America Online's president sees home
entertainment and communications as a collection of boxes. The TV
set is the "tell-me-a-story box." The personal computer "the
manage-your-life box." The CD player? "The give-me-a-mood box."
The roles for those machines may be quickly evolving and the
lines between them blurring. But Bob Pittman still sees plenty of
room in American life for the newspaper out in the mailbox.
Pittman, speaking Monday to editors touring northern Virginia's
high-tech corridor, found common ground with those who put out
newspapers even if he did call them "random access devices" a
few times in a lapse into technospeak.
In remarks that were part pep talk, part cautionary tale, he
said practitioners of the written page can thrive in the new
communications age if they are aggressive about getting their
content online and don't defy a consumer-driven Internet culture
that wants more and more at little or no cost.
He said that with brand-name recognition, expertise and
newsrooms already up and running, newspapers should be able to
outcompete "freestanding" Web services that package news
themselves, and it can only take modest investment a few extra
employees, perhaps to do so.
"You should be able to do better online news than anybody
else," he said. "The question is how ubiquitous is your reach
going to be?"
Those who try to hunker down and keep tight control of their
online content, he suggested, will fail. "What the Internet has
done is taken control away from the gatekeepers."
Still, Pittman, whose company is itself invested in the printed
word with its purchase of Time Warner, predicted newspapers'
printed editions will continue to dominate over their online
versions for perhaps 10 or 15 years because of their unmatched
convenience for most readers.
Editors, gathered for a meeting of the American Society of
Newspaper Editors that begins today, heard in another forum about
advances in "narrowcasting" making it easier for people to order
only the specific news, weather, sports or advertising they
It's a trend troubling to some in journalism who say such
tightly tailored content will break down a sense of community and
leave people ill-informed about anything other than the particular
team they want to follow or the model car they want to buy.
"News organizations provide a common place where everyone can
see what happened at city council the night before what did the
U.S. Congress vote on yesterday," said Jack E. Cox Jr., president
of the Foundation for American Communications, which trains
journalists in technology, science and other disciplines.
"If we go totally into a narrow-casted world view where people
are only getting the information they want, you lose the community
square and hence it hurts democracy," he said.
Pittman, however, said that sort of slicing and dicing of
information is probably too bothersome for most people.
"I don't think most people know what they want," he said. "I
don't know what interests me until I see it."
With its explosive growth, AOL now has 20 million subscribers
and a reach that is rapidly expanding through Time Warner, the
world's largest media and entertainment conglomerate.
Internet companies such as AOL in some ways like a newspaper
are generalists offering an elaborately packaged set of services
and information that casual users can browse. Although AOL members
can personalize their service, most don't, Pittman said.
Indeed, he let on that he stores no numbers on his cell phone,
never programmed his VCR and hasn't bothered to tweak his TV remote
control to highlight his favorite channels.
"You're coming to this for convenience," he said. "You don't
want to do work."