How the Internet Changed the World, For Good and Bad

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And What You Can Do About It Now

gwcubamug.jpgConnecting the Dots
by Glynn Wilson

During the 1995-96 academic year, I spent most of my time sitting in the Gorgas library at the University of Alabama scanning the New York Times on microfilm and reading stories about the environment along side public opinion polls. I spent a small fortune paying to print those stories for a Master’s thesis looking at how media coverage affects public opinion.

There was no search engine called Google in those early days, and most newspapers had not yet started backing up their stories in online databases such as Lexis-Nexis. So to conduct research, you had to go to the library and pull up old newspapers on microfilm and put change in the machine to print the stories.

The Internet company America Online was just coming on the scene, the Web browser Netscape had just been created, and a conservative convenience store clerk named Matt Drudge had 1,000 subscribers to one of the first e-mail lists. By the fall of 1996, about the time I moved to Milledgeville to teach at Georgia College the year the Olympics came to Atlanta and put up my first Web site, Drudge had started the first “news aggregation” Web site, The Drudge Report.

Bill Clinton was enjoying a great run as president and was reelected in a landslide that fall, in part because the U.S. economy was booming thanks to the dramatic increases in worker productivity due to the personal computer revolution.

Yes, old Bob Dole fell off that stage and didn’t run a great campaign. But a majority of the American people felt the government and the economy were working, so why change? In fact, by the year 1999, the Clinton-Gore administration had wiped out the Reagan budget deficit. Remember the “peace dividend?”

A few academics and political gurus were just starting to talk about how personal computers, Internet access and the Web could have a democratizing impact on the country and the world by making information available to more people faster, when Drudge came along and proved it. But it could easily be argued that the defining story of that era did about as much harm as good to the country and the body politic.

Even if you were not paying close attention to the news about politics or technology then for whatever reason, at the very least you most likely know the name Monica Lewinsky and have some vague recollection of a scandal involving a certain sex act with an intern in the White House.

Newsweek magazine had the story, but since the editors decided not to run it, Lewinsky’s friend Linda Tripp, who was secretly taping their conversations, leaked it to Matt Drudge.

While the rest of the mainstream media played catch up and began to cover the story, and Clinton at first denied it, Drudge also broke the story about a certain stain on a blue dress that had not yet been to the cleaners, if you know what I mean, and got himself famous.

He ended up for a time with a radio show and then briefly a TV show on Fox News, but the site itself generated enough traffic and Web ad revenue that Drudge bought a condo in Miami and became the main place online for the conservative, Republican echo chamber. That story set the stage for elevation of dunderhead George W. Bush as president over Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

You know the rest of the story, what happened on 9/11, the creation of the massive Homeland Security Department, the Iraq war, the tax cuts for the rich, and eventually the near collapse of the economy, otherwise known as the Bush recession.

What you may or may not realize is what was going on with the mainstream press in this country as the Web began to wreak havoc on the old fashioned print economy.

Mass circulation daily newspapers had come into their own in the early 20th century and enjoyed an incredible run, even with the advent of radio in the 1920s and television in the 1950s. But conservative newspaper managers, largely funded by corporate advertising, would not realize in time the impact the Web would have on their business model — until the recession of 2007-2008.

While the conservative Drudge got the first major scoop in what some call “cyberspace,” the left began to catch up and gain the upper hand on the Web during the 2004 election cycle with the advent of blogging software. Unfortunately, it was not in time to prevent Bush from winning reelection. But there is no doubt the use of Internet e-mail lists, liberal blogs and the Web itself helped Barack Obama win the presidential election of 2008.

That’s the way it is, as Walter Cronkite used to say on CBS News, but there are a number of issues we must still deal with to continue the democratizing influence of the Web. There are still major battles ahead. For starters, as we are seeing in the national health care debate, the influence of mega-corporations is like a giant juggernaut.

In retrospect, perhaps Obama should have sent the Justice Department to break up some of the corporate giants before trying to pass a government health care plan. Just in the past few days, the insurance companies have threatened to raise rates on those who already have insurance if Congress doesn’t do what they want in the bill coming up for a vote today in the U.S. Senate.

Mainstream newspapers now post their content on Websites for people to read, and most of those are still free at least for now, although the debate continues about charging for content. But newspapers, as well as TV news stations, are primarily funded by advertising from the corporate giants, including the oil and power companies such Exxon Mobile and Southern Company, telecommunications companies such as ATnT, drug companies and yes insurance companies.

These corporations and their CEOs enjoyed a heyday with Bush in the White House and amassed wealth like nothing ever seen in the history of the world. There is no doubt that with all their money, they will figure out how to “get their message out.”

On the other side of the debate, the liberal bloggers cannot continue to operate largely for free. To continue influencing public opinion in a positive direction, the economy for the Web Press is going to have to be built.

For the past few months, the Huffington Post has emerged as the hot liberal news site, calling itself “the Internet newspaper.” Big money liberal donors such as George Soros and the Kennedys have thrown money at it. But if you look at the site, it is generating most of its traffic by covering celebrity tabloid news and running think tank-funded writers. They still do not pay many of the free-lancers who publish there, and they have done next to nothing in the way of investigative journalism with the $1.7 million they raised for that purpose.

So other sites are going to have to be developed to fill the void.

While most of this discussion focuses on the national level, the local debate may be just as important.

Due to the plummeting circulation of the daily newspaper in Atlanta, for example, a group of former Journal-Constitution reporters have started up a news site called AtlantaUnfiltered.

The problem we have in Alabama is that the Newhouse chain controls a near monopoly on the news. The Website is made up of the content from the three largest newspapers in the state in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville. It also houses the student newspaper at UAB, the Alabama Baptist, and even the publisher of the Montgomery Independent allows its content to be housed there, even though the Advent company refuses to share the revenue.

The once famous Anniston Star, one of the few newspapers in the state with a somewhat liberal editor and publisher, still charges to read the site, which means it is limiting itself to a local audience and will have no influence on the future direction of politics and public policy in this state.

The Montgomery Advertiser is a mere shadow of its former self, and the New York Times regional newspapers in Tuscaloosa and Gadsden are also in serious circulation decline. The New York Times company recently sold the paper in Florence to the publisher of the Decatur Daily, so the Shelton family will probably continue to turn a profit for awhile longer, even though they have done next to nothing to figure out the economy of the Web Press.

It is my educated opinion that most newspapers will never get past the ink, paper and delivery truck economic model and figure out the Web economy, so new news organizations will have to be built to replace them. That’s one of the reasons I started the Locust Fork News-Journal four and a half years ago, to start experimenting with how to do this. It is still a work in progress.

Think about this. The Web has the potential of a global audience. But you can’t build national and international traffic by spending more time covering local news and sports and by forcing people to sign up to read your site. It just won’t work. That’s why I have kept my site open and free and focused more on national news.

Where is the funding going to come from for this new Web Press? A logical first place to look is the profession that tends to be on the other side of the corporations in courtroom fights, trial lawyers. The mainstream media has been no friend to liberal trial lawyers for many years anyway. When the Birmingham News uses the term trial lawyer, they mean it as a slur.

It has long been my belief that newspapers took the wrong approach when Drudge came on the scene, about the same time Rush Limbaugh got rich and famous slurring the New York Times on the radio as “liberal.” I’m working on a film to explain how the definition of objectivity got screwed up in the American news media, so I won’t go into that diatribe here today.

My message today is for the lawyers, who have seen their business dry up in Alabama because Karl Rove slandered their profession and turned the Alabama Supreme Court Republican.

They should have done more to counter the lies back in the 1990s, but they were limited by restrictions on advertising. So the strategy was to funnel millions of dollars to Democratic Party candidates to run advertisements on TV, and in most cases, those ads were ineffective. Why? Because they went to fund the same corporate media that disdained their profession in the first place, and failed to cover the news adequately. And I don’t mean “fair and balanced.”

Look at local television news today. If they are not talking about the same old recipes and high school football, they are covering the latest crack shooting or fire. Coverage of public affairs is limited to what they read in the local newspapers, which has a decidedly conservative slant.

Even public television has been gutted in recent years, and public radio mostly covers national news. So where do local candidates turn to get the word out? Blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook.

But the blogs that have developed in Alabama are still largely un-funded affairs run by people who are not trained in journalism or political science, and the only people making any money on Facebook are the programmers who wrote the code for the software.

Since I joined Facebook six months ago, I have been amazed to watch how just about everybody is a modern day Matt Drudge. A number of my 400 Facebook “friends” are chasing headlines just like Drudge, competing with each other to be the first to “share” them with their friends.

While this is all well and good, and shows that at least some people are keeping up with the news and public affairs, it is not sustainable. Why? Because unless we find a way to fund the actual field work of journalism, there won’t be anything to link to or share for long — except corporate funded news.

I am in talks right now with some folks who are beginning to understand these trends and who have the resources to do something about them. While individual contributions will continue to play an important role, I believe the Web Press will get some of the funding it needs from image advertising to counter the corporate lies that have permeated our culture for too long now. Stay tuned…

© 2009 – 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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