When I graduated high school in 1992, I thought it equally likely that I'd be either an attorney or a journalist.  Law seemed to be a natural career progression for me, but I was also very interested in journalism after a stint as sports editor of my high school newspaper.  But… I got involved with what turned out to be my first startup in 1994 and the rest is history.

That first startup, Stratfor, ironically evolved into Web journalism after I put everything on a shoddy, poorly-designed portal for the first time in 1999.  Intuitively, we knew that the content we produced on a regular basis was interesting.  So we took a chance and threw it all online.  It was a raging success — after sending a brief announcement to a few thousand people on a slowly cultivated e-mail distribution list, our Unique Visitor traffic went from 100-60,000 in a single day.  I won't bore you with the rest of the details, but it was indeed an exciting time.

On the technical end, we grappled with a number of issues that have since been solved:

  • Taking advantage of the fact that you can publish to the Web immediately (live blogging infrastructure)
  • Delivering short, high-importance messages (real-time, open messaging a la Twitter)
  • Cross-referencing content with different characteristics (tags/tag clouds)
  • User feedback & identification (comments/social media)

Although the Stratfor story certainly had its ups & downs, I like to think we were way ahead of the curve in 1999.  The Huffington Post and others get a lot of credit for redefining journalism today in 1999, but we were pioneers in many ways at Stratfor in the late 1990s.  Stratfor ultimately created a subscription service from the portal, and has done a good job monetizing their content ever since.  The business is a (seriously underreported) success today despite the ups and downs of learning at that time.  If you think people have a hard time with the online media business models today, imagine how it was in 2001!

But enough of that… the point of my post is to talk about how things have changed since then.  My favorite example is referencing content from other news sources.  We would occasionally find an interesting story on Lexis-Nexis (remember, this is B.G. - Before Google) and want to summarize it on Stratfor.com.  We were very concerned about doing this — whether or not the referenced newspaper or magazine would like it or not.  I remember wondering whether or not we should summarize the story, reference another news source via hyperlink, or do a ton of additional research to weave it into something greater.  It seems odd today, links to stories appear everywhere — Google News, Fark.com, Digg.com, etc.  All of those companies are making a ton of money as aggregators.  I think I read recently that Fark.com makes ~$10m in revenue with two employees.  I'm not sure if that's true, but even if it's a 10x exaggeration… WOW!

Then look at today — in a highly unscientific poll by Time Magazine, respondents say that they trust Jon Stewart over and above all other major media newscasters.  Here's a guy with no journalism pedigree and a background in comedy of all things.  And folks in America trust him more than decorated newscasters at major networks.

So what can we conclude from this?  A few things:

  • "Just the facts" is, for better or worse, regarded as boring or uninteresting by today's viewer/reader.
  • People want to hear their news from people who share a similar perspective on the world.  This is why people like Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, Bill O'Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and others are media stars as recognizable as news anchors.
  • Content aggregation, curation, and comment is the new journalism — like it or not.
  • The free flow of information brought about by the Web makes this a reality.  The reporting of news is more of a public dialogue than a recitation of facts.  People read this type of analysis either because it reinforces opinion or it is controversial.

In Part II, I will talk about where all of this is increasingly taking place — the blogosphere — and how attitudes towards bloggers have changed over the last few years.