[The text below is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Reid Ashe: My perspective on journalism is primarily that of someone who has spent most of his career at small town newspapers. It has been an interesting laboratory to study the relationship that people have with the media, and it has helped me to realize that traditional media are the way they are, not so much because of what they can do, but because of what they can't.

All media exist because humans are social animals. The most basic expression of this is the marketplace which can be found in traditional preliterate societies. In the center of each town, people will come together for market day to conduct a variety of activities besides trade. People who live out in the country and don't see each other every day will visit with each other and talk about whatever is on their mind at the time or to amuse themselves in a variety of ways. They perform a variety of activities that define the group or society. As industrialized society has become more complicated, we have relieved ourselves of the need to gather in the same place at the same time in order to conduct these communal and community building functions, and the role of media has been to help us do this. We give the benefits of the central marketplace without having to assemble there physically. This means that we are in the virtual reality business, and we always have been.

Newspapers and television do a pretty poor job of filling the function of a virtual marketplace. They are limited to going out and identifying facts and information of common concern, processing it in one location and then distributing it in identical form in all directions. For a long time, this worked because it was the best that we could do. It also worked because, by combining the social and economic functions of the marketplace, we had an economic model that could support it.

Today, everything is connected to everything else and we can more effectively fulfill the virtual marketplace function. You can begin to see people taking advantage of this in Internet publishing. Right next to the facts that might be of interest, you see opportunities for people to link up with other people who share the same interest. The change has just begun, and I think journalists have barely begun to understand what is happening.

The future of the newspaper is threatened, but how threatened depends upon what you define as a newspaper. If you define it as the process of putting ink on paper, manufacturing it at a cost of 50 cents and selling it for 25 cents, that is threatened. If you define it as the delivery of mass processing of information, that is threatened. If you define it as an institution that explores the concerns of the community and provides a link between the citizen and civic affairs, then that role is not necessarily threatened. We have new tools that will let us explore that more effectively than we've ever been able to before. Naturally, the first thing you do is try to do the old things with the new tools, so we haven't really begun to comprehend the way the new tools can let us do things that have never been possible before. We've got to not just be reporters of facts, but moderators of discussion. We've got to understand how people relate to each other in a society. We've got to learn to understand civic dialogue and how we can make it work better.



Everybody talks about classified advertising as the big threat, and I think that is entirely correct. Classified advertising is now the biggest revenue stream that supports newspapers around the country, but newspapers could lose classifieds. There are a lot of people investing major money in building the systems that will replace newspaper classified advertising. The classified market place is clearly going to be challenged by new entrants who might have a technological edge. You can do things with classified advertising on line that you can't do in print, like searching, extended text, pictures, movies, all kinds of things.

However, there is a scenario in which newspapers don't lose classifieds, but instead, merely transfer it into an augmented media. Consider that one thing that you will never find in that primitive society is a town that has two marketplaces. This is because markets are centripetal. The buyers are drawn to where the sellers are because that is where the most competitive offerings are found, and the sellers are drawn to where the buyers because that's where they can clear their inventory. If there were ever two markets within the same range of each other, you would have an unstable situation. They would be drawn together. The smaller would whither and the bigger would succeed. The scenario in which newspapers can keep that business is one in which the most important competitive advantage is mass. We've got it today, and if we keep it and transfer it into new and multiple media, then we might succeed. Don't think of classified advertising as a database, but as an index to a database. The big database can have all the wonderful pictures, expanded text, and maybe the ability to form interest groups with other people who are shopping in the same category. If we are going to make this happen, people in my position are going to have to have the courage to do whatever it takes to keep the business, remembering that share of market is the whole game.

From 1984-86 I ran a service called Viewtron, which was one of the very early on-line services developed for the home. It provided information bulletin boards, programmed learning, shopping on line, etc. One possibility that got us excited was the concept of "micronews." In the new electronic media, you have the new space of unlimited size, so you have an opportunity even more local than the neighborhood section of the local newspaper. Take the community building function of the media down to almost the block level was an appealing concept, but it didn't work for the obvious reason that in any given neighborhood you would be lucky to find one subscriber, much less two or three. Throughout the brief history of the Internet and the other on-line media, we have had the same kind of problem. There has never been a place with a high enough concentration of the medium. There have been no neighborhoods where the majority of the are people connected. So the topics that have been dealt with in this medium have not been geography specific. We have organized communities of interest that will interest people across the continent or around the world. Only now are we beginning to develop the penetration of this medium that will make very local interests possible to consider. One of my hopes is that we will finally be able to create the neighborhood on-line. We will see for the first time whether or not the medium is effective at building communities of people who are close enough to actually see each other every now and then as it has been at building virtual communities across the continent.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

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