websites can embrace the readership while newspapers cling to 'Us and Them' attitude, writes AOL UK's director of day team and welcome screen Simon Hinde.

Internet journalism is still in its infancy.

Yet already websites are a primary source of news and information for millions and the web seems certain to become the dominant journalistic medium within a few years.

It's no secret why. Most simply and obviously, the internet is the most versatile and complete of media - the only one that can mix words, pictures, video and sound and be constantly and instantaneously updated.

Our audience expects, when they log on, to get the very latest news. They don't want to wait until the next bulletin on the hour or the following day's paper.

A news website can and should be like a newspaper that is published and republished every minute of every day.

Even more important is the relationship that internet companies encourage with their audience.

We don't simply want to bring people the news; we want to be the medium through which people share and discuss what is going on, through messageboards, chatrooms and blogs.

The two big news events of 2005 - the tsunami and the July 7 bombings - were key landmarks in internet journalism as online sites such as AOL produced compelling packages that mixed words, pictures, audio, video and contributions from witnesses and those involved in the incidents.

Millions came to our sites to see the news unfold and to discuss it and react to it. The mix of content we provided seems like the model for the way internet journalism will develop.

So where does this leave newspapers? On the most brutal view they are stuck on the hard shoulder of the information superhighway.

Circulations are falling but the press seems content to churn out a tired editorial mix that hasn't substantially changed in the past forty or fifty years.

The process of getting journalists' words to readers' breakfast tables is a daily organisational miracle but, compared with the immediacy of the internet, is practically guaranteed to provide a product that is out-of-date before it is consumed.

The same malaise by and large infects papers' websites. In newsrooms geared up to the daily ritual of producing a print edition, the internet is a poor relation.

Journalists expect to see their best work in the paper. Editors and business managers want to preserve the commercial value of their print editions.

So readers must wait until the following morning for the best articles, the biggest exclusives.

Newspapers continue to cling to an "us and them" world in which journalists are clever, informed, well-connected experts who find out what is going on, decide what is important and what isn't, analyse what it all means and present it to their grateful readers.

And if readers have opinions on the issues of the day, well, the journalists are frankly not terribly interested.

They may publish a handful of readers' letters but they don't really want to know what you think. It's your job to listen to them - not the other way around.

This is a state of affairs that clearly suits journalists and flatters their egos but readers seem to find it less satisfying.

They want to have their say, to react to the news and to the media's take on the news. The internet, with its messageboards, chatrooms and blogs, provides them with that opportunity.

Newspapers initially ignored the phenomenon or looked down on it as a kind of inadequate, amateurish version of journalism.

Even now, some newspaper sites still refuse to accept comments from their users, while others pre-vet and post only a 'representative selection'.

In the face of a wave of media democratisation, many are still behaving rather like Iron Curtain commissars in 1989.

Newspapers as dinosaurs lumbering towards their own extinction: that's the gloomy view of the current media landscape. But there are grounds for a more optimistic outlook.

Papers remain hugely powerful brands. To say that someone is a Sun reader, Guardian reader or Mail reader is instantly understood shorthand and shows that papers still stand for something.

It is possible to produce a newspaper that makes sense in the modern media age. Look at the Metro papers: rigorously designed to meet the needs of a young, time-pressured commuter audience and hugely successful.

Another positive sign is that newspapers are starting to address the internet seriously.

The Guardian’s Comment is Free site is a genuine attempt to get to grips with the blogging phenomenon.

Several papers are taking cautious steps into 'web-first' publishing. Time will tell whether they are adapting quickly enough.

Technology may yet ride to papers' rescue. 'Electronic paper' - digital screens that you can roll up and stuff in your back pocket - has been promised for years and could soon be with us. When it finally arrives, it could breathe new life into the press.

Most importantly, newspapers have the knowledge and resources to provide great journalism.

Though sites like AOL are producing more and more of our own content, in key areas like news and sport reporting, we continue to utilise the expertise of long-standing newsgathering organisations.

We don't have reporters on the scene of breaking stories or networks of correspondents and experts around the world. One future for some newspapers may be as suppliers to big online brands.

Some papers will manage to make the transition from print to online in their own right and those that succeed will do so because of the quality of their journalism.

Specifically, what will set them apart is quality reporting in breadth and depth combined with radical thinking about how to present information in a new medium, rather than simply reproducing the conventions of print on a computer screen.
Like any other medium, the internet depends on great content. Newspapers need to make sure they are in a position to supply it.

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