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The following Q&A ran in the April 27, 2001, issue of The Earth Times...
Prof. Sreenath Sreenivasan of Columbia University
| By PRANAY GUPTE|
© Earth Times News Service
rofessor Sreenath Sreenivasan of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism has made his professional mark early in life. He is widely regarded as one of the brightest minds in communications, especially with regard to New Media -- which is what he teaches at Columbia University's journalism school. He is a prolific writer, reviewer and lecturer and co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association. Prof. Sreenivasan spoke recently with The Earth Times. Excerpts from an interview:
Why were you attracted to the New Media?
We've been teaching New Media here at Columbia since the Fall of '94, which is ancient history as far as the Internet goes. When I discovered New Media and the Internet, it was to me a moment like seeing color television for the first time. I remember that excitement. I remember the moment I first saw a Web site. And those days it was very dull and just a bunch of text, but the opportunity there of having, literally, the whole world open up to you was very promising. And I saw this as something that was going to change our lives. It's going to change my life, for sure, especially as someone who is interested in telling stories about our world and its issues.
And was your initial excitement warranted?
What I have seen and why I continue to teach New Media is that there is just so much that is unknown about this--we're evolving the standards of New Media. I compare it very often to working in radio in the turn of the last century, or working in television in the early Fifties, where nobody knew what would happen. There are no rules, we're just trying to decide what will happen. We're trying to handle the technology in a way where it's effective and does what it's supposed to. There is just too much confusion out there. There is too much frustration that everyday people have because computers don't work necessarily the way they're supposed to. You can imagine a young person, or an old person, who goes online for the first time, anywhere in the world--how much more exciting and, at the same time, how much more scary it is, at this point in time. Especially internationally, to go online and see both the wonderful opportunities and the challenges when you first come across a Web site.
So how do you clarify matters in your teaching and other work?
With any new technology, any new medium, there is a sense of people not being sure where it's going to lead. People are entrenched in an old media or have stakes in the old medium--unless they are open, unless their minds are open, are very likely to fight it. And we saw that, in fact, with New Media here, with the evolution of the World Wide Web. People in radio and television and print, in many ways, fought it. Of course, other organizations went out of the way to embrace it. The biggest challenge, really is for people to see that this particular media won't just cannibalize the old media, but will help improve it. It will help bring new audiences. It will tell stories and give information in ways that were never possible before.
But how do you deal with perceptions that the New Media already hasn't quite delivered what it promised?
It's a very unusual moment in time that all around the world there's the sense that New Media has not lived up to its promise. There's the sense that the economics of New Media is not working, the business is not working and therefore, New Media is dead, or the Internet is dead. And I completely disagree with that notion. Part of the reason for that, obviously, is the current troubles that Web sites are having--these dot coms, or as people now like to call them, doubt coms--around the world in various stock markets. But what I keep telling people is that the NASDAQ or stock markets are are definitely no proper judge of the value of a journalistic or New Media enterprise. We never had to deal with such a situation before. The people who invented radio, the great publishers of the 19th century as they were perfecting newspapers didn't necessarily have to answer to venture capitalists, didn't have to answer to Wall Street or its equivalent wherever they were. They were in it for the long run in trying to understand how it worked. That's not what we're seeing now.
What is it that we're seeing?
Because of the beauty of the Internet, everyone has instant access. It is growing so fast--growth, the very same things that has helped bring down its reputation at this moment. So we have seen, for example, the same journalists, the same media companies that hyped the Internet and gave it this big buildup are the ones who have directly attacked it. And as soon as it didn't pay off in a financial way,--they attacked it and have tried to bring it down. For a medium to be viable, to have a real audience, we say you should have about 50 million users, and it took radio 38 years to get the first 50 million users. It took television 13 years. It took New Media four years. So obviously people are dealing with a medium in its infancy. It's a baby, but every day we're kicking it in its teeth and saying, "You're not working, you're not making money, you're terrible, you're not like your big brother television or your grandfather radio. Look how good they are." So imagine if we did that to a little kid. Every day we kicked it in its teeth and said, "You're not delivering, you're not delivering." How will that kid grow up? How will it succeed? It's a very hard thing for it to do. And that's exactly the way I see the way we are treating this business. If we treated television the way we are now treating New Media, if we treated television back in its infancy the way we're treating New Media, it wouldn't have grown up to be the mature medium it is. Of course, television has its own problems, but in terms of being a mass communication device, it was given the chance to evolve. Because it was so expensive, because so few people had access to it, they were able to work out some of the kinks. They were able to evolve some standards, evolve some conventions. The beauty of the Internet is that anybody can have access anywhere in the world. It's growing so fast. Those same factors have not allowed it to sort of work itself out. So as soon as there is an opportunity now to knock the Internet, that is what the conventional media do.
What explains the attacks on the Internet?
No one does stories anymore praising the Internet, because those stories are so 1996. Now the stories are about the Internet adoption case of the kids that were allegedly stolen and moved to England. These two professors at Dartmouth College were killed--the knife that was used was bought on the Internet. The vilification of the Net has come so quickly. And people have this impression that it's kind of a Wild West out there and that there are no standards, there's nothing good anymore on the Web. And that is not the case.
If you think back to 1996, all those happy stories about the Net have been replaced by angry stories about the Web. But these same stories could also be done about television, could be done about print. But they're given a chance. They're given a chance to evolve. We don't see that with New Media. The other part of all this is that especially in America, television and newspapers have been amongst the most economically viable and profitable business in certain quarters for certain publications and certain television programs. With an American daily commercial newspaper, if you don't bring in 20 percent profit every year, you consider it a down year. Eighteen percent is considered down--imagine, 18 percent profit. And in terms of growth, that's the kind of idea people have about newspapers, television, the kind of commercials, and the kind of money that television programs bring in. So when Wall Street and investors saw the term New Media, they presumed that the Web would have the same profit potential as Old Media. And so they went completely hysterical about this and built it up and built it up. That kind of excitement--while it was giddy and fun to be part of--has certainly come crashing down.
But you remain optimistic about New Media. Why?
I remain bullish about its potential and about its possibilities--because we have seen this before. We have been involved with New Media since the Fall of '94, so that's a long time. We have seen the cycles. We have seen a point where students at Columbia would get hired if they could just spell HTML in the Spring of '95. That's all you needed to know to get a job. No one knew anything then, so that's what happened. Then waves of people were being hired. Then in '96, '97, waves of people were fired because the Internet didn't live up to expectations then. Ninety-eight, '99, 2000, of course, it was this same excitement about the Internet--and everybody was getting a job. Students were getting very lucrative job offers and it was a very exciting time. And now we're at the other end of how people want to stay away from it. So if people had only kept a level head through all this we may not have ended up here. But now we're here. That doesn't mean that this is all over. I think we haven't really seen anything yet as far as the Web goes.
"Bullish" is a strong word to use during this current economic downsturn. Yet you use it. Why?
I'm bullish on two counts. One is just the future in terms of the way people are going to use the Web. I am excited about that. I am excited about the impact it's having on our lives and the lives of people who haven't even gotten online yet. We've only touched a fraction of the world's population of six billion--only about 400 million people have some kind of Internet access around the world. And that is a minuscule number, especially when you think of all the young kids who haven't had a chance to go online. And even in that 400 million we're talking about a tiny percentage that has had a chance to experience the full strength of the Web--on-demand video, audio, full text graphics and fast access. We haven't seen any of that. In fact, most of the people who are now saying bad things about the Internet and saying how it's not going to work are people who never had a chance to experience that, because quite frankly the technology isn't fully there even in the most advanced societies. Very few people have access to that kind of information or that kind of technology. Once that does come along, I believe that people's attitudes will change.
Do you think that young people share your optimism about New Media?
Quite frankly, the thing that makes me most optimistic is something that I have seen in working with young people--and by "young people" I mean high school students. Here, at Columbia, we bring in student editors of high school newspapers every year, for a convention. And through them and through talking to these kids, teaching classes to them and working with high school students and college students around the country, I see the impact that the new technology is having on their lives, how they spend all their time on the Web, how they are not reading newspapers, how they're not reading magazines. You can walk into any college dormitory and you will see kids on the computer, on the phone, watching TV at the same time. And these are our consumers. These are the kids who are going to grow up, who are going to be society's citizens, who are buying information or consuming information. And they're the ones who are going to run our countries and run the world. And when you talk to these kids, you find that they are getting their information from the Web. They are depending on the Web for everything they do, various aspects of it. They're also on their cell phones, they're "instant messaging." All these things are going to have a profound impact. And I don't think that the publishers and the old guard fully realize this- that for these kids, information has always been free. Because on the Web it's free, their parents pay for their Internet connection. Television is free because you don't have to pay a license fee in America to watch television. These kids have never filled out a newspaper subscription form. They have never had to, say, pay for National Geographic. For them, National Geographic is a free publication on the Web. Time Magazine is free on the Web. So, what happens to these kids, what happens when they grow up?
And your answer to your own question?
I think they will have two important kinds of impact. One, is that they're going to demand and get--or will have to get--from news providers and content providers, the kind of access they're getting now, which is lots and lots of information instantly available with short attention spans, unfortunately. And, at the same time, the content providers will have to find a way to make this work. The content providers are going to have to give them more content, not less. The fear I have is, at this moment, people are so down on what's happening on the Internet that they are taking stuff off line, rather than putting things online.
What about advertising on the Web?
The biggest knock about the Internet is that advertising doesn't work. And you're right. And everybody is right. It doesn't quite work at this moment. The banner ads that we're using now are not working. Having said that, I see lots of innovation coming with advertising where people are trying different models. There is a new generation of what we call rich media ads, where there is motion and action on ads. I don't mean those annoying "punch the monkey" ads that you see on some Web sites. I mean ads that interact, which make a connection with the consumer. That's the business model that we're trying to evolve. At the same time I think consumers have the obligation also to allow advertising to work online, or helping it work. Because if that doesn't work no one can afford to stay in business. This is, after all, a business for most people involved. And that's an important factor. I also see the importance and the value of several small Web sites that are run by one or two people with lean operations that have done wonderfully, that are getting a lot of attention.
Can you cite some examples?
One example, a site I always talk about, is called RefDesk.com, short for reference desk. It's a Web sit run by a single man, and he has built himself the reputation of being one of the best places on the web to go for reference material. This is my opening page on my computer. Secretary of State Colin Powell, told the New York Times that this is his favorite Web site. Not his favorite reference site or his favorite news site, but his favorite Web site. And this is just one man working in his office has been able to do this. So that's the potential. That's what is so exciting. Another site I've seen of a young kid who built a homework help site that people visit from around the world. And he was so successful that The Discovery Channel bought his site, because they found it was better to go with what this kid has done already--he just turned 14. He's been on the Web for five years. They went with him rather than going to a new kind of building from scratch. That's why I'm so bullish. That's why I'm so excited, because we haven't seen anything yet.
How do you take into account the day to day realities of the real world out there and, in a sense, mix them and match them with your own personal optimism concerning New Media?
What a difference a year makes. Last year my students at Columbia were turning away jobs. Some of them had three, four, five job offers from all over the place. I'm talking about my advanced new media students. In fact, not only did we have our regular job fair for our students for the whole school, we had to have a separate one just for New Media. Now, quite frankly, it isn't just New Media jobs that are being cut, also Old Media. There's a whole tightening of the American economy that is affecting everybody. My students obviously ask questions about my bullishness and and they also point out it's very easy for me to be bullish because I don't have to put my money where my mouth is. I'm not running a company in Silicon Valley. Having said all that, I think that what is fascinating to me is that when I go to newsrooms around the country, in Central Europe and in South Asia, I still see an interest in New Media. Last year I had 28 New Media concentrators in my class. This year I have 27. And by this year I mean in January 2001. By January of 2001 the bubble had already burst. So why are these people taking these classes? Because they know that even if they don't go to work in New Media right away--and, in fact, I don't necessarily encourage them to--they know that there's a future in this business. The future is being able to tell stories in multiple platforms, being able to speak the different languages, if you will, of media--meaning broadcast, print, New Media--and the importance of being able to do that. They understand it. New Media also requires you to think in a new way. It requires you to tell stories in a different way. So most of my students may, in fact, not work at a Web site right away. They will absorb and learn, and learn to think in new ways and then, when the time comes, they will have those skills at their command. And that's why they're doing it and that's why I see all these different publications and individual people getting online and understanding the importance of learning New Media.
But isn't the overall enthusiasm for New Media being diminished?
There's no doubt, obviously, that the kinds of excitement and the kinds of people just wanting to just go work for a Web site has come down in the recent past. But I don't think that overall that's a bad thing, because many of those folks were not interested in New Media because of its potential or because of its strength as a story telling device--they were interested in making those dot com riches and getting rich online. That's not the reason you go into journalism. That's not why any of us went into this business in the first place. I tell my Columbia students, if you're here to make money you're in the wrong school. You've got to go a few hundred yards the other way to the business school. I don't feel as sorry for the people who jumped onto the New Media bandwagon in late 2000 without considering the implications or the background of anything--they were just chasing the dollars. Because in media, if you're just chasing the dollars, you're going to get burned, and that's what happened.
What, exactly, is the "digital divide"?
You know a word is in trouble, or a phrase is in trouble when people just start throwing it around and it's sort of lost any value. In the past, people said, "I'm worried about the digital divide" without having any context--and that is why this is an excellent question. What I see as the digital divide is not just the divide or the lack of access to the Internet, say, on the streets of Sao Paulo. That's not just it. I see the divide also affecting the tens of millions of people in the United States who don't have access to technology, don't have access to the Internet. So it isn't a North-South thing or an East-West thing or anything like that. I think it is within communities. It could be even within a community, or in a neighborhood in a fancy part of New York City where there are people who don't have access. At one time, looking back to '95, '96, you said, if people aren't online it doesn't matter, it's mostly a play thing of the rich. It's a place where people are communicating and writing to one another. It doesn't matter. You know, I'm worried about putting food on the table, the Internet has no effect on me. But what's happening increasingly is the Web is becoming a place where work happens, where commerce happens and where learning happens. And so if I am not online, not only am I missing out on the entertainment parts of the Web--and that may not be very important- but I am missing out job training, I'm missing out deals of various kind where, you know, I can get some things maybe at a better price. I am getting left out of what the other people have. And at one point it didn't matter because there was so little on the Web. But as more companies, as more education, go onto the Internet, it is a travesty to have people left out.
And the implications of being left out?
Let's take a case like India, where the estimates of people who are online--by "online" one can mean just e-mail access or a shared computer--could be certainly no more than 20 million people. In a country of one billion people, these 20 million people now have more opportunities, have more advantages than the others. And some of these 20 million people also are the wealthiest 20 million and all of that. But how do you bring the promise of the Internet, the access of the Internet, to people in India's 550,000 villages when some places don't have adequate drinking water? All of this has to be put in perspective. I'm not saying let's go and wire up the villages of India or Sub Saharan Africa and then everybody will be fine. Obviously that is ridiculous. What I am saying is, are there aspects of the Internet, of technology, that can help? So, for example, there's a pilot project in southern India where they're going out of their way to find how medical information can be given to the people in the village, because they're finding that too many doctors don't want to work in the villages. They want to make money and work in a big city, as is their prerogative. So how do you use the Internet to help? So what they're doing is they're saying, well, we can train the villagers with very simple technology, you know, simple buttons, yes/no kind of buttons with voice technology or audio technology to train, say, a kind of quasi-nurse or a quasi-person who has some simple medical training to analyze symptoms. So if someone comes to this center, this medical center, they can analyze this person coughing, where does it hurt. All those buttons can be pressed. And you have a very rudimentary diagnosis that can say, well is this something that needs to be immediately sent to the big town or the big city emergency helicopter evacuation. Those things are a start. It isn't, obviously, a substitute for having a real doctor there, but by connecting that computer to the big city or the town where the doctors are, it's a start. It's a way to get people access to information that they didn't have before. Or maybe a doctor is willing to speak to you on the phone. These are the kind of things that people are wrestling with on the ground. And there are several initiatives around the world to bridge this digital divide.
So what's preventing such bridging?
Most people who have access to technology don't necessarily know or appreciate the scope of the divide in the first place. They seem to think that the technology and the know-how will somehow trickle down. Of course, that's not the way it works. But there is hope. Last year, during the dot com excitement, a lot of these Internet millionaires went in and decided to tackle this problem of the digital divide. So, for example, out in Seattle there is an effort called Digital Partners that is doing important work. This May, they are holding a workshop in India on helping the poor achieve connectivity. While projects like this will make a difference, it is crucial that there is sustained, long-term commitment to them -- othewise, things will get worse.
And how can development activists in emerging societies benefit from the Web? Development activists have already exploited quite successfully the Web and its potential, getting the word out on their activities in ways they couldn't do before. They are able to lobby, to organize, to issue reports bypassing the mainstream media, and that makes a major difference.
Digital Partners: http://www.digitaldivide.org/
South Asian Journalists Association: http://www.saja.org/
Online Journalism Awards: http://www.onlinejournalismawards.org/
Sreenivasan's personal site: http://www.sree.net/
Sreenivasan's e-mail: http://email@example.com