How To Get Past The Generational Divide On The Future Of News

This story was written by Jim Spanfeller.
Jim Spanfeller is president and CEO of Forbes.com. He is also treasurer of the Online Publishers Association and chairman emeritus of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

While I certainly thought my post on paidContent two weeks ago about Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and the newspaper industry would create some discussion, I can honestly tell you I had no idea of the levels of interest, anger and ridicule it would spawn. For the record, I remain confident in my thoughts, but that is not the point of this piece. 

Reading through some of the comments, I was struck by the underlying motivations. I am sure there were many and well-varied foundations for the comments, certainly what one did for a living being high on the list. (Presumably working for a content creator or Search Engine Marketing firm would suggest radically different feelings on the core topic.) That said, buried in the comments was a more fundamentally interesting and perhaps important pattern: the divide between new and old.


This notion was rolling around in my mind when, lo and behold, one final comment appeared in the comment stream well after the original post itself had settled into the archives. Which I guess means that the conversation rages on. Fittingly, this last comment dealt in part with this quasi generational divide that I had been ruminating on. Here is an excerpt:

It's funny how people come out with such anger and acid in their tone when someone calmly addresses a real issue. Google's CEO Schmidt readily addresses these issues in debates and forums. He's the one who said that the internet is a sewer right now. Searching can be a real pain to swim through all of the s^%$ before getting to the content produced by a professional journalist

The high debate of 'ninnies' attacking people as 'grandpas' for the assumed lesser technical knowledge is tiresome and sophomoric. This type of attack is pointless and does nothing to advance everyone's desire to get good information in a timely fashion by people who are paid fairly for both producing and distributing it.


Before anyone suggests that I'm looking to stir up the hornet's nest again by repeating just one of the many comments that the piece instigated (and, to be fair, one of the minority that supported my general thesis), let me say that I do not think anyone is a "ninny" nor certainly do I think that I am a "grandpa"well, at least, not yet.

The two camps represented by the responses to my piece can be roughly characterized as follows. One group suggests that the world has changed forever and completely, while the other suggests that, yes, the world has fundamentally changed but perhaps not completely. The latter argues that no matter how break-through the technology, there is always some level of derivation involved in advancementsat least in media terms. 

For example, movies were not stage plays and thus did not begin to achieve their full potential until directors like DW Griffith stepped out of the paradigm of simply putting stage plays on film and began to change camera angles, included such new approaches as "close-ups." But they still told stories, and to this day, stage plays become movies and movies become stage plays.

My point is simply that until each end of this divide understands and respects the other we will not take advantage of the full potential of the web. What's old is new and what's new is, well, new as well. One of the greatest reasons that Forbes.com prospered and grew while other magazine web sites did not was that we understood that the web was a new medium and as such was going to be used in different ways. That video and interactivity and community and, yes, search were all going to be important. But it was aso clear that another of the big reasons that Forbes.com succeeded was that it had a well-known and well-respected brand. A brand that people understood and trusted. A brand that won those attributes in another time when most of the rules were different.

I am not sure where this cultural divide will lead nor how we might expedite its disappearance. But I do agree with our commenter that much of the vitriolic debate that swirls around this divide is pointless and, what's more, debilitating. I am hopeful that by pushing each and every one of these issues into the spotlight we can find ways to respect the past and also welcome the new, and thus to make them both work together to provide end users a richer experience.

At the end of the day people go online for much the same reasons that they used to turn to other mediums: They want news, they want to buy something, they want to find out what time their movie starts, they want to research the workings of the Pythagorean theory. Fundamental motivations have not changed. What is different are some key factors, like form factor, timeliness, interactivity and so forth. These differences are for the most part advancements. The issue is how to solve the past needs better given the changes.

Newspapers are under siege not because people no longer desire the news but rather because the best form factor for getting that news no longer involves printing plants, ink barrels and delivery trucks. Still, newspapers or at least their brands have great value in the hearts and minds of their readers. There is a standard of professionalism that they have achieved that gives them great trust and thus allows them the opportunity to be the beacon of light through the now oft-mentioned cesspool of the web. The answer is not stomping out one to make way for the other but rather taking the best from both worlds.




By Jim Spanfeller
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