News On The Wild, Wild Web

If you are not into "dot com," you are in the process of becoming as out-of-date as a guy who wears spats to the office, or a woman who wears a hat and gloves to a party.

No matter what you think of this computerized, interconnected world, to shun it is to sentence yourself to ignorance and to become yesterday's man or woman.

In business, if you're not "dot com," you're dying. Worse, you might be what the Mafia calls "a walking corpse." You're already dead, you just don't know it yet.

The news business is no exception. That's why your reporter has been talking to a colleague who's an expert on the Internet.

She's especially good on the subject of the distribution of news and information via newspapers, radio and television compared with the Internet.

"On the surface, they couldn't be more different," she says.

"Print, radio and television are about distilling information into digestible pieces. The Internet is about open access to an infinite amount of information."

In "old media," as she calls it, "someone other than the user decides what is relevant content. On the Internet, you, the user, decide what is relevant content."

"Newspapers, magazines, radio and television are about being distinctive. The Internet is about being generic."

Or is it? Have you noticed in some ways, the Internet is beginning to display behavior characteristics of print, radio and television? Increasingly, "news sites" (not all of these actually deal in news) on the Internet are focusing more attention on creating personalities and unique voices. Branding has become a crucial element for success, and the belief is spreading that it may be the only way to survive on the Web.

Remember, anyone can build a Web site. It's cheap and easy. So, as time goes on, what has made mainstream print, radio and television successful will also be what makes an Internet news site a success: the substance of its content and the quality of its storytelling.

The quality of its gatekeepers also figures to emerge as increasingly important. At their best, news gatekeepers are quality-control experts. The best of news organizations have always had experienced gatekeepers: editors and producers who decide which news events should be covered and how they should be presented to the reader, listener or viewer.

Such decisions are traditionally based on what they believe are the most important and most interesting events and people. And there are built-in checks and balances designed to provide the maximum accuracy and fairness in "straight" news reporting.

A few Internet news sites have such gatekeepers now. Many do not. In general, those that are not generic, those with a discernible editorial hand at the rudder, are beginning to flourish. Those that don't are having trouble attracting and keeping users.

People long ago wised up to the fact that not every source of news and information on the Internet is accurate or redible. Sure, the Internet allows everyone to be his or her own "managing editor." But being your own means separating fact from fiction and irrelevance from true value.

With today's information gusher, most users don't have the time, desire, patience or ability to separate fact from fiction, truth from gossip and rumor, value from irrelevancy. That's why on the Internet they are increasingly clicking on experts, news pros -- brand names they can trust.

For those of us in the news business this, at least, is seen as an encouraging sign on the wild, wild Web.

Naturally, we're hoping you will see it that way, too.