Time, distance and the new world of online business news

Last night I was a guest lecturer at an MIT class of biomedical PhD candidates. One of the professors had asked me to come and provide my take on covering biotech news and I took it on for largely selfish reasons. I've been a journalist for 36 years and the profession I'm in now has undergone some fundamental and historic changes--something along the lines of the collapse of the Roman empire in the early 5th century.

The lecture forced me to try and express in a coherent fashion something I've been kicking around for a few years now.

I won't bore you with all the details of what I had to say. The short version is that after decades of fine-tuning the grand tradition of covering the news, the old guard in the print media world got a wakeup call back in the '90s that their readers were migrating in huge numbers to the Internet. The first decade of the new millennium was spent trying to find a way to deliver their news, constructed with the same professional standards and largely the same cycles for writing and editing that had been in place for decades. These were the standards I learned firsthand in the late '70s--ancient history to the students I was talking to.

The old business model in print news was broken, permanently, and the new one stubbornly failed to deliver the same bountiful revenue combined with a new, less expensive, distribution system.

I believe that the media pros--and we're talking about some very smart people running some of the most prestigious institutions on the planet--failed to understand that the technology in play has fundamentally changed the way people read news and that the content we provide has to adapt in a responsible way. Nowhere is this issue more acute than it is in business media.

We all understand that the news has to be delivered quickly. What happens today is news today. Tomorrow is another story. But more importantly, professionals who are reading about their chosen industry, following fields they understand much better than many of the reporters covering that industry, want to understand the context of the news.

Why is this important? What are the broader implications? How does this affect me and my company? How is the news being spun by the principal players? (I'm not going to say if--all companies spin news.) And they want to know that the writer has done the homework and has the experience necessary to put the news in context.

In this brave new world, institutions have become far less valuable. Insight and knowledge is at a premium.

The reader I grew up with, who reads the newspaper with a morning cup of coffee, is gone. Today news is consumed on laptops, smart phones, tablets and e-readers. It's read in cabs and elevators. Sometimes with a cup of coffee during a break. News is snatched in small amounts of time, so putting events in context in a smart, cohesive fashion is critical. Stupid mistakes and bad commentary are sniffed out instantly and often called out on social media sites like Twitter.

Technology hasn't just changed the distance between writers and readers--it's eliminated distance. What had been a pronouncement from a carefully set stage is now an ongoing dialogue.

Readers changed with the technology, and in the process disruptive upstarts like FierceBiotech got to jump into the mix. This month our life sciences group will have about a million web visits, around two million page views. And it's growing. It's a global audience, and I have some plans to grow the international side with new content.

In this world, we get to drive change or get left behind by readers. By you. It's a little terrifying. But also thrilling. -- John Carroll, editor-in-chief (email | Twitter)