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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Overcast
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Bob McChesney discusses online journalism and the Cap Times
McChesney: 'With new technology, people often emphasize what you gain, but overlook at what you sacrifice.'
McChesney: 'With new technology, people often emphasize what you gain, but overlook at what you sacrifice.'

Media critic Bob McChesney was one of the first people I interviewed when I began researching my Isthmus story on The Capital Times' decision to end daily publication and reconstitute itself as an online publication.

McChesney, who taught for ten years in the UW-Madison journalism department before moving on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is one of the sharpest media observers around.

I didn't have room to cite McChesney in the print story, but here I can share at length his thoughts on the profound shift underway in journalism.

"With new technology, people often emphasize what you gain, but overlook at what you sacrifice," McChesney told me.

"You go from a printed format, which has 300 years of rich tradition, to a computer screen. Even if you have the same content the experience changes," he noted.

"The pluses are obvious; it's what everybody gets excited about. In an online story you can have links to virtually everything in the story," he said. "If you want to follow up on any aspect, the links will take your right there. You can take in all the previous stories, too.

"This is truly revolutionary. It would have been considered science fiction 25 years ago. And it allows for interaction and discussion -- all sorts of amazing things.

"The down side -- this is the point that Cass Sunstein makes in -- is that you can craft a media world where you don't see anything but what you want to see.

"There's not much incidental that gets in like when you read a newspaper," he said. "We lose the common ground of stories and issues. People can cherry-pick the stories they want and reinforce their own interests. But they're less rounded and don't see the world from other people's eyes."

The Capital Times' plunge into this new world is "unusual and pioneering," especially in cutting the Web paper free of the daily print edition, McChesney said.

"It's really uncharted territory what the Cap Times is going," he noted. "The worst-case scenario is that it becomes a really good website. But then the question is, can they make money at it? That's the fundamental question of online journalism. Can it support itself?"

McChesney acknowledged that the Cap Times, because it shares in the profits of the Capital Newspapers publishing operation, is in a relatively strong position to experiment with online publishing. But he says the financial pressure will remain.

"The pressures online are going to be great because there are lots of websites that desperately need advertising to survive," he said. "There's going to be tremendous pressure to shape the journalism to appeal to advertisers as much as to the readers."

Not just with the Capital Times, but at all websites doing journalism, McChesney added.

"There is no system worked out where the people who produce online content are compensated for it," he said, pointing to the news-aggregator sites like Google and Yahoo that sell ads around content drawn from other sites.

"The trouble with aggregators is that at some point people have to be paid to produce content," he said. "If you're not drawing a paycheck you're not going to write stuff. That's the problem facing journalism writ large.

"The commercial system is in crisis, and there's no alternative out there," he said with a disturbing finality.

McChesney, who still calls Madison home, is a co-founder (with the Cap Times' John Nichols) of Free Press, a reform group promoting a diverse and independently owned media.

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