Like Charles Dickens's Ghost of Christmas future, two young journalists have been showing the news media a disturbing picture of a time that might be - a near future in which the press, as we know it, has become irrelevant.
While some say their dark prediction is highly improbable, others say that vision has already arrived.
An eight-minute video by Matt Thompson and Robin Sloan called "EPIC 2014" - a faux documentary that purports to look back from 2014 to tell how the mainstream media died - made waves at newspaper seminars and in journalism classrooms when it was released in early 2004. But when the pair released the video on the Internet - with no explanation as to who had created it or why - it made a worldwide impression.
"I love the mystery of it. I never would have done it any other way," says Mr. Thompson. Bloggers discussed who might be behind it and what message was intended.
"Judging by the number of times it was sent to me, there were a lot of eyeballs on that thing," says Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future, a think tank in Palo Alto, Calif.
"We were really surprised by the intense reaction it received outside the journalism community," says Thompson, who's now deputy editor of interactive media at the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper. While journalists often take the video as a dark jeremiad, nonjournalists often embrace it as a positive view of the media future, he says.
In the video, search-engine giant Google and online retailer Amazon join to create "Googlezon." ("It was too delicious a name to pass up," Thompson says.) They unleash EPIC, the Evolving Personalized Information Construct, which filters and delivers (as Thompson intones in his serious narration) "a custom content package for each user, using his choices, his consumption habits, his interests, his demographic, his social network." The information comes from blogs and citizen video cameras as well as conventional media sources. Googlezon's computers construct their own news stories by "stripping sentences and facts from all content sources and recombining them."
By 2010, when the "news wars" break out, the fight is between Googlezon and Microsoft. None of the "old media" is powerful enough to take part. The New York Times sues Googlezon, claiming that the company's fact-stripping robots violate copyright law when they pluck material from the Times, but it loses the case in the Supreme Court. In 2014, the Times concedes and drops off the Internet. It becomes a print-only publication for a small, elderly, elite audience.
"At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world - deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything ever available before," the video says. But at its worst, EPIC could encourage citizens to live in their own little worlds, getting information that is "narrow, shallow, and sensational."
Some say the forecasts, such as Google and Amazon merging, are far-fetched. Tech-savvy viewers often don't see the big fuss: For them, EPIC's media-scape is already here.
But Thompson and Mr. Sloan, who now works on the website of Current TV, a new media venture in San Francisco, didn't make EPIC 2014 expecting it to be an accurate predictor of the future.
"I think if you look at the really overarching themes, it holds up," says Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla. Mr. Finberg encouraged Thompson and Sloan to make the video when they worked at Poynter in 2004. "It's a way of telling a story about some of the fundamental challenges facing the news industry," Finberg says. "It's a conversation starter, it's a provocateur, a poke.... Some of it is far-fetched, but, frankly, some of it isn't far-fetched."
The idea that special stories for each reader will be written by computer programs roaming the Web is "a bit out there," says Barry Parr, a media analyst at Jupiter Research. On the other hand, computer programs already have put together stories about high school sports events, using statistics to create a play-by-play narrative.
The model for "the way that we've been writing and presenting news" is breaking down because of the Internet, Mr. Parr says. A newspaper can no longer be the source for everything from local events to international news. "More people are going to be looking [online] at individual stories from news organizations that they're going to be finding in lots of different ways," he says, "and not necessarily through ... the organization that employs the journalist."
One reason EPIC 2014 continues to resonate may have to do with the darkening image of Google, Thompson says. The December issue of Wired magazine asks "Who's Afraid of Google? Everyone." And Charlene Li, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, which closely tracks Google, told Investor's Business Daily that the company is evolving: "They are becoming a model for what a media company needs to be in order to be competitive in the future."
When Thompson and Sloan made the video in early 2004, "We still thought of Google as this 'don't be evil,' shining-armor company," Thompson says. But as Google's profits and stock prices have soared, "there are lawsuits against Google, and privacy advocates are warily eyeing Google's every move. It makes [EPIC 2014] even more ominous."
No one at Google has officially responded to EPIC 2014, but "everyone I've heard from at The New York Times that's seen it has enjoyed it tremendously," Thompson says. They get that it's a "tongue-in-cheek representation."
Few would question that the Times sits at or near the top of the print media food chain. But that pinnacle may not be as grand as it has been. "The New York Times is a great newspaper that hardly anybody reads," says Mr. Saffo, who says he's constantly amazed that even the top CEOs he meets seem oblivious to it.
"The problem is that the traditional media are leaving it to technology companies like Google and to individuals and entrepreneurs - like bloggers - to explore and innovate on the Internet," says "State of the News Media 2005" by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University. In its introduction, the report cites EPIC 2014 as a harbinger of the new media world. "The risk is that traditional journalism will cede to such competitors both the new technology and the audience that is building there," the report adds.
What EPIC 2014 demonstrates is the "fundamental transition" under way, "from mass media to personal media," futurist Saffo says. If that means "a populace that just doesn't care and doesn't want to be informed," that's a scary proposition, he says.
Thompson is more upbeat. "There are some very good, very powerful ideas in EPIC ... built on the idea of everyone having a voice ... and making everyone's voice relevant," he says. "It's not unmitigated good or unmitigated bad."
When he watches EPIC 2014, he says, "I always get at least as excited as I am scared of the possibilities."
• EPIC 2014, and an updated EPIC 2015 are online in several places, including: www.robinsloan.com/epic.