The Internet Returns Journalism to the 19th Century

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Last Friday, I wrote that the Internet turns journalism into a dialogue. Some readers may have detected a little nibble at the hands feeding me.

But there's another aspect of Internet journalism from which this site benefits enormously. The Internet makes journalism a cult of personality.

In this we're seeing a return to the 19th century. The great journalism institutions of our time were once just start-ups, feeding off the personalities of their founders, reflecting their passions. I'm talking here of people like James Bennett of the New York Herald, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune and Charles Dow of The Wall Street Journal.

The best way to illustrate how this is happening is through my own beat, technology.

I will begin at my beginning, with my first online job, at Newsbytes. It was founded by Wendy Woods, a San Francisco TV journalist, and it reflected her personality. It was, in some ways, the very first blog. It was infused with her being and when I joined her in 1985 I took that lesson to heart, putting my personality into my own work from Atlanta.

Newsbytes grew, on The Source, on GE's GEnie service, and then on CompuServe, until it had 12 journalists around the world. One colleague, in Sydney, even renamed my son, faxing a page from the local dictionary so John Frederick Blankenhorn would not be a John Thomas.

Then Newsbytes was sold to The Washington Post and within a few years it disappeared. Newsbytes was not a "property," it was Wendy and it could not survive without her.

A year after leaving Newsbytes I interviewed for a job at an online start-up then called C|Net. Their plan, like Wendy's was to combine TV sensibility with Internet news. After the dot-bomb killed the great print publishers -- Ziff-Davis, IDG, and CMP -- Cnet became the dominant force in tech journalism.

So it was when I joined, creating an open source blog for their ZDNet unit, in 2005. But blogging was changing the game, opening it up to a 19th century sensibility. I treated my blog as my property, but it wasn't, and Cnet was increasingly becoming an institution, faceless and corporate. This may be why CBS ( CBS) bought it in 2008, but even then the company held a dominant market position.

It doesn't any more.

Om Malik started GigaOm as a blog about networking. Michael Arrington launched TechCrunch as a blog about Silicon Valley. Nick Denton of Gawker Media started all his "publications" as blogs, including Gizmodo, a gadget blog.

All these grew into full-fledged tech news sites, each with their own unique point of view, and a personality driving them. They were far from alone. Across the Internet individual journalists took their passions, launched small blogs, then scaled them the way great chefs scale their recipes into restaurants, and then restaurant chains.

Cnet is suffering the "death of 1,000 cuts." The suits in New York don't notice any one cut, they barely take notice when top staffers depart, but not all big companies are ignoring the new, personality-driven reality. News Corp.'s ( NWS) Wall Street Journal wisely put its own tech news site, AllthingsD, in front of the paywall, and staffed it with strong personalities like Kara Swisher, Ina Fried and Walter Mossberg, gradually scaling out with other writers to build, within a very short time, a news hole that rivals Cnet's own.

In 2012 journalism is an entrepreneurial business, just as it was in the 1850s. It depends on strong personalities, on writers who become editors, then publishers, but who retain their focus. Readers follow them, engineers build communities around them, the traffic builds, the ads come in, and almost before you know it the world has changed.

Because the Internet is a business that's so easy to get into, and because clouds let Web sites scale quickly to enormous size, this rapid evolution will continue. It may take years for journalism to become again what it was when I joined it, a collection of institutions, the profession defined by "working for someone who buys ink by the barrel," (or bandwidth by the gigabit). It may take decades.

I mentioned at the start of Friday's column that I had a bet with my Medill professors, 35 years ago. I thought the online world would cause journalism to grow, they thought it would make their world collapse. In some ways we both were right, but I truly believe I won the bet.

At the time of publication, the author had no investments in companies mentioned in this article. .

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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