when people ask me what my major is and after I tell them journalism, they immediately ask what am I going to do with it and follow with an inquiry about the status of newspapers. We all need to let the newspapers die. Get over it. It’s over. You had a good run. It’s over.
    Shirky said “save journalism” not “save newspapers” and I couldn’t agree more. The internet has made everyone with a brain and a cell phone a reporter and forced professional journalists to freak out and try to be the first to cover things (ex. balloon boy, Jeff Goldblum being pronounced dead while still alive, etc.).
    There will still be a need for quality professional journalism in this country, it just won’t be in print form. How will they get paid? I don’t have that model. I just know that the sooner we get past the fact that newspapers are dead, the better off we’ll all be.

  2. 2 hollymacrossin January 25, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    I liked Johnson’s metaphor when discussing how the Internet and the flow of information has vastly improved over time.

    “To use that ecosystem metaphor: the state of Mac news in 1987 was a barren desert. Today, it is a thriving rain forest.”

    He is absolutely right. The amount of information and possibilities available to everyone, journalists or not, are endless these days. Everyone, through blogs and youtube, can give their own opinions, feedback, interpretations, etc. to the world to either agree or disagree with- or simply just to indulge in. I also like how he mentioned that youtube is allowing us to see things in their entirety. Example- instead of a short clip of the president’s speech on the 6pm news, you can go to youtube or a blog and get the entire speech with a typed out script.

    Shirky also makes several interesting points when discussing newspapers transferring to online and the death of newspapers in general. He makes a valid point when he asks who is going to cover all of the nitty gritty boring stories, like City Hall, when all the newspapers are shut down and the reporters are fired. He doesn’t provide an answer but it makes you think. An obvious solution is still having these things covered, but on an online version. But who is to say?

    In regards to the history of the Internet, I am just blown away. Who knew so much went into a tool we take for granted daily?

  3. 3 katiemyung January 25, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    It is now obvious that people are abandoning old media for new in droves, and newspapers cannot survive a transition to the web.

    Web technology is the major factor that made journalism totally different, and there are so many different opinions and issues about web journalism. Johnson also points out that today’s media is a “much more diverse and interconnected world, a system of flows and feeds.”

    I agree his viewpoint and there are several problem of web journalism in regards to economic and credibility issues. I am more concerned about quality of journalism than the format it comes in. Because even though people do not need to get information from newspaper, they still need journalism. It is natural and instinct that human beings want to get news as long as they live in a society.

    Shirky says “if the old model is broken, some new model would work in its place.” Yes, I think it is true. Nobody knows how journalism would be like in the future, and no one who lived in the 1950s could imagine that everyone can produce news with blog.

    I think online news sources will be the most relevant to public in the future. Thus, it is important to invent new ideas for web journalism.

  4. 4 Patricia Rodriguez January 25, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    It is not too much of a stretch to say that a main theme of these three articles is how, in the past few decades, information has gone from what could arguably be called scarcity to what is definitely dubbed abundance. The proliferation of the Internet being the culprit, each of the articles offers a possible view of the future through a scope of the past.
    Steven Berlin Johnson’s article “Old Growth Media and the Future of News,” I found to be most informative and relevant because it offered an actual graph of what future of media might look like as opposed to Clay Shirky’s article “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” Shirky’s assertion is that we cannot know because we are in the midst of the “revolution,” which I didn’t really find all that informative. Although, I found his comment about “you are going to miss us when we are gone!” and how that is not a very effective statement for the future to be very thoughtful and smart. It seems to be a popular argument for the continued existence of the newspaper hard copy. It’s true that the sudden absence of newspapers would create a void we would be none to happy about, but that hardly is a strategy for the future.

    The metaphor of the desert/jungle in Johnson’s article I found to be most informative. I also appreciated the mention of how the average internet user is not as savvy as the author of the article and cannot be expected to navigate the Internet with the same dexterity as the newspaper.

  5. 5 dluippold January 25, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    From the Johnson article, I take away that criticisms about the pervasiveness of information today are always viewed within the context of modern technology. His comparison of the 1992 and 2008 presidential campaigns is especially telling. For all the romance that antiquated, pre-internet political campaigns offer, they pale in comparison to the infinitely assessable wealth of information about candidates and issues the internet provides. I don’t think anybody with an interest in journalism or politics would prefer a departure back to the days of a tightly controlled information-flow from a handful of outlets.

    Shirky makes another important point in saying that “newspapers are in such trouble [because] printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run.” This drives home the fact that it is the newspaper industry that is in trouble, but not journalism itself. Newspaper debates often ignore the logistical and pragmatic implications to highlight ideological ones. Similarly, the industry knew and prepared for an era of free-flowing information and unenforceable copyrights. Because they were subsequently unable to adapt, the industry is the only one responsible for its demise.

    After reading the articles, I believe that newspapers and the internet will eventually find a way to coexist. Since there are so many sports fans in the class, I thought of a sports metaphor. Internet journalism, are like a man-to-man defense. It targets specific niches and interests with great depth and precision, but often ignore the broader vision. Similarly, newspaper journalism is like a zone defense. It is responsible for covering broad subjects and affairs, but does not address individual topics with the same depth as the internet. Both are necessary for success, and one cannot function effectively without being supplemented by the other.

  6. 6 Jordyn Davenport January 25, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    I felt that the point of these readings and videos, like so many communications lessons, was to stress that the significance of the internet is that it has transformed all communication including mass media outlets into two-way communication platforms. It seems that it has taken the news industry quite some time to recognize how colossal and permanent of an impact this has had on the news, our culture, and our daily lives.
    I really liked Johnson’s ecosystem metaphor because I feel that media outlets need to grasp the concept that things are continuously growing, changing, adapting and evolving and that without continual growth and adaptation they will die and quickly be replaced my more resilient and increasingly adaptive versions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, certain things get old and die and are replaced by newer and better things, we all learned this in childhood by watching The Lion King. Newspapers seem to think they are a permanent fixture that cannot be replaced, like water or the sun, versus a semi-permanent fixture, say elephants or something, and Shirky did a nice job of pointing out that this is simply not so. Journalism is the permanent fixture.

  7. 7 Amber Genuske January 26, 2010 at 12:00 am

    All of the articles continue the never ending, yet ever so important, lectures of the transformation and revolution of communication. I grew up with the Web and have often taken it for granted. Its development is the foundation of my daily life and many, if not a majority, of my journalistic practices.

    Understanding the creation and the logistics of the Internet is relevant to journalism and journalists — just think of being without it. Scary. This also gives our generation an advantage, though. As many students have already referenced, the diverse ecosystem metaphor in Johnson’s article leads to a brief touch on the ambiguous future of journalism, “That complexity is what makes it so interesting, of course, but also what makes it so hard to predict what it’s going to look like in five or ten years.” This might be going on a tangent, but the “doom and gloom” talks that students continue to hear from various distinguished guest reporters is getting pretty old. Yes, classic publications are dying, but in its place is the birth of innovative journalism. The distinguished journalists keep telling us about their fears because the new generation of journalists are equipped to take their jobs. I am not discrediting their stature, because the core values that made them distinguished are being instilled in us so that respectable journalism can continue.

    With this innovative journalism comes a few concerns, brought up in Shirky’s article, “As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think.” With the creation of the “citizen journalist” being able to “report” in blogs through their smart phone presents the question of what is a journalist? Even, what is journalism anymore? To me, journalism is truth, verification and diversity. As Shirky said, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”

  8. 8 victorialeece January 26, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Steven Berlin Johnson’s article “Old Growth Media and the Future of News” provided a fitting introduction to Clay Shirky’s article “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” Shirky’s tone is much bolder and straightforward than Johnson’s, something that I think is necessary when broaching the subject of newspaper extinction. He is up front and honest about the real issue, saving journalism. While it is vital to examine one’s history to get a better look at the future, getting bogged down by it is a different story.

    Johnson’s comparison of the internet to an ecosystem also makes a great deal of sense. Each generation thinks of communication and information passage differently than the one before it. The system is decentralized and there are countless origins of information. What we as journalism students can contribute to this is finding the most effective tools to sort this information.

    I agree with Johnson and Shirky. We are in the midst of rapid change and instead of cowering from it we must take charge.

  9. 9 willhanderson January 26, 2010 at 1:33 am

    Well, it’s pretty late; I’ll admit I forgot about the commenting, although I did read the three articles, so this should be easy.

    The information overload Johnson mentioned immediately reminded me of a YouTube video called “Exponential Times,” that details how we continue to generate new information — new facts, new ideas — at an ever increasing rate. Obviously, this is due in part to the connectivity of the Web. Little did the Department of Defense know what type of information revolution they would start. The organic growth, literally and figuratively, he speaks of is also a defining characteristic of our age, as the Internet allows us to solve problems we never thought possible. If we are to address the deficiencies of the new news models, like he posits, the continued terraforming of the World Wide Web is essential, and it will be the gung-ho entrepreneurs who get us started in that respect.

    This organic growth is something that Shirky also touches and and how it kind of exploded without anybody ready for it (see: Vanity Fair piece, section IV). I think it is keen of him to note just how blind-sided old media was by the way the Internet took over, but he does miss a key point (and this is a topic where I disagree with a lot of posted readings): the progression (or degression?) of newspaper decline is much more nuanced and much less linear than he presents (obviously, there are some space/time constraints in a blog). It’s nice he doesn’t get too heavy on the predictions, since his entire argument was based on the fact that you can’t predict what will happen with the Internet, although I would have liked to see him attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together after smashing him to pieces.

    ONE THING I found interesting was that Shirky called journalism a subsidies industry, which reminded me of how heavily the U.S. government subsidized ARPA and the other components working on the early Internet — could a similar ethos, that news is different now and changing and radical but still important, work today?

  10. 10 willhanderson January 26, 2010 at 1:37 am

    Can’t figure out how to edit my last post, but here’s an update with the YouTube link I mentioned:

  11. 11 emilywatkins January 26, 2010 at 2:54 am

    I enjoyed reading the Vanity Fair article because it includes such a broad range of facts about the history of the Internet, but I think I gained the most insight from Steven Berlin Johnson’s article, “Old Growth Media and the Future of News.”

    In his article he says, “I think in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest.” This helped me put the future of journalism into a different perspective. Since technology has advanced so much in the last decade, it’s almost impossible to predict what it will look like in 10 years from now. I think this is an important perspective to keep in mind while considering what online news will look like in the future.

    I also liked how Johnson describes the current state of journalism as an evolutionary process from print to digital. It’s obvious that newspapers have started that process, and it’s even more obvious that newspapers are suffering from the current state of the economy. However, I tend to overlook the fact that “the financial meltdown has taken what should have been a decade-long process and crammed it down into a year or two.” Like Johnson, I also think newspapers are going to spend so much time trying to save old business models that they won’t be able to establish a newer model that will further benefit Internet users.

  12. 12 Sean Beherec January 26, 2010 at 3:06 am

    The main point from the two readings, as I see it, is that journalism needs to be revised if it is going to continue into the future. This is no new theme, but the way it is put in both readings is that if we don’t start building the new foundations now, it may lead to difficulties in the future.

    Johnson’s evaluation of journalism today is accurate but also puts a heavy influence on citizen journalism. He emphasizes the use of a Web site of citizen journalists around the Brooklyn area. I agree to some extent about the rise of the citizen journalist, but completely handing over the reigns to bloggers would be risky. He also mentions how the New York Times has created its own Brooklyn blog, but this can’t be compared to citizen journalism. It’s a scary idea to compare the two.

    Similarly, Shirky states that all of the suggested models, including following the Wall Street Journal pay-per-read or the iTunes method, would be impossible to translate into a daily newspaper. He mentions the New York Times, as well, which is especially interesting given their recent decision to charge consumers after a certain number of articles, starting in 2011.

    Essentially both readings said we need to find out the new model, while saying they don’t have it. The conundrum continues.

  13. 13 Ryan Murphy January 26, 2010 at 3:31 am

    First, although the Vanity Fair piece never felt like it was going to end, the more and more I read it the more I got hooked. I really enjoyed their clipped interviews with prominent Web leaders from the past (although many are still active today). I found it almost comical that ARPA had issues with AT&T scoffing at the work they were doing. Now they have most popular smartphone and struggle maintaining it on their network. Coincidence?

    One quote from Johnson in particular stood out to me:

    “The Web doesn’t have some kind intrinsic aptitude for covering technology better than other fields. It just has an intrinsic tendency to cover technology first, because the first people that used the web were far more interested in technology than they were in, say, school board meetings or the NFL. But that has changed, and is continuing to change.”

    This challenges the whole concept of the Web as a “new thing.” People have been reporting and practicing journalism online for quite some time, but like most other trends that pick up over time, it started as a niche market. And as Shirky points out, newspapers certainly were not blindsided by the coming of the Internet. They just did not plan far enough ahead. And honestly, how could anyone? The Web’s growth exploded so quickly that as soon as you secured a concept it had become obsolete.

    The key to sustaining journalism in the Internet generation really is not an issue at all. Journalism is not threatened by the Web; it loves it. Journalism acknowledged from the onset that the Web was the more powerful medium, the blog was born, and suddenly the individual had more freedom to speak his or her mind effectively than they ever had with old media. The “Me” generation still needs individuals with journalistic integrity maintaining the formal lines of communication. Nothing really has changed in that regard, but I dare you to try saying that around a Washington Post executive. I believe Shirky sums it up well.

    “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”

  14. 14 Kurt Mitschke January 26, 2010 at 3:44 am

    One thing to consider is that while journalism is undergoing this revolution, technology is at the same time constantly experiencing evolution. What may seem like the future solution today, may be obsolete tomorrow. Because of this, we have to continually look ahead, always looking for something new and creative.

    I am not sure if the rest of my classmates, or all other journalism students for that matter, feel the same way that I do about this current situation, but I would think that they do. I see this as an exciting time to be a journalist because this is our chance to really make an impact. We are the generation of journalists that will have to solve this issue, and the truth is, we are the only ones that can. We were raised in this environment, are being trained to use the tools of the Web, and we can do things that previous generations aren’t willing to, or simply aren’t capable of doing.

    Shirky writes, “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might.” It is time to keep an open mind and consider all possibilities, because that is what will be necessary. I found the Vanity Fair article to be very motivating. How far the Internet and World Wide Web have progressed over the past two decades is incredible, and it gives me hope for journalism. Innovation is key, and there is no doubt in my mind that the future of journalism is in good hands.

  15. 15 Hannah January 26, 2010 at 4:23 am

    It seems as though every journalism class I’ve ever taken has had at least several weeks devoted to bemoaning the death of journalism. “Who will tell the real story? You can’t leave it up to all those laymen out there who write whatever they feel like saying without backing it up!”

    But Johnson says, “We’re going to spend so much time trying to figure out how to keep the old model on life support that we won’t be able to help invent a new model that actually might work better for everyone.”

    People seem to forget that the World Wide Web has its own type of accountability. A simple Google search can produce thousands of articles on the same topic, and a quick scan will usually suffice to effectively weed out the duds. Even journalists themselves are turning to writing blogs in addition to (or even instead of!) traditional reporting methods.

    Shirky talks about how it’s useless to try and suggest quick-fix solutions for the problem the Web poses to journalism, because the industry has already been preparing and tried many things.

    Generally speaking, however, the public still gets its news from “true” journalistic sources anyway, albeit online. The media must simply keep searching for a working business model that adapts and fits with the quickly changing dynamic of the World Wide Web.

  16. 16 Yolande Yip January 26, 2010 at 6:04 am

    I enjoyed reading Johnson’s speech, and I thought it much more insightful than Shirky’s blog post, as Johnson offers more concrete predictions rather than just saying, “I don’t know. Nobody knows [what will happen to journalism].” That’s kind of a cop out—n’est-ce pas?
    Everyone can agree that journalism is—indeed, must—change, as much for its own benefit as for that of society. However, I can’t agree with the idea that newspapers everywhere are preparing to heave one last collective sigh and kick it. Yes, online journalists and bloggers do produce quality work, including some very good original reporting, but as Johnson pointed out, (for now) only the large news corporations have the funding to send out trained reporters to war zones and other sites of international crises for on-the-scene reporting (Haiti, anyone?) .
    Johnson’s observations on the rise of online local reporting were very interesting, however, and I think I can agree that if news organizations were to scale back on more localized issues, concentrating on the “heavy stuff,” to put it simply, and let people search for and read about the local issues relevant to them on blogs, it is possible for “classic” journalism and whatever online developments are occurring to form a sort of symbiosis—at least for the time being.
    And while I do believe that eventually newspapers may house their content entirely on the web, did anyone catch the bit on MediaShift questioning whether or not e-editions are more eco-friendly than print versions when taking into account extra electricity use and recycled/virgin paper? Results weren’t conclusive, but Greenwashing is a powerful and trendy tool nowadays, and while print editions are inarguably more expensive to produce, if we look at our grocery shopping trends lately, people are willing to pay a little more for local produce just to reduce their carbon footprints.

  17. 17 John Lee January 27, 2010 at 11:17 am

    There is definitely a common theme of discussion in today’s journalism circles. WHO will continue to carry the torch forward in regards to journalism? As the obvious progression towards online news continues and the inevitable seems only a few generations away, Johnson’s question sums it up.

    “Will the bloggers get out of their pajamas and head up the Baghdad bureau?”

    It’s clearly obvious that while local community news are difficult to be targeted by large newspaper corporations and thus bloggers seem to be the more popular and logical choice in this matter. However, will these bloggers be able to do the investigative journalism or war reporting that can only be funded by newspapers? Most likely not. Personally, I think there needs to be a good balance between these two worlds. While a lot of news is now being read online, to be honest, it’s the newspapers that I still trust with the most reliable information being produced. It will be interesting to see if the newspapers and people in my generation fight for the survival of newspapers or if they listen to everybody else wailing about the eventual death of these corporations so they just fold.

    Shirky continues this thought as he stresses the importance of print journalists to society as they cover the mundane boring parts of the city beat such as meetings in City Hall. In addition, it is not really a lack of demand for journalists and news that is the issue at hand but rather the simple math and economics of costs and profits for newspapers to continue to exist in this world that offers free news online. I think he makes an excellent point as previous to reading this articles, to be honest, a lot of these discussions had gotten to my head and had me worried about the future of journalists such as myself but I am reassured that there will always be a demand for information.

    Now it’s just a matter of awaiting the unknown in the future. Whether analysts will be proven right with the completely extinction of newspapers or if newspapers and online media will find a balance of symbiosis.

  18. 18 danicwilson January 27, 2010 at 11:51 am

    I really enjoyed the Vanity Fair piece because of its unique oral history perspective. Hearing about the innovations in technology and business from the people who were there making the decisions and coming up with the ideas was interesting and it added an entertaining sense of authenticity.

    I remember first learning about the “history of the internet” in my very first webmastering class when I was a freshman in high school. (We learned the basics of html, made awful websites with tons of colors and animated graphics, used tables, tripod and geocities… all things that we laugh about now in graphic design.) I remember learning about information sent as “packets” from the government and how that meant absolutely nothing to me. But hearing it from the sources in this article makes much more sense.

    As far as the other articles go, I’ve read the Shirky piece before for another class, but I like and agree with a lot of what he has to say. One of my favorite points he makes is from the very end of the article, when he says, “Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”

    I think that this really sums up what I’ve gathered from most of the multimedia journalism professors here at UT. It’s not a hopeless and futile “dead” industry, it is just in a huge transitional period, which I find more exciting than anything. Being a young, innovative, flexible journalist in this transition puts us at a huge advantage, and maybe it will be someone in our class that finds the “experiment” that works. (And hopefully makes us a little bit of money too.)

  19. 19 Yolande Yip January 28, 2010 at 4:03 am

    As Jenkins writes, with the dawning of “participatory culture,” media consumers are no longer content with this one-way flow of information. Roles are changing, and the lines between media consumer and media producer are blurring as they, “interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands.”

    Obviously, it’s nigh impossible to predict what lies at the end of the rainbow. We can only speculate.

    Keeping that in mind, a quote from Deuze was particularly striking. He says, “People cannot simply rely on parents, priests, professionals, or presidents for truth anymore – they have to go out and construct their own narrative…”

    When I think about this in terms of the speech by Berlin Johnson we read, I’m again struck by Berlin’s thoughts on citizen journalism. If the general public can no longer rely on professional journalists “for truth,” then some will go out and search for it and blog about it themselves.

    What does that mean for the professional journalism industry? We’ve all heard of the Pew Research Center’s survey on the public’s perception of the media in one class or another. It’s no secret that the public’s general feelings of journalists aren’t exactly ones full of trust. Which is why I think now is a perfect time to take advantage of these participatory and convergence cultures and the double-direction flow of information. If the industry establishes a rapport with their audience now, reading independent news blogs, cultivating relationships with readers, perhaps people will again be able to rely on and trust professional journalists.

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