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Outside Voices: Tom Rosenstiel Asks If Media Dinosaurs Can Roam The Web

Each week we invite someone from the outside to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we invited Tom Rosenstiel -- a veteran journalist and former Los Angeles Times media critic who currently serves as the Director for Excellence in Journalism and Vice Chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. As always, the opinions expressed in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Tom:

After two weeks, the question isn't how is Public Eye doing. Or even whether is somehow different or better as a result.

Not enough time has passed to meaningfully evaluate an undertaking like this. Those kinds of snap judgments are one of the mannerisms people justifiably find irritating about the mainstream media. (In time it may be a mannerism people find even more irritating about the blogosphere.) In any case, the comments section of Public Eye is handling this dialogue for now, offering refinements, not judgments.

The more interesting question is whether CBS News and Public Eye are onto something here. Can a vast legacy institution like CBS News, steeped in an old technology like broadcast television, be an innovator on the Web? Or is this like watching your 80-year-old parents dance to disco at their grandchildren's wedding? In other words, will the future of online journalism inevitably leapfrog places like CBS?

To ponder the answer, let's stipulate first that Public Eye and will change a good deal in the next couple years. Let's certainly hope so. The technology of the Web is changing too fast for it not to. The grammar of Web journalism, blogs and the medium generally are just forming. Searchable video, vblogs, mobblogs, and things not yet imagined are still to come. Two years from now, the term blog itself may be mostly a memory. Remember Me-zines, an early name for something similar?

The answer, instead, lies in whether an institution like CBS will be positioned to produce material online that has distinctive value, material that cannot be produced better by others, and that will work with the style, manner and audience of the Web.

The data show audiences online have an on-demand orientation. They want what they want when they want. The user is the controlling personality, as opposed to an anchorman narrator. Some also want to produce content as well as consume it.

Though it may surprise some more casual observers, network news operations like CBS may be uniquely positioned to take advantage of this user-oriented environment.

For one thing, CBS News and other broadcast networks produce something that most cable news operations do not, nor most other Web producers. The networks produce carefully written, taped, edited packages of news -- finished stories that match pictures to words, are vetted and double checked. Fully 90% of the time on the evening newscasts is made up of these taped, edited packages. By contrast, only 11% of the time on cable news is made up of such finished material. The vast majority of time on cable news is made up of live interviews and reporter standups, essentially extemporaneous talk.

This cable model will not likely translate as well to the proactive, user-centric online environment. The content online must have more than transitory value to be worth searching for. This will only intensify as technologies like searchable video evolve.

Online news sites will likely also need voices, people of skill, insight, experience and authority, and enough popularity that people will want to read, listen or watch them. Though they have thinned those ranks alarmingly, networks still have the capacity for that. They will need to invest more in specialties and beats, an opposite direction than they have been going.

Old media will also need to open the black box, and make their work more transparent. Here CBS News is already onto something. With Public Eye, they are probably leading the way, at least in television. The notion that a network would air its morning story meeting, with the president of the news division in attendance, would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. It is still much more revolutionary than people probably appreciate.

Some also think the old media will need to shake off the mannerisms of MSM and be fun and open in the style of blogs. This may be overdone. I suspect the mannerisms of the Internet are still evolving, and that different sites will develop different styles. The notion that there is only one online way may seem quaint a few years from now. In any case, adapting new style is easy, like new haircuts or casual office wear.

More central, in the end, is whether these older press institutions can change their DNA, can recognize the centrality of the web to their future. The hiring of Larry Kramer to run CBS online is a major, promising signal, but it by no means is an answer.

What has harmed the networks over the last 20 years is the structure of broadcasting, the fact that it must produce everything through a single channel, facing the limitations of time slot. Nearly 30 million Americans still watch the three evening newscasts, though the average age is nearly 60 years old. If networks are capable of producing television, text and audio that has value, the Internet becomes its liberation. We may be entering the moment where having a cable outlet is far less advantageous than it seemed five years ago. The network news business, in other words, may be looking much more interesting than it did when AOL merged with Time Warner.

That is what the promise of CBS' new experiment is. If you believe major network news TV operations are institutions worth surviving, there is a good deal more implied in this experiment than most people probably realize. And a good deal more at stake in whether it fails or succeeds.