What's The Future Of News? The content won't change that much, just how it's delivered, predicts media critic James Ledbetter.
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What's The Future Of News?

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What's The Future Of News?

What's The Future Of News?

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All right, so a funny thing happened in the middle of our cancellation. The journalists in us kicked in, and we said wait, you know, there is a bigger story here. It's about the future of radio and news consumption. I mean, will terrestrial news shows continue to be a viable and dominant form? Or is it in danger because of online offerings? But here's the thing, how do you make money with online offerings? Enough to pay for news gathering, travel to far-flung places and experienced people to do that reporting?

Well, there aren't any clear answers yet, but there are some interesting ideas. So, we turned to James Ledbetter of the Big Money, a new financial website from Slate. It's going to be launched in September. He's also the author of "Made Possible By: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States," and written about the state of media for just about every magazine out there. And he's a podcaster as well. Hi, you're very busy. You're a very busy man.

Mr. JAMES LEDBETTER (Editor, The Big Money): Busy, that's true. Good morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Good morning to you. So, today, on July 24th, I'll paint a picture of somebody's life. You're waking up. Makes some coffee. Might get the laptop or get up to your desktop at work. You check your emails, Facebook, maybe a Twitter feed. Hit some newspaper websites. Maybe use an RSS reader like Bloglines. So, James, take our hand, hold our hand, and take us into the future. Let's say you wake up, make some coffee, and then what? How do you get your information?

Mr. LEDBETTER: Well, I think that the fundamental changes in the, you know, in, let's say, the medium-term horizon, five to 10 years, are really more in the mode of delivery rather than they are in a sort of changed mode of content or production. What do I mean by that? I mean that the sort of classic news radio formula - news, traffic, weather - the things that people really want in the morning, I don't think that's going to fundamentally change. How you get that information is going to evolve.

I think the biggest difference that we'll see in the next five years will be a much larger role for handheld devices, like mobile phones, iPhones, iPods to some extent. Although I think that the iPod and the podcast will be probably be leapfrogged-over by what's available through an Internet-connected iPhone.

And then other forms of delivery, for example, it makes a lot of sense for traffic information, if I commute by car, which I personally don't, but lots of people do, to have traffic information emailed directly to my car. Or plugged into the GPS system that's in my car so that when a map comes up it will always show me which highways are clogged, et cetera, et cetera. But - so the delivery methods will evolve. Where the information comes from and what information people want and need are probably going to stay pretty much the same.

STEWART: Well, I want to go back five years to 2003. Sometimes you can learn a lot or predict the future by looking at the past.


STEWART: What do you think has changed the most? What does it signal to us, when you think about the future from past experiences? I thought right away about, imagine a time before Dan Rather lost his job because some eagle-eyed blogger noticed some documents used in a report about the president weren't authentic.

Mr. LEDBETTER: Right. You know, obviously the development of blogs has been important. I would not, myself, rank it as the most important development in the last five years. I think that the, you know, single killer application that the Internet has brought us remains email. And so while, of course, email existed five years ago, I think its ubiquity and its acceptance as a mode of delivering news is really the biggest change. People now get emailed summaries of what's in the papers. They get summaries of stuff that's a particular interest to them, maybe in their industry, or if its entertainment news, or news about food.

Really anything that you can imagine can now be delivered through email, and then it will either link out to a website or contain the information in the email itself. Certainly the development of the web and the development of the blogosphere are important. You mentioned, you know, RSS feeds and newsreaders. You know, I think those are great tools. Every survey I've seen shows that actually a very small percentage of web-users actually use them. And sometimes it's because they're hard to set up. Sometimes it's because the feeds don't work that well. There's all sorts of places where those things break down, and I suppose that technology will get better, but at the moment, it doesn't look to me like something that's going to provide a massive change.

STEWART: Well, I wonder two things about that. One, when you say email, my mind immediately went to the speed with which we can get news.


STEWART: Which kind of is bad news for newspapers and even evening newscasts.

Mr. LEDBETTER: I don't think that it is. I again...

STEWART: I can get information's so much more quickly online than I can by waiting for the next edition of the newspaper to come out.

Mr. LEDBETTER: That's right. That's right, but at the end of the day, who's providing that information? So, I get, for example....


Mr. LEDBETTER: Because I'm covering business these days, I get email news alerts from wallstreetjournal.com. I now get them on my BlackBerry, which is also my phone. So, you know, the sort of headline service that I might have once relied on news radio or CNBC for, I can now get the gist of the story, and even the whole story, on my BlackBerry. But it's still coming from a Wall Street Journal reporter or a wire service.

STEWART: Well, that gets to the next question. When, and can independent, reporting be sustained online? Where does the money come from that so that someone who has a podcast can dispatch someone to do the fire to report on what has happened, rather than rely on the AP wires?

Mr. LEDBETTER: Exactly. There's no question that that is the sort of looming dilemma that lies over all of our heads. Certainly it's not possible to imagine right now a model for supporting news and supporting reporting that is based on the kind of advertising we're familiar with that has supported print publications in the past. That, no one has figured out.

At the same time, I would argue that that was never really the only way of funding things. I mean, National Public Radio is a perfect example. You know, it doesn't rely on advertising in the same sense to do what it does. It has corporate underwriting and it has some underwriting spots that look a lot like advertising, sound a lot like advertising, but it's not advertising in the traditional print model. And I think that that is the way it's going to have to go even for commercial outlets. Somebody needs to find a way to make that email that comes to my BlackBerry work.

And maybe that involves embedding advertisement in that, or maybe it involves a sponsorship model. The BlackBerry delivery service is brought to you by Research in Motion, the company that makes BlackBerries. There are models out there where individual bloggers have asked readers to contribute so that they can go to Iraq, some with success. That, right now, is not a model you are going to base an entire industry on, but I think that there's a lot of ferment going on right now in new media to solve exactly that question. But that is the question.

STEWART: We're speaking with James Ledbetter, writer and reporter about these - the sort of future of how we're going to consume news and where it's going to grow. And I'm curious about, for news to succeed on the Internet, I mean, does there have to be a portal, a show, a home base, a podcast, an anchor, and I don't mean a person, I mean some place to go to assemble and then link out?

Mr. LEDBETTER: I kind of think that there does, that the - what you'd get if you don't have a portal, an aggregator, a filter of some kind, is you immediately get cacophony. You know, I have found that even some of the aggregating tools, because they want so badly to be comprehensive, I also need a filter for the filters. And I won't name names, but it is very easy to be overwhelmed by information on the Internet, and particularly when you have very different standards of quality, length of story, consistency of reporting. If you come to a particular website or portal or just an online presence and have an expectation of a certain level of consistency, it's very easy to get angry when you read something you consider is slipshod or insufficiently reported or inaccurate.

And so, I think that there - and certainly if you look at most trafficked websites, you know, in the United States and in the world, many of them are these portals, places that help us figure out and, you know, prioritize, which is the traditional function of journalists, it takes a different form, but it remains a sort of gate-keeping filter function, and I think that most news consumers need that. There's a small select few people who will go out and find their own and use the latest technology to sort of work there through the thicket of information, but most people need a filter or an aggregator of some kind.

STEWART: James Ledbetter is the editor of the Big Money, a new financial website from Slate being launched in September. Good luck with the new site, James.

Mr. LEDBETTER: Thank you very much, and good luck to you.

STEWART: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Coming up, they are young Americans, specifically young Republicans, and they have a few things they'd like their elders to know about the GOP. And if you've had it with "Snakes on a Plane," what about babies? If you're going to Chicago next week, look out, Baby Ike is going to hit the skies. Details coming up on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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