When dinosaurs ruled the airwaves

The following originally appeared as a “State of the Art” essay in Analog Science Fiction & Fact’s July 1992 issue. Portions were later excerpted in the Seattle Times in September 1992.

Though 2004 is a dozen years later and some of the names of the players have changed, much of the game being played remains the same today. When it comes to news and the human capacity to make sense of it, filters are important since more broad-based information gathering and dissemination mechanisms — up to and including the latest darling, Web logs — don’t change the limits of the human attention span. And mass media continue to have increasingly less mass.

Back in 1992, this was considered farsighted heresy. Now, it’s happened. And it will continue with blogs. But blogs are not a journalism revolution, as some who make their living speaking or consulting on Web logs would maintain; they are an evolution of this process which began with personal tape recorders, home video camcorders, computer bulletin board systems and cheap satellite time. It is the Democratization of Information, continued, including the inevitable re-clustering of attention to a small percentage of bloggers — human “filters” throttling down a firehose of too much information — in the blog universe. Now if we could just get a few more reliable sources among the shouters and snipers.

So what about these reliable sources? Smart filters? Democratization of Information? Read on. It’s recent history, and also the future. – Frank Catalano, August 2004

Introduction

Twilight, on the Electromagnetic Plain.

Slowly it moves, feet leaving newsprint images, body trailing audio tape.

It is the end of an era.

All manner of information-spawned creatures from broadcast networks to wire services feel it in the air. In large part, their demise is due to the very developments that gave them great strength over the past 20 years: satellites, computers, and cable television.

But let’s begin with the structure of this Mediazoic Era, as we know it.

The Mediazoic Era

Basically, there are a handful of national broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) and two national wire services (Associated Press and United Press International) determining national news coverage. Under the current system, these big guys gather most of the major news and disseminate it to your local news outlet — a radio or TV station, or newspaper — directly, or what they cover influences what your local news outlet covers. And they influence each others’ coverage.

Let’s say network X hears about a story. They lead with it on a newscast, and as a result, your local TV station which carries network X runs the story. The local station may decide to do a local angle on the story; perhaps how that national story affects local people. But that’s not all. The other big guys also monitor network X and may believe they can do the story better. So they do the same story. The local TV, radio, and newspaper outlets that carry the other national outlets’ stuff then carry the stories, and add their local follow-up pieces. Some of those local angles are further parroted by other local news outlets that decide they can do it one better than their competition. This is why you tend to see not only the same news story, but the same variation on the same news story, for days on both local and national news. Not very efficient use of newsprint and air time, is it?

The Era in transition

Things began to happen within the last decade that started to challenge the dominance of the Networkasaurus. Cheap satellite time, for one — it’s possible, today, to buy satellite time for a decent quality audio signal on Satcom 1R, covering much of the U.S., for a mere $60 an hour. There’s the spread of cable systems with lots of capacity, which improved the signal from broadcast television and let it reach a greater audience. And there are incredibly cheap and powerful personal computers, speeding creation of complex newspaper and television graphics, transfer of information between network news bureaus, and typesetting through electronic means.

At first, these changes seemed to simply make it easier and cheaper for the big guys to gather and distribute information. But local stations and newspapers, much more interested in getting a story in a way that made sense to their distinct audiences, realized they could use the same techniques that had been the exclusive province of the national news services. They just hadn’t before, precisely because of the cost and complexity of the old methods. And the flow from the information spigot began to reverse.

The place: Mexico City. The year: 1985. The event: a major earthquake that leveled much of Mexico’s capital. Communications were spotty. A number of broadcast stations, frustrated by their inability to get a local angle on people from their area in the earthquake zone, pooled resources, bought satellite time, and formed ad hoc “networks’ to cover the disaster, sending back customized information to each of these networks’ “affiliates” in a manner the large, lumbering, national beasts couldn’t hope to match. Personal computer links coordinated the efforts, transmitted scripts, and helped with logistics. Satellites cheaply and nearly instantaneously delivered the news feeds.

The scene repeated itself in Berlin in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. And it’s happened in dozens of instances since when a rapid, localized response was needed to an event of worldwide importance. The networks simply weren’t in a position to deliver what local stations needed. They had to appeal to a mass audience nationwide and couldn’t get into a lot of detail. Not so the ad hoc networks, which flexibly pop up and fade away among stations with the same ownership, the same geography, or just the same interest in a story within hours after that story breaks.

Not only are the ad hoc networks a threat to top-down news service dominance, so are changes in information gathering that short-circuit the entire “we gather, you consume” news mentality. Here the traditional news consumers — you and I — are bypassing the traditional news distribution channels to get the news directly, or even capture the news before the scaly beasts themselves get up the energy to slide off of their rocks.

During the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, when phone lines into the Bay Area were at a premium, computer bulletin board systems like Prodigy and CompuServe acted as informal information clearinghouses as those inside the earthquake zone posted information about survivors, causalities and damage on these national, even international, computer information services accessible by anyone with a PC and a modem. Personal computers also make it possible to distribute professional quality newsletters quickly and cheaply. Cellular telephones give anyone in a car the ability to be a radio traffic reporter. High-quality TV and audio recording equipment is now cheap and easy to get: everything from Super VHS camcorders to Digital Audio Tape cassette recorders. It wasn’t a local video news crew that captured the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.

Information Chaos

Right now, the traditional news gathering system survives on sheer inertia. News from national news “distributors” to local news “retailers” is too ingrained of a system to change overnight. But it is changing and those changes are starting to bring confusion into the neat, orderly news dissemination model that’s survived for decades. We’re entering the era of Information Chaos.
Submitted for your consideration:

Cable television. Do you have any idea how many cable channels are available to you where you live? And what they all cover? You can bet NBC, CBS and ABC have a pretty good idea, because these cable-only channels are siphoning off viewers and, just as importantly, advertisers. Network television can’t compete with the sheer variety available because, again, they have to target a mass appeal audience. And advertisers (and apparently viewers) prefer precisely targeted programming for both news and entertainment. So while the Big Three are laying off news people, closing news bureaus, and even talking about cutting the number of hours of prime time programming they offer to local TV stations, cable networks are booming. CNN is actually planning on expanding its international news bureaus (Don’t think of CNN as a “network” like the Big Three. It doesn’t program news and game shows and soap operas and cop shows. It’s a narrowcaster, not a broadcaster, because all it programs is news.). Even MTV, Music Television, and Nickelodeon, the kids’ network, plan to add targeted news to their programming.

Digital Audio Broadcast. Think you have a lot of radio stations now? Wait ’til a new technology, Digital Audio Broadcast (or DAB) gets off the ground. There are a couple of competing systems being tested right now in Europe and elsewhere. DAB delivers CD-quality audio either transmitted from a satellite or terrestrial sources to a long, thin, flat antenna on your car or home. Thanks to digital’s ability to be multiplexed (have several “channels” of programming embedded in one stream of data), there will be few practical limits to the number of DAB stations. The big question isn’t whether there will be DAB, but when and which system. Expect it this decade.

Online computer services. CompuServe and Prodigy are the largest of the commercial, consumer-oriented computer bulletin board services that charge a fee for customers to get access to their databases with a PC and modem. But in terms of what you can get and how quickly you can search it, they’re cheap. You can browse and download news from AP, UPI, Reuters, Dow Jones, and scads of other traditional news services directly, without having to wait for someone to tell you about it on a TV or radio station, or have a copy editor rewrite it for a newspaper. There are also full-text (meaning the entire article) databases of magazines and newspapers and expensive special-interest newsletters. Not only that, but since users of some of these services can “post” messages of their own (such as during the San Francisco earthquake), there’s no need to rely on the official news services for news. Many of CompuServe’s professional forums, including BPForum for broadcasters and JForum for journalists, spread information much more rapidly than official channels. And these are just the two largest services. There are specialized online services for financial analysts, lawyers, medical professionals, librarians, and others — all you need is a modem and a subscription.

Democratization of Information

Welcome to the dawn of a new age. The age of the Democratization of Information, where information from a bewildering variety of sources is as accessible as a voice is from your telephone. Where you can be both the source and consumer of the information, the subscriber and publisher simultaneously, bypassing the traditional channels. It is, as science-fiction writer Rob Swigart once noted at a computer conference, as though a dump truck of information has overturned on us. How do we dig out? And how do we find the items valuable to us in the ensuing cacophony? As the old joke about psychology goes, the pile’s so big, there’s just got to be a pony in here somewhere.

Let’s drop our dinosaur comparison and now look at news gathering and dissemination as a different model, that of distributor and retailer. Currently, the networks and the news wire services are the distributors. They get the news and distribute it to the retailers, or the TV and radio stations and newspapers we turn to for daily news. As noted, the model is very top-down, and very shaky when it’s threatened or circumvented.

The expansion of information gathering and dissemination technologies are blurring the distinction between distributor and retailer. When you access the AP or UPI wire directly through CompuServe, you’re not waiting for someone to decide what’s important at the “retail” level: you’re making the decision for yourself. You’ve bypassed the retailer. If you gather news via videotape, or by posting something on an online service, you’re suddenly a news gatherer yourself in the distribution channel.

With that access cheaper and easier than ever for retailers and consumers, the decentralization of news gathering and distribution technology has led us into a period of information overload. It’s only going to get worse before it gets better as more cable system capacity is added, there are more sources of digital “radio stations,” there are more personal computers with modems added to the infosphere, the Baby Bells get into the information distribution business, and the traditional distributors and retailers themselves start getting into these new areas to cover their bets, their investments in existing infrastructure, and their asses.

So back to Rob Swigart’s dilemma. What’s valuable? How do you tell?

You buy yourself an editor.

It’s not like the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee is going to show up on your doorstep. But the rapid development of inexpensive “fuzzy logic” microprocessors (which know when you say, “Park my car within a foot of the curb,” that you mean approximately a foot, not precisely 12 inches, and therefore execute a command with a minimum of fuss, effort, and backing-and-filling) should allow smart filters to start showing up in all sorts of information appliances. Depending upon your level of sophistication, you can buy pre-programmed smart filters to sort through your news from a variety of sources, or program one for your specific interests.

For example, let’s presume you’re sitting in your car, listening to your favorite DAB or traditional low-fi radio station. You know you can only listen to one radio station at a time. But your smart filter, built into your car radio, doesn’t have that limitation. And you’ve bought the Traffic Model. It scans all the incoming audio channels for any mention of the words “traffic” and “Interstate 5” (your daily route) and then automatically flips the station to the traffic report you need, even digitally delaying the report to make sure you hear it in its entirety, or turning the radio on automatically to play it for you if you’ve decided not to listen to music that morning.

Or you’re at home that evening, and you’re curious about the news that day. So, at a time of your convenience, you turn on your “information appliance” (call it a TV, call it a personal computer — it won’t matter). You’ve programmed the included smart filter to scan the electronic version of your daily paper (which still has local reporters), 17 video channels, four audio channels, six online services, and the PTA newsletter from your child’s school. You’ve told it to rank the inputs in hierarchical importance based on key word of subject (“sex,” “drugs,” and “rock n’roll” might be one set of choices) and on geographic distance from where you live.

It’s selected and ranked all these stories. Finally, your standing instructions are to keep the entire package under 30 minutes, so it’s dropped everything that doesn’t fit in that time frame based on its overall ranking. Of course, you’ve also instructed the filter to keep related stories off-line, out of the 30-minute news flow, just in case you want additional information on any topic. And if the report doesn’t have any integrated audio, you’ve asked the filter to provide a pleasant, cultured BBC-style voice (or crude and uncultured Brooklyn-style voice; your preference) to read you the news items in the news flow.

You can change the programming of the filter, its news sources, length of newscast, and more at any time, with any luck much more easily than you can program your VCR today. Of course, if it’s too much trouble to wait until you get home to get the news, you can always have it bounced off a satellite to wherever you are with your digital satellite receiver (pager/phone/video).

What’s this, you say? You don’t want to have to program a smart filter — all you want is the news? In that case, just go down to your local appliance store and pick up any of several pre-programmed smart filters. You won’t be limited to a single interpretation, either. There will be the equivalent of the Peter Jennings model, the Walter Cronkite model, and if you have a fondness for sweaters, the Dan Rather model. There’s no reason these editors have to be based on the judgments of living or even real people. A Martin Luther model might program the newscast for stories with religious significance, while a Jean-Luc Picard filter could search for stories about where no one has gone before.

Hard core news consumers may eschew the filters and go to the distribution source themselves, if they choose, because they know exactly what they want and don’t mind getting their hands dirty. That option is still there. But most of us — likely by the turn of the century — will be able to issue instructions as to what we want to hear about, who we want to hear about it from, and how much of it we want to hear.

Reliable sources

But wait. If almost anyone with the right equipment, be it video, audio or text-based, can also be a source for this information for the distribution channel, how do you choose a reliable source?
Whom do you believe?

Actually, that decision may even be easier in the next ten years than it has been in the past ten. With the current top-down information dissemination model, the networks and news services tend to feed off each other, sometimes repeating and spreading the same bad facts before a correction works its way back up to the top from a local station or reporter. With news consumers able to be news producers at both the distribution and retailing levels, it’ll be easier to verify information when it gets into the channel because more sources, not fewer, will be able to access it early in its information life cycle. The process, through sheer speed, will be self-correcting. Unless, of course, you want information of sensational nature. There probably always will be a market for the National Enquirer.

It also will put a premium on unique information; no longer will commercial news sources be able to get away with a dozen nearly-identical parrotings of the same White House news release. Those reporters and news sources who can add additional facts or even do what’s called “enterprise,” or original, reporting not based on a scheduled event or news release will be in great demand in this highly-competitive democratized news world. People will want to subscribe to services that give them something different. This benefits both the news distributors and retailers: there will be more distributors in competition for the “hot” story, and retailers will have more, and more varied, distributors to choose from.

While the technological future appears bright for news junkies, as with duct tape and the Force, there is both a light side and a dark side. Will, for example, people hear the things they need to know, as well as the things they want to hear? It’s pretty difficult these days to tune out news about a Presidential election, or a major poisoning scare. But if your smart filter has been expressly told to ignore news items of general interest, will you hear about them other than over the office water cooler? Will it be too late to respond properly? Might not a national government require certain news items get a “universal” tag to make sure every filter puts it through?

With easy access to contribute to so many sources of information, rumors might spread like wildfire. But they also might be snuffed out just as rapidly by more reliable sources, and the unreliable sources might disappear over time as a result of market forces that reward accurate information. If knowledge is power, knowing how to program very sophisticated smart filters on-the-fly during a geopolitical or corporate crisis may be a very lucrative career path. Reporters may find it more satisfying to consider themselves free agents, selling their work to the highest-bidding distributor (as movie stars do today) rather than tying themselves to a single news organization. Protecting information through copyright may become even more difficult as sources blur and country boundaries mean little to satellite distribution.

With the democratization of information comes the fragmentation of information. The new concept of a renaissance man or woman may be someone who openly lets themselves be bombarded with a variety of general information, and doesn’t choose to limit their sources. Those who severely limit their sources could create an information hermitage.

It’s the ultimate freedom of the press. There won’t be a lack of information or tight-fisted high priests who control access to it (as was the case in the Dark Ages). Rather, there will be the ability to choose both sources and “editors” of those sources. But this won’t come until we get through the growing proliferation of news sources and gatherers, the resulting confusion, the end of news network and wire service dominance, the development of smart filters, and the accompanying readjustment of social equilibrium.

Listen. Did you hear that? It sounded like the clatter of a teletype machine — the death throes of the Networkasaurus. But the seeds of its smaller, faster and more flexible successor are already growing in your personal computer, telephone, and cable system.

About Frank Catalano

Frank Catalano is a tech-industry consultant, analyst and author. And back when he wrote this in 1991, his memory of 14 years as a professional broadcaster was still fresh, including work for Seattle-based KING-AM/TV, NBC Radio and Mutual Broadcasting. He also had been a columnist for several radio/TV trade publications and a published science fiction and science writer.

(This essay with its new introduction originally appeared on Frank Catalano’s Byte Me Online blog.)