Newspapers and weblogs; XML and academia
Thursday, June 13, 2002 by Dave Winer.
It's a two-part DaveNet today. Two for the price of one. Yeah!
I was interviewed on Monday by a Japanese wire service. The reporter asked if weblogs spelled the end of newspapers. I said they didn't have to, if the professional news organizations adopted the technology. He asked how. It's worth posting.
First, I would offer a copy of Radio UserLand to every person on the editorial staff (okay, I'm biased) and say "Start a weblog now if you want." Then I'd make the same offer to the readers. Then I'd watch to see what happens.
I'd say to the staff "Read the new weblogs, and for those of you who have your own, point to the articles you find interesting or useful." Let this run for a few months. My bet is that the community starts generating good news reports, on things like school boards, and city council meetings, the stuff that the organizations no longer cover. (Or medical care, or city workers who dump paint in the sewers.) Just what people see and what they think. Democrat weblogs that beget Republican weblogs.
Elevate one of the staff weblogs to the main site (by then its flow would probably be almost as big as the rest of the publication). Go back to all the editorial people who haven't started weblogs, and invite them again. Wait a few more months.
Now here's the New Economy bad news (sorry) -- cut the people who aren't participating in the new network. My bet is that the community gets energized by the new participatory journalism and the former reporters, who now are editors, talent scouts and teachers, are also energized, doing what they wanted to do when they got into journalism. Now ask the community what they're willing to pay to keep the system working and growing. I know I'm naive and unrealistic, but this is how I think it will work.
Another source of revenue. Charge local businesses to place their weblogs on your network. This is advertising turned around. No more interstitials and ads that interfere. If people aren't interested in your business, maybe it's time to find a new business. News drives interest. Minds, not eyeballs. Real issues not puffery. New products that meet people's needs and wants. No limits on where we go.
Editorial note: This is a revisit of an idea I wrote about in 2000 and 2001, now there's new interest, as a handful of newspapers are starting weblogs. And a disclosure, my company is actually working on this stuff now, and expect to have an announcement in a few weeks; it's not so theoretical.
I had an interesting thought about XML, to me, at least -- but first a story.
I was a math major in college. It was kind of a fluke for me to be that, because I wasn't that good at math in high school. I was more of an English-major type, or Political Science or whatever, or truth be told, a dropout. But when I got serious about school in my senior year of high school (I saw what my options were, minimum wage in the Bronx wasn't too appealing) my only option for college was the City University of New York, which by law had to take you if you were a high school graduate in the City of New York.
I was accepted at Lehman College, across the street from my high school. I took a bunch of forgettable classes, but there was one life-changing class, a math class for people who never really got math in high school. My teacher Godfrey Isaacs, a Brit, was a gift from heaven. He taught so well and so patiently, I found that I could do it, and I did. For the 18-year-old Dave, this was a big deal. So when I transferred to Tulane in my sophomore year, I kept taking math classes, and eventually majored in math, but none of the teachers clicked like Isaacs did. I stuck with it and got my degree.
When I was a senior in college, I wanted to apply to grad school in math, like all the others were, but my advisor, Terry Lawson, told me not to do it. He said he wouldn't recommend me. This was a bit of a disappointment, so I asked what I should do, and he suggested that I go for some application of math, like statistics, or the then-nascent field of computer science. I didn't even know there was such a thing. I had taken a couple of computer classes at Tulane, and really liked it. So I applied to several universities, was accepted at Wisconsin, and went on to have a reasonably fruitful career as an applied mathematician, from Lawson's point of view.
At the time, and probably still to some extent today, mathematicians looked down on computer science. In their mind, there was a hierarchy. The smartest minds work on pure math, manipulating symbols, and less powerful intellects apply it. As the power of computers was revealed, as I learned algorithms, data structures, Algol, C, Unix, compilers, operating systems; first as a user, then as an implementor and architect, I came to believe that the theoreticians had it wrong. It's hard to make mathematics work for the non-mathematical mind. Pure math is a solo thing, very introspective, it's wonderful to see what your mind is capable of -- but unlocking power in other people's minds is much more of a challenge, and imho more gratifying. In other words, if I could talk to Dr Lawson today, I'd tell him he got it wrong 26 years ago. Computer science was where the really big challenges were in 1976. I'm glad he recommended that course for me, even though I believe he did it for the wrong reason.
Anyway, this really is about XML. I finally figured out that we're having the same disconnect in the XML world. There are a lot of pure mathematicians in our midst. They, like my advisor in 1976, believe they're at the top of the pyramid (I have no other explanation for how they behave), looking down on the lowly implementors. Like Dr Lawson, they are wrong. The hard work is unlocking the power for masses of people, people who couldn't care less about ontologies, or semantic webs, or even accessibility. If you want all that stuff, you have to learn how to make products that work for people, and accomplish your goals, if you can figure out how. I'm sure they're well-intentioned people, as my advisor was, but like him, they are wrong.
PS: The bit about accessibility is deliberately provocative. Think about it. People with disabilities don't want accessibility, they want to use the Web. Different perspective.