The media landscape in the United States is undergoing some seismic changes. 50 million Americans now turn primarily to the Internet for their news, and they are doing more than just reading about current events when they go online. They are listening and watching, too.
Take, for instance, the cyber punditry being offered by a trio of young, articulate news-watchers who call themselves "The Young Turks." For three hours every day, Cenk Uyuger, Ben Mankiewicz, and Jill Pike dish about politics, news and pop culture to an estimated audience of 11,000 people.
While you can hear The Young Turks on satellite radio and on a few FM stations, their biggest audience is actually made up of people who listen on the Internet. You can tune in live -- or you can download their daily program onto your iPod, and take the show with you.
The Young Turks recently added a video stream to their website. Co-host Ben Mankiewicz says they tried to go the traditional route and broadcast on television, the way other news commentary shows do. But the networks would not take them - and so they turned to the Internet.
"Ten years from now, people are going to be watching those [traditional network] shows on their laptops," Mankiewicz says. "Television is never going away, I don't suspect. But people are going to be watching a lot of content on the Internet. And there was no reason to wait."
Indeed, according to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life project, 71 percent of so-called "high-powered" Internet users are getting their news primarily or exclusively online. High-powered users do things online at least four times a day, and according to John Horrigan, who conducted the study, what these people read or hear on the Internet is determining what they watch on television, and whether they bother to buy a newspaper.
"That wasn't the case even four or five years ago," Horrigan says. "It's a wake-up call to traditional media sources to keep working at integrating online news into how they provide news generally."
It is precisely the way traditional media sources have been delivering the news that the Young Turks say they are rebelling against. Their online commentary show has a definite liberal slant - although co-host Cenk Uyuger says he was a Republican in thought and action until the United States went to war with Iraq. Uyuger says online broadcasting probably would have come about anyway, since it is a matter of technological development more than anything else. But he says liberal Americans in particular are turning to the Internet, because traditional broadcast media outlets are using conservative pundits to deliver their news.
"For example, when you turn on cable TV news, what do you see? You see O'Reilly, Hannity, Scarborough, Tucker Carlson, John Gibson, Chris Matthews, etc., etc. The list goes on and on, and it's nothing but wall-to-wall conservative hosts," Uyuger says. "And so the rise of Internet media became more of a quote-unquote 'alternative,' and it became necessary, frankly."
In that sense, says Young Turks co-host Jill Pike, Internet broadcasting is thoroughly democratic - emphasis on the small "d." She says traditional broadcasters have tended to 'dumb down' their news, in an effort to appeal to the widest possible audiences - and sell the greatest number of commercials. But Pike says with the Internet, astute audiences - even ones as small as 11,000 people - can find a news program that serves their needs… and they can also disseminate their thoughts far and wide. "Until I started doing the show, I didn't realize what kind of voice I could have. You know, I didn't think my vote mattered," she says. "But now with the innovations of the blogs, and being able to do your own radio show, or video show… participate in active discussions on the Internet, to where politicians are really paying attention to that now. I think has become a new form of democracy."
Of course, all three Young Turks acknowledge there may come a time when commercial interests dominate the Internet, just as they do traditional news broadcasting. It is a possibility Uyuger, Pike, and Mankiewicz say they will consider when and if it arises. They admit commercial funding would allow them to reach a greater audience. What they do not yet know is how much they would be willing to compromise in order to get it.