An amazing thing happened during the World Trade Organization meeting last week. In an end run around traditional media, the Internet became the key player in dispersing information to a world hungry for details about the events in Seattle.
Several dozen small organizations used the Internet to publish and broadcast "alternative" coverage of the week's events.
As Dean Paton's excellent piece in last Friday's Christian Science Monitor (page 3) points out, while traditional media sources are often like slow-moving, ponderous "elephants," these new broadcasters are more like "mosquitoes" - fast on their feet, they can swarm an event with dozens, if not hundreds, of "correspondents" with camcorders, digital cameras and voice recorders, often provoking those "elephants" to expand their coverage in order to keep up.
But the showdown between traditional media and the new media in Seattle also provided a glimpse of what lies ahead for journalism in the new century. It is a message that older media ignore at their own peril.
In a world where young people use the Internet as their primary news source, it's no surprise to find that the servers at the Independent Media Center, which was set up to provide a working space for the "mosquitoes," were straining to deal with the numbers of people visiting the center's Web site (www.indymedia.org). And remember, the visitors to these sites were aware that the information being provided to them was coming from groups with a definite point of view.
But that leads to a further discussion of the word "alternative." The fact of the matter is that people who really wanted to learn about the WTO, and why it upsets so many people, were far better served by these small independent sites than they were by the traditional media, particularly television.
While big broadcasters like CNN and Fox focused almost exclusively on the confrontation between protesters and police, especially the first couple of days, the independent sites provided in-depth papers and research about the WTO, not to mention some fascinating discussion groups where people from both sides of the issues argued the trade questions back and forth for days.
But even on the issue of covering the protests, the independent groups were often ahead of the elephants, providing edgy, fresh, dramatic video of the events, compared with repeated footage of a couple of incidents and interviews with establishment talking heads that the network and cable-news operations favored.
So what is the lesson in all this for traditional media?
Last month at Comdex in Las Vegas, one commentator talked about the need to DYOB - destroy your old business. Only companies who are prepared to DYOB will truly flourish in an increasingly digital age.
For traditional media, this doesn't mean abandoning traditional principles like objectivity or researching a story. But it does mean learning to work in a new medium in a new way, even if it sometimes means abandoning the old medium.
If not, it wouldn't be surprising for one or two of these "independent" media centers to develop into a major media source, especially if they continue to function on the sort of "open source" reporting model seen in Seattle.
After all, the open-source movement is reshaping the business world. Who says it couldn't happen to us in the media as well.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society