It’s time for mainstream media to trade in their gatekeeper role for a reader-empowered brand of Interactive Journalism
This in-depth look at online journalism appeared as the cover story of the November 1996 issue of The American Journalism Review. It was considered groundbreaking for its day.
Agreat many of the Internet’s 20-million-plus users consider Old Media’s practice of top-down, father-knows-best journalism to be clunky, obsolete and irrelevant to their lives. And, in an age when anyone with a computer and modem can be a virtual reporter, they’re right.
So does this mean that professional journalists — the middlemen in the news equation — are expendable in a wired world? Hardly. Many Net users want reporters, editors and news directors to bring their fact-checking skills and other timeless journalistic values — trustworthiness, accountability, balance, fairness — to this bright new medium.
But they also want Old Media to jettison the tired, stale baggage of traditional news culture. They want fewer, better filters and less spin on the news. They want journalism professionals to grasp what’s essential to their lives — something that seems to be missing from their daily newspapers and on the TV news.
Increasingly, readers want to engage us in a dialogue about the news.
Are we ready to listen? If so, the Net’s ubiquitousness and democratic tendencies have a lot to offer us as news providers.
As author J.D. Lasica concludes, it’s time for journalists to trade in our gatekeeper role for a brand of Interactive Journalism that makes readers true partners in the news process.
By J.D. Lasica
Michael Crichton stood before a lunchtime crowd at a National Press Club banquet in April 1993 and delivered a simple message to the movers and shakers of journalism: Change your news culture, or become fossils. Adapt to the new digital realities, or become museum relics.
The author of “Jurassic Park” called upon news organizations to reinvent themselves, to abandon glitzy, sensationalistic “junk-food journalism” in favor of a sensitive, informed, responsive approach that empowers the reader and removes the artificial filters that distort or trivialize the news.
Crichton, who knows something about dinosaurs, issued a warning: “To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years. Vanished, without a trace.”
Since that day three and a half years ago, a lot of bits have passed under the virtual bridge. Consider:
• The Internet has exploded in popularity, attracting more than 20 million users, many of whom spend every free moment cruising the World Wide Web, the Net’s flashy, graphic-friendly playground.
• Almost overnight, a new breed of information-providers — from niche-news purveyors like CNet and AT&T to more broad-based efforts from competitors like Microsoft — have jumped into the news pool, siphoning off subscribers, advertisers and employees from Old Media.
• In response to that impending threat, newspapers have stampeded onto the Web. The number of online newspapers has soared from a handful to about 800 in the United States alone, according to Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing, who closely tracks the online industry
So, then, Michael Crichton must be pleased with the news media’s efforts to jack into the new electronic frontier. Yes?
“I think the major media are more out of touch than ever. And doing a worse job than ever. And receiving more public disdain than ever,” Crichton says in an e-mail interview.
It’s a conclusion most Americans would seem to endorse, according to public opinion polls. Slamming the media is a sport that’s particularly popular in many quadrants of cyberspace.
For journalists like myself who spend a lot of time online, Crichton’s critique is echoed a millionfold times in the digital byteways of the Internet.
On the Net, the level of discourse fluctuates wildly, from the thoughtful discussions on the WELL to the electronic food fights of Usenet. But a common theme voiced by many Netizens is that Old Media’s practice of top-down, father-knows-best journalism is tired, clunky, obsolete and headed fast toward the scrap heap.
“A tremendous power shift is underway, and it’s about our ability to connect with each other in new ways,” Internet pioneer and author Howard Rheingold says in a telephone interview. “A personal computer, plugged into a telephone, creates a new communication medium, with unique properties and powers. The fact that you don’t have to own a newspaper or TV station to broadcast what you think to anyone anywhere in the world is a significant political shift.
“The day the New York Times tells us all the news that’s fit to print is over. Its era of dominance has passed, because the world changed.”
What remains uncertain is what this new world heralds.
The media universe is changing, as Old Media smash up against the new digital realities. And while there have been entire forests of newsprint cleared for articles written about the new technologies — the dazzling bells and whistles of multimedia, the financial hurdles faced by online news, the Net’s effect on reporting practices — there has been scant attention paid to the question of how the new media are transforming the message.
This may be a good time to draw a deep breath and consider some basic questions:
What will be the role of journalists when anyone with a computer and modem can lay claim to being a reporter, editor and publisher? Will professional journalists still be needed in an era when people can get their news “unfiltered”?
What are the ground rules for news in the free-for-all of cyberspace? Do the rituals and conventions of journalism that arose in an era of hot lead and Linotype have any relevance in a wired world?
Even more fundamentally, what is our job as journalists? Indeed, what is news in an era of information glut?
And whose news is it?
Culture clash: When worlds collide
Jan Gunnar Furuly thought it was business as usual when he filed a story last December detailing how some Internet Relay Chat channels were used to trade child pornography.
Furuly, a staff reporter for Aftenposten, Norway’s leading newspaper, had been writing articles for four years on such subjects as cyberporn, hate groups and Norwegian Satanists on the Net. That led to “some really serious waves of flame mails,” he reports in an e-mail interview.
But he was unprepared for the fallout from his Dec. 29 piece, which resulted in the University of Oslo shutting down their IRC server for more than two weeks. “The reaction to my article was nearly unbelievable. Some Net dinosaurs started a campaign to get me sacked from the paper. One of them started a watch-group project on the World Wide Web.”
For the next seven months, Furuly’s critics operated a home page that was the digital headquarters for Furuly-Watch, a site that kept tabs on every word Furuly wrote.
Erik Naggum, a computer software businessman, says he created the site because the reporter “is notorious for articles devoid of fact but filled with strong opinions about issues he does not understand.
“As far as I know, mine is the only voice of criticism toward journalists that tries to document the specific offenses committed by them,” he says by e-mail. “I got famous instantly in the entire Norwegian press corps for even hinting that a journalist had a bad track record. It appears that criticizing a journalist is on a par with killing him in the line of duty.”
As more newspapers set up shop on the Web, such culture clashes between reader and reporter are inevitable. A lot of built-in animosity and skepticism awaits journalists in cyberspace. Consider this sampling of attitudes from ordinary citizens (all of whom agreed to have their names published) who posted messages in online discussion forums:
Norman Edwards, a semi-retired lawyer-businessman in Newton, Mass., writes: “The Internet is our last hope for a medium that will enable individuals to combat the overpowering influence of the commercial media to shape public opinion, voter attitudes, select candidates, influence legislation, etc.”
Xerxes, a.k.a. Scott Finer, a telecommunications consultant in Arlington, Va., writes: “On the Net, I want to read the views of the experts themselves who make the news. I am, in fact, often annoyed by the interpretation supplied by the intervening journalist. Too often journalists — particularly broadcast journalists — advertise ‘balanced content’ yet deliver hidden agendas wrapped in cleverly modulated spin. Their claims of ‘balance’ make me hoot.”
Alan McConnell, who runs a computer consulting services firm in Silver Spring, Md., writes: “Journalism, at present, is stuck in its ‘paid for by advertisers’ mode. It had to be, in the era of chopped wood, 20-foot-high presses, phalanxes of delivery trucks. But, as we all realize, we have new technology now. Every person can indeed be a journalist. There is a great opportunity here for readers to get their news untainted by advertising. … It will be amateurish, annoying, copious, misleading and chaotic, but I find that preferable to slick, annoying, selective, misleading, trendy. And there are MILLIONS of me out there.”
Those rafts of fed-up news consumers now have other options.
Unfiltered news: One approach
The old joke in newsrooms was that “MTV News” is an oxymoron. But the joke’s not so funny anymore, now that most young people get their news from nontraditional sources — including MTV — rather than from their local paper or TV newscast.
MTV’s secret? It doesn’t talk down to the young. It doesn’t dismiss their interests as unimportant. It presents information in an eye-catching way. And recently, it has begun to let its viewers participate in the news.
Two summers ago MTV ran promos touting its new first-person news program told through the lens of a participant in the story. The network was deluged with 12,000 calls.
Steven Rosenbaum, executive producer of “MTV News Unfiltered,” says in a phone interview: “Part of what’s changing in society is this top-down model where the media decide what’s important and spoonfeed it to a docile, accepting public. That’s becoming obsolete, and a lot of people in journalism find that threatening. But all that’s really happening is we’re allowing the audience to participate in the news. That doesn’t make us any less important, it just changes our role.”
Here’s how it works: Rosenbaum’s staff of story coordinators sort through viewers’ phone calls, about 2,500 a week. They green-light 40 of the most promising subjects, help focus the story with each caller, then send out 40 camcorders so viewers can produce their own stories in the field. From that pool, the producers pick five segments per show to air.
Rosenbaum admits the show’s title shouldn’t be taken literally. “We have a half hour. Call it what you will — a funnel, a strainer — there is a selection process. But all the segments chosen are important, insightful stories that would never find a place in the conventional news media.”
The show, which aired in limited runs in July 1995 and last April, is rough and raw but real. It has won critical praise and “fantastic” viewer response, Rosenbaum says.
He recalls one segment in which a young teenage girl proposed a story about a friend’s suicide. “One of our producers wanted to know why this kid killed himself. Well, that’s not what the girl wanted to do. It would have been very easy for us to use our expertise as journalists as a cudgel to say, ‘You’re not getting the story right, Missy.’
“Instead, we let her do her own piece, a very moving, strong piece of television about how this teen’s suicide affected this group of 14-year-olds. And we never found out what pushed this kid. When we showed it at a screening for a group of broadcast executives, four of them were in tears. If just a few kids in the audience saw the depth of despair in the piece and learned something from it, then it was worth it.”
Rosenbaum has fought a running battle with broadcasters over the notion of news. “Before MTV signed us, I had three offers to do the show elsewhere, including one of the networks. But we turned them down because nobody would call it news. That word was so sacred that no one was willing to say that what the audience had to say was equally important to what we in the profession considered news.”
It’s a notion that may be changing. National Public Radio‘s “All Things Considered,” for example, has repeatedly dipped into the pool of viewer-based news in recent months. In March it ran “Remorse,” turning over the tape recorder to two youths who reported on two young boys in Chicago who dangled and dropped a 5-year-old to his death from a tenement window. In April it launched a series of first-person Teenage Diaries, including a story by a gay teenage girl growing up in a conservative Catholic family.
Old Media had better get used to the idea, Rosenbaum says.
“A lot of us have gotten hung up on the rules of balance and objectivity we learned in journalism school. I’ve been described as the devil incarnate, because we run stories where those things don’t come into play. We think the audience is sophisticated enough to tell the difference between an objective and subjective story. To me, the idea of storytelling as a profession that best not be tried in your own home is a dangerous and sad state of affairs.”
He has this parting advice: “When all is said and done, ‘Unfiltered’ is based on the simple act of answering the telephone and interacting with your viewers. With the Internet, the online services and the potential for interactive television, viewers are going to have a channel into newsrooms. They want to talk to us. The question is, Are we willing to listen?”
It should come as no surprise that a large number of Netizens have manned the virtual ramparts against Big Media’s incursion into cyberspace.
This is, after all, a medium that was built from the grassroots up. No corporate financing. No silver-maned publishers, broadcasters or cable bigwigs calling the shots. Consumers drive this baby.
Journalists cling to the conceit that we’re at the center of the media universe. But the harsh reality is that, for many, the press is expendable. Increasingly, citizens are bombarded with news and information from all directions: morning news shows, talk radio, magazines, newsletters, tabloid TV. And now, the Net.
The digital age is turning middlemen everywhere into endangered species. Already, travel agents, stock brokers, traders, Realtors, bank tellers and insurance brokers are polishing up their resumes. Some believe that journalists — the middlemen in the news equation — may be next.
For die-hard Netheads who want to play reporter, the Internet is the ultimate news-you-can-use machine. It’s a world library (even if all the books are on the floor), filled with tens of thousands of specialty nooks and niches. Experts in the field of law, the economy, education, politics, the arts are all accessible online — without the need for a journalist as mediator.
Even for breaking news, many people turn not to the mainstream media but to the Usenet, Internet Relay Chat and other wired forums for news about events like the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, Calif., the Oklahoma City bombing and the arrest of the Unabomber.
Art Nauman, ombudsman for The Sacramento Bee, says he has encountered an entirely new class of readers since he obtained an e-mail account last year younger, well-educated, and avid news junkies. “There are an awful lot of people out there who can do without us very nicely,” he says, pointing to declining newspaper readership figures in most of the major markets.
“Clearly, it’s not just the uninformed who aren’t picking us up. For growing numbers of young people especially, we’re not relevant.”
More voices, more choices
So, is it time to close up shop and ask cousin Charlie about that job opening in PR? Not so fast.
“Newspapers and broadcast media will be with us for a very long time,” says Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired, the bible of the digerati. “The Net doesn’t obliterate Old Media, it merely redefines it. It will liberate newspapers from some of their stale habits and enable them to try new, more creative approaches to communicating with their readers.
“The real phenomenon of the Net is micro-publishing, micro-audiences, micro-markets. Whatever obsession you have — taboo sites, roadkill sites, the most socially unacceptable things you can imagine — you can find somebody out there who’s doing it. Certainly the Roadkill Newsletter is not going to take away your appetite for a broader world view. The Web won’t replace Old Media. But it will add greatly to the diversity of viewpoints.”
Rheingold agrees. “The Internet changes the media equation, and it’s very simple: If you want to publish a newspaper, you need trucks, barrels of ink, big printing machines, capital. If you just want to publish the news, all you need is a computer and a telephone, and you can go online and provide an eyewitness account of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. The Internet puts the masses back in mass media.
“Does that mean that the Hearsts and Murdochs and Turners of the world will wither away and disappear? No way. But they won’t have a monopoly on the news, either. If you’re a writer or playwright or restaurateur, the newspaper of record can make you or break you. That kind of dominance is a scary thing. To my mind, a multiplicity of voices is far, far healthier.”
Who’s on the playing field
There was a time when starry-eyed Netizens envisioned a counterculture media universe flowering with a million small, personal, way cool Web sites. The genius and triumph of the Internet, after all, is the fact that the humblest home page is as accessible as the slickest corporate site.
Now that the Web has reached its toddler stage, those one-person sites and little zines are still there. But they’re mostly leading a lonely digital existence.
“At the beginning I thought a bunch of kids in a garage somewhere would put out a kick-ass publication that challenged The New York Times and reduced it to rubble,” says Joshua Quittner, executive producer of The Netly News, a media review on the Pathfinder Web site. “But where’s the real journalism on the Net? Where’s the challenger to CNN? The cost of doing world coverage is so huge, it’s not going to come from some kids in their garage. The most successful model is Suck, and that’s a couple of guys doing a sarcastic essay a day.”
Linda Nelson, vice president of new media for Stern Publishing, which owns The Village Voice, agrees. “Kids in a garage? I don’t see that happening. The best of the online magazines — Urban Desires, Word, Total New York, Salon — face the same realities that publications face in the real world. It takes a lot of money and talent to put out a quality product.”
Nelson says the Net has already changed the balance of power between the establishment media and alternative weeklies such as the Boston Phoenix, LA Weekly, Chicago Reader, San Francisco Bay Guardian and others. “The alternatives are all doing much better jobs on the Web than their corporate counterparts. For us, it’s a perfect fit. The Web offers a perfect medium for the attitude and irony and the more personal, sophisticated writing style you see in community newspapers.”
Giant non-news outfits such as Microsoft with its Citiscape project, America Online with its Digital Cities effort, Mr. Showbiz, AT&T, IBM and others have also begun to make inroads onto traditional media’s turf by carving out niches of entertainment, sports or business news for their online users.
Bigger may not be better, but it commands more attention.
Strikingly, even the alternative press has begun to climb aboard a corporate platform. The Village Voice already has a music site on the Microsoft News Network, which Nelson calls “a great new visibility tool.” And she sees further alliances ahead for alternative papers, MSN and other powerhouses like AOL or Netscape.
One factor driving this trend toward large, brand-name Web identities is that the online community itself is changing.
A morphing online universe
The Internet is going Main Street and Madison Avenue.
Elizabeth Weise, national cyberspace writer for The Associated Press, observes: “In the past year especially, with commercial services like America Online and Prodigy pulling people onto the Internet, people are coming to the Net for fundamentally different reasons than before. Up until recently the Net was this sort of Socratic debating society, with a lot of discussion, argument, interaction. It was like those pro-democracy wall posters in China. Today, all those posters are covered with ads for Nike, Sony and Coca Cola. And that’s pretty much what’s happening on the Web, too.”
Sandy Reed, editor of the computer trade journal InfoWorld and its online component InfoWorld Electric, agrees. “The Net is becoming less of a novelty and more of a business tool. As it becomes mainstream, the character of most of the Net is changing. There will always be outposts of ideology, but the majority of the Net is putting on a suit.”
If it’s putting on a suit, it’s wearing a Jerry Garcia tie.
And the ties come in a million different colors.
Ranters, burrowers and skimmers
When it comes to the Net, many mainstream media organizations mistakenly take a one-size-fits-all approach. But Netizens come in all flavors.
Some online users have written off the traditional news media entirely. David Kline, a veteran journalist and co-author of “Road Warriors: Dreams and Nightmares Along the Information Highway,” says a fringe element is particularly vocal: “Usenet is full of paranoid psychotics who believe the chairman of General Motors goes over all the copy before it gets printed in The New York Times every day. They see the Net as their license to rant and spew.” Enter a Usenet discussion group, identify yourself as a reporter, and watch the flames light up your screen.
A more sizable number of Netizens are burrowers, or tunnelers. They prefer journalists in the background, pointing to multiple sources and conflicting accounts while providing little or no summary or interpretation. They often have an intense interest in a particular subject, and they like to sift the raw information for themselves, often tunneling through layers of data to draw their own conclusions.
Increasingly, though, the Net is attracting more and more data-skimmers. Casual online users, they want their news tamed, filtered and summarized, quickly and cleanly. They don’t have time to play reporter.
But they do want news organizations to change some of their shopworn habits. Kelly, the editor of Wired, says, “Many people don’t want the topdown news force-fed them by the media. But in my experience, when they get an unfiltered variety of news, they don’t want that either. If you don’t have good editors and writers and institutional trust in place, you get a kind of news that’s more noisy and not as trustworthy.
“I think what people want is a directed news that aims higher than the lowest-common-denominator kind of news that some of the mass media cater to.”
‘A megaphone for dissonance’
“The conventional wisdom — that new media users want journalists out of the way — is absolutely false,” says Richard Harwood, president of The Harwood Group, a public research and innovations firm in Bethesda, Md.
Harwood’s firm has interviewed hundreds of citizens nationwide in small-group settings on the topic of online journalism. “In every study we’ve done,” he says, “people have told us, ‘Look, if you’re just going to mimic what’s already out there on the Net, save your time and money.’ They do not want newspapers to copy the chaotic, free-wheeling, anything-goes cyberspace culture.
“People pick up newspapers because there is a filter at work. They very much want news judgment to come into play. They want us to bring our traditional standards and values to new media.”
People don’t want news professionals to make fewer judgments, Harwood says. They want better judgments.
But they don’t think we’re doing a good job of upholding our own journalistic standards.
“People look to journalists to be their guides, their truth-tellers, to provide context, perspective and meaning,” Harwood says. “Instead, they see the media as a megaphone for dissonance. We cover the news in ways that polarize. We divide. We seldom try to find common ground among people.”
Harwood ticks off a litany of journalistic sins: Biased, inaccurate reporting. The media’s steady drumbeat of negativity. The drift toward tabloid news and sensationalism. Lazy reporting that taps the usual suspects in a community for comment. The media’s tendency to report the news through a prism of conflict.
James Fallows, author of “Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy,” has made similar observations, chastising the press corps for fomenting a culture of cynicism.
If journalism is to succeed on the Net, Harwood says, “Journalists need to reach back and bring their core values of accuracy, credibility, judgment and balance into this new world.”
‘Information wants to be free’
An outtake from the new digital frontier:
Thousands of online mailing list subscribers were startled March 23 by a bulletin from Joe Shea, editor-in-chief of the online newspaper The American Reporter, in the midst of rising tensions between China and the United States during Taiwan’s first democratic elections.
Shea’s defense correspondent was reporting, “U.S. forces have been preparing — quietly and out of sight — for the possibility that China might launch a missile attack tomorrow either against Taiwan, or more unlikely (and devastating), against the continental U.S. DSP (Defense Support satellites) have been moved into position over the Far East for two purposes, my sources tell me: to 1. detect instantly an ICBM liftoff from Lop Nor or XiChang Island, and 2. target U.S. missiles that would quickly fly in retaliation.”
The bulletin went on to detail Trident submarine movements, Tomahawk cruise missile targets, and CIA estimates that “China has 9 ICBMs capable of reaching the West Coast of the U.S.”
There was only one problem: None of the information was intended for publication or distribution.
Frank Sietzen Jr., the volunteer correspondent for the cooperative cyber-publication, had intended his message to remain a private e-mail to his editor until he could verify the reports he’d heard from “stray sources.” “The next thing I know,” he says by e-mail, “Shea has published my e-mail as a news bulletin! It never crossed my mind that he would rush into `print’ something like this.”
Sietzen told Shea his follow-up phone calls did not bear out the initial rumors, and he demanded an immediate retraction. Shea refused. Sietzen quit on the spot. He now calls it “the most painful incident I have ever been a part of.”
Shea later apologized for not waiting to hear from Sietzen before sending out the bulletin. But he says, “It seemed urgent to me that our readers be informed. Rather than put any distance between the writer and the reader, I sent out his note (unedited). … What if we suddenly found ourselves in a nuclear war? For myself, it is a matter of moral obligation that any advance warning of such a catastrophic possibility be made available to people for their own information. What is more important, in the end: the privacy of an e-mail message, or the possible deaths of tens of thousands of people?”
What we have here, it seems, is a case of journalism ditching its playbook as it trots onto the field of a new medium.
Journalists in television and radio have long wrestled with the immediacy of their mediums, weighing the harm of broadcasting unconfirmed reports against the public’s right to know.
What is different, as we step onto this new turf, is that we are entering a medium that has a set of operating principles already in place. If cyberspace has a First Commandment, it is this: “Information wants to be free.” That mantra, which dovetails nicely with journalists’ First Amendment proclivities, also has a downside, which is this: It’s difficult to separate fact from wild rumor and hearsay.
MTV’s Rosenbaum says, “I assume that everything I read on the Net is half true.”
And that is precisely the problem.
What journalism can bring to the Net
Media scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution says, “When you get into cyberspace, you get an awful lot of misinformation. ‘Unmediated news’ may be harmless when you throw it back and forth across the backyard fence. But when it goes out into the ether, it takes on a life of its own. At least journalists are quasi-professionals who have some training and a code of ethics and some rules of the road.”
Increasingly, online users are looking to journalists to bring their truth-telling tools to cyberspace. Indeed, that is what spurred a group of writers, editors and Net analysts in April to found the Internet Press Guild, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting accuracy in reporting on and about the Internet.
Says online journalist David Kline: “We’re beginning to see a new theme emerge on the WELL (an electronic conferencing service based in Sausalito, Calif.) in the last few months. Because of the unreliable, un-fact-checked nature of the Net, people are starting to realize they need vetted information. With total information glut, more and more people are asking, ‘Which of these sources is true, good and reliable?’
“So perhaps we have something really valuable in traditional journalism that we can offer to the online world. The more time people spend online, the more they appreciate what good old-fashioned journalism can do for them.”
The values worth keeping
Online journalists interviewed for this article disagreed about the specific changes journalism must undergo if it is to succeed in cyberspace, but all agreed that journalists need to hold onto such time-honored values as truthfulness, trustworthiness, accountability, credibility. And nearly all agreed that restraint and perspective — rather than immediacy and impact — should be the yardstick by which Net journalism is measured.
“Journalists have to make sure we maintain everything we care about: accuracy, reliability, fairness — none of that changes,” says Stephen Pizzo, an award-winning investigative reporter who was senior editor of Web Review, a quality multimedia magazine that folded its tent in May before reopening as an industry news product in September.
“The Net is crawling with people who call themselves journalists,” Pizzo says. “There’s a guy in Reno who publishes his pieces in a dozen or so newsgroups dedicated to politics and conspiracy theories. His stories have a dateline and the syntax is what you would expect of a straight news story. He has published a series on the death of White House counsel Vince Foster, claiming unnamed intelligence sources have told him that Foster and Hillary Clinton were selling nuclear launch codes to the Israelis, and Foster was murdered by Mossad while he was having oral sex performed on him by Dee Dee Meyers. I kid you not.
“The fact is, there are plenty of people out there who can be captured by that kind of phony journalism. There’s no way to stop it, so we have to educate the reader. Readers will have to become much more discerning news consumers. The Internet is the biggest fact-checking tool in history. It’s a poor man’s Lexis-Nexis. If you have a question, bore into a subject and find out if that reporter is telling you the truth. You can’t be a lazy reader anymore.”
Journalism brings more than fact-checking to the Net. For one thing, we need journalists to point out information we didn’t know we wanted to know.
“Part of the value of newspapers is the serendipity,” says Fallows, editor in chief of US News & World Report, in an e-mail interview. “The drawback of computer ‘search agents’ is that they presumably wouldn’t be able to find articles that might otherwise surprise us or catch our fancy. … The historic function of the news includes understanding what your audience cares about and thinks — but also telling them things they may not know are important to them.” (Here is the full transcript of Fallows’ e-mail interview.)
Michael Hallinan, a journalist-turned-online technician at USA Today Information Systems, adds: “The value of online journalists will be seen in their skills in sifting through documents, asking difficult questions, and getting the `who, what, when, why and how’ right. Also, there remains a need for skilled reporters to ferret out information that no one wants you to know. As someone pointed out, ‘Would Deep Throat have put up a Web site?’ Probably not.
“But beyond just-the-facts-ma’am reporting and investigative pieces, the most important thing newspapers can bring to the Net is context to make sense of it all.”
The question is, do online newspapers make sense?
What the Net can bring to journalism
If journalism brings great things to the table — fact-checking skills, a certain level of credibility and trust — it also brings a lot of baggage. Newspapers, TV and radio stations are, at bottom, businesses first.
Kline, co-author of “Road Warriors,” points out: “There’s a core conflict of values between the basic nature of the Internet and the demands of large businesses. The Net is free, it’s egalitarian, decentralized, open and peer-to-peer, autonomous and anarchic. Now contrast that to the vocabulary of commercialism: profit-oriented, hierarchical, bureaucratic, closed, organized, reliable.”
It’s little wonder, then, that critics like Jon Katz, media writer for Wired, suggest that online newspapers are inherently untenable.
“I think newspapers don’t have much business being online at all,” Katz says by phone from his home in suburban New Jersey. “Newspapers online disappear into the great electronic maw. Cyberspace is a different culture, it’s not what newspapers are about.”
Katz’s 1994 article in Wired, “Online or Not, Newspapers Suck,” remains the unofficial treatise for the legions of Old Media bashers in the digital nation. In it, he wrote, “Watching sober, proper newspapers online stirs only one image: that of Lawrence Welk trying to dance at a rap concert.”
Katz hasn’t been swayed by the progress some online newspapers have made from those awkward early efforts. He says, “Most newspaper Web sites are ugly, clunky, present unoriginal, outdated information, and reflect corporate traditions that emphasize tepid opinion, stuffy writing and middle-of-the-road banality. That’s not what people go online for. Young people, especially, like strong point of view, attitude, graphics, in-depth pop culture coverage — all the things that newspapers won’t do. It’s this inability to change and take risks that is the real Achilles’ heel of newspapers.
“The Web is useful for breaking news, but it doesn’t provide context. Everybody is yelling in new media. Everybody loves the fact that opinion is unfiltered. But there’s no way to get a coherent, rational picture of the world. That’s why newspapers are important — in their print role. Instead, they’re commiting information suicide by wasting time, energy and money on a medium that is antithetical to what they do.”
I think Katz is right about our shortcomings. Too many newspapers are guided by the maxim, “Bland is beautiful.” Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing, who’s no bomb-thrower, says, “Newspapers today are homogenized, have little personality, and tend to look like all of their corporate siblings.”
But I think Katz underestimates the potential value of online newspapers. News publications can bring a historical sweep and depth to events. Context is not confined to the front page of a Web site; it’s hidden in the rich layers of information that each user can ferret out.
If online newspapers evolve into what they should become, they will provide far more than a screenful of electronic headlines, photos and recycled stories. A next-wave online publication will be an indispensable resource tool, an around-the-clock service that not only checks facts and prioritizes the news, but also provides a community encyclopedia of sorts — a navigation device for exploring the news universe.
Newspapers can succeed in cyberspace, but only if they’re willing to leave behind conventions that no longer make sense in the digital world. The Net provides a fantastic opportunity for newspapers to reinvent themselves, to hold onto the things that make them vital to our lives, but also to let go of stale and suffocating habits.
In short, we need to approach this young medium with a fresh set of eyes.
It will require, in my view, a six-step transformation.
Transformation 1: A new mindset
Back in journalism school, many of us learned about the gatekeeper function of journalism. It was our role, the book said, to filter the raw data that flow into newsrooms from hundreds of sources and, out of that flotsam and jetsam, funnel only the most useful, important news and information to the public.
But “gatekeeper” suggests that journalists should be guardians of what comes into the public sphere — an antiquated notion in an age of information overload and of reader-directed news. Today, users often bypass the news media entirely and go to Internet search engines like Alta Vista and Yahoo! to get the information they want. The era of newspapers “breaking the news” to most citizens is over — even in an online universe.
Are we still gatekeepers, then? Or do we need a new metaphor for our role in this new medium?
Bob Wyman, who helped pioneer new media with his CD-ROM magazine Medio Magazine, says, “The image of a ‘gatekeeper’ implies that there is a gate. That may have been true in the old days of journalism when there were very few ways for folk to get news of their community or world. Today, that just isn’t the case. Information is ‘raining’ on us rather than being funneled along any particular path. Simply put: The gate is gone, thus, the gatekeepers need new jobs.
“What we need today fits much more the image of a filter or a guide. Someone who can walk us through the forest of information and show us which are the really interesting trees.”
Esther Dyson, president of EDVenture Holdings and chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says, “An online editor should be a virtual bartender. In the interactive world, the bartender doesn’t do all the talking. Your value comes in listening and in knowing who should talk to whom. Now, that doesn’t mean every editor should take bartending class, but the more successful online services put a high premium on interacting with readers.”
Tom Braman, a producer in the Interactive Media Division of Microsoft, says, “I don’t think we’re bartenders. I think we’re hosts at a great party, facilitating great conversation about — and interaction over — great subjects.”
Similarly, J.G. Downs, a design editor at the Press-Republican in upstate New York, suggests: “We’re facilitators. We bring topics to the table, we focus discussion that’s already there, we talk and listen, we gather up what we find and put it in perspective, we add what our expertise and special resources allow us.”
Nancy Hicks Maynard, chair of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York, suggests: “Curators. We’re bringing our expertise to a story and showing people the breadth and depth of a subject.”
Internet pioneer Rheingold says, “A professional journalist should be a ‘trusted witness.’ With everybody an eyewitness on the Net, who do you believe? Let the buyer beware forevermore. People who have training and experience with sniffing out important stories, gathering and evaluating evidence, and double-checking sources, will have increased value.”
Transformation 2: A new conception of news
“I see two emerging components of ‘new’ news,” Crichton says in his e-mail interview. “One is direct access to unfiltered news — direct transcripts, full video of the hearings, etc. We see some of that now, and we will see more.
“The other component is extremely high quality subscription news services which will be sold directly to interested buyers, and which will have none of the entertainment, attract-a-crowd quality of current major media. There is such a thing as high quality information, as there is for any other product. We’ve just never seen it.”
During the past year, online information brokers like Infoseek Personal, Farcast, IBM’s InfoSage and more than a dozen other customized news services have begun poaching on the news media’s turf. Some are digital butlers that go out into cyberspace and fetch the kind of news that a user specifies. Others, like AT&T’s Lead Story, pick the day’s top story and guide readers to the best coverage of it on the Net.
Crichton is correct in suggesting that the early efforts have produced a mixed bag. Consider this headline, which appeared earlier this year in one of the news sections of the PointCast News Network:
CLINTON SHOWS SHOCKING DISREGARD FOR THE VALUES OF THE MAJORITY OF AMERICANS, AGAIN REWARDS PRO-ABORTION ALLIES
PointCast, a spinoff of the Silicon Valley software firm Adobe Systems, routinely mixes news feeds from legitimate sources like Reuters and the Associated Press with press releases from outfits like the PR Newswire, as in the above example — without drawing any distinctions for readers who aren’t routinely subjected to the joys of press releases.
Journalists should be disturbed by that because it cheats the reader (unless the reader wants the news slanted). It’s like getting your news about cancer from the Tobacco Institute.
But beyond that, the offerings of PointCast and the other personalized news services are instructive because of the trend it portends for journalism. This may well be the future of news: custom-fitted micro-news, highly targeted and drawn from a variety of sources.
Until recently, news has been a one-way street: all push and no pull. The news has been what journalism professionals decided it was.
The consumer takes control
But now the nexus of control has shifted from the news provider to the news consumer. Already, computer users can customize their news filtering agents (which admittedly are still primitive) to search out stories on any number of subjects that interest them. Some day, viewers will be able to personalize their TV newscast.
With the consumer now beginning to pull the levers, it requires that we adopt new ways of thinking about what constitutes news.
Old Media’s definition of news was based on a publication or station’s news cycle. In the new media universe, there is no such thing as an “edition” — the news is continually updated. More significantly, “news” becomes any information that a person finds useful or important. The rise of subscription news services is due precisely to traditional media’s failure to fill that role. In truth, news organizations have always delivered two brands of news: imperative news — front-page material such as war, the economy, the president’s latest pronouncement— and discretionary news, which runs the gamut from cranberry bread recipes to travel information to gardening tips.
But the news has always been delivered through a prism that makes certain assumptions: for example, what happened today is more newsworthy than what happened yesterday.
Some of those assumptions are tenuous at best in the digital age.
Bart Preecs, an electronic publishing consultant in Puyallup, Wash., says, “Distributing news and information by computer may radically change the deadline psychology of the news business. The ability to retrieve what is now dismissed as ‘yesterday’s news’ will turn out to be far more important to readers and users.
“You may completely ignore the decisions of your local zoning officials until a notice comes in the mail that a nearby restaurant wants to add a liquor lounge and double its parking. Suddenly, all the decisions your local city council and zoning board have made over the past five years are relevant and urgent. You may ignore all news about food, nutrition or exercise until the day the doctor finds a suspicious lump in your breast or in your colon. Suddenly, retrieving all sorts of health-related information is a matter of vital interest.
“Here is where the ability of new media technology to sort out information by topic, to search and retrieve important information no matter when it was published, becomes extremely valuable — even if it flies in the face of conventional definitions of ‘newsworthiness.’ Any definition of news based on an editor’s opinion will soon be meaningless.”
Preecs may overstate the case, but his underlying point is critical: As newspapers go online and build up a collection of data on neighborhood schools, crime rates, business leaders, public officials and so on, the stories interweave and grow into a digital community encyclopedia. The paper becomes a valuable resource that readers will access long after the stories are pushed off the front page.
Online newspapers should have memories. If we just present the headline news — all surface, no context — then Katz and other critics will be proved right: We will have nothing unique or compelling to offer the online world.
Transformation 3: Finding a new voice
Any journalist who has spent any amount of time on the Net has run into the legions of Netizens who believe that journalistic claims of “objectivity” are a sham. More often than not, the critics tout the glories of subjectivity, which they consider more honest.
I didn’t know what to make of this at first. Partly, no doubt, it’s a reflection of the society-wide disenchantment with the way we in the news media are doing our jobs. Still, studies tell us that most Americans have no appetite for a European-style brand of opinion-based reporting. What, then, accounts for the torrents of online hostility for objective journalism?
I believe the online community’s message has less to do with abandoning objectivity than it has to do with voice, point of view and personal story-telling. These are qualities that people yearn for — and that are missing in most newspapers.
Independence of voice is treasured on the Internet. Point of view and opinion have a higher place in cyberspace. Personal emotion is embraced and celebrated, not shunned.
Kelly of Wired cautions that the Web is still in its “embryonic” stage, but he suggests, “The kind of writing that seems to work best on the Net is much more passionate, impressionistic, telegraphic, relativistic, immediate, global and postmodern, with a far broader emotional palette than is seen in traditional media. The public is starved for point-of-view, subjective, passion-based journalism, and those are the sites that are flourishing on the Web.”
The national news weeklies and highly edited newspapers, in contrast, rarely allow their reporters to write in their own voice. The filtering process ensures that the end product is endowed with a homogenized, undifferentiated, institutional voice. The writing rarely sparkles or grabs you by the throat.
That’s a recipe for irrelevance in cyberspace.
Katz, who has become cyberspace’s most influential media critic through his columns in Wired and HotWired, says, “Newspapers should be raising hell, presenting vivid writing, taking chances. Instead, opinion has been corraled into these profoundly dull ghettos called the op-ed pages. ‘Balanced reporting’ has turned every story into a giant stalemate where the reader is left bewildered.”
Dominique Paul Noth, a former film critic and arts editor for The Milwaukee Journal who is now an online media consultant, shares that view. “Newspapers need to get out of the mindset that we have to be gentle with our communities. I’m not talking about subjective reporting. I’m talking about investigative reporting, deliberative journalism with an edge, consumer reporting where we say, ‘We think something smells here and we’re going to tell you what it is.’ Those kinds of opinions and approaches will carry weight in cyberspace.
“Newspapers have lost their personality,” Noth says, firing his words rat-tat-tat. “They’ve been so concerned with their public image that they’ve decided, `We don’t want to be controversial.’ Well, that’s not going to fly on the Net. People like to get riled up about things. We need to give voice to people who care passionately about the community. We need more curmudgeons and wicked writers on our staffs and more loose cannons rolling through the decks. An Erma Bombeck of cyberspace would be a most welcome addition to this environment.”
But there are few online Ermas thus far. Look at the roster of online newspaper staffs and you’ll see a long list of Web technicians, HTML experts, graphic artists, editors — but hardly an online reporter anywhere, much less a columnist.
Cyberspace’s top muckraker
Newspapers are missing an opportunity here. In cyberspace, people want to become involved with a name and a personality — not an institution. It’s hard to interact with a corporate facade.
So it’s perhaps no coincidence that the most widely read reporter in cyberspace, Brock Meeks, is not connected with any newspaper. Meeks is a muckraking cyberjournalist who publishes the CyberWire Dispatch, an irreverent, profane, attitude-heavy newsletter that’s read avidly by an online readership he estimates at 800,000.
“The readers think my style of journalism is more honest. They know where I’m coming from,” Meeks says from his office in Washington, D.C. “Journalism isn’t going to crumble just because you allow a reporter to be opinionated and outspoken and to have an individual voice.”
Meeks and Katz go further, though, in calling for journalists to abandon the tenets of objectivity. “I think the notion of objective journalism died years ago,” Meeks says. Katz has made a personal crusade out of railing against objectivity, calling for an “informed subjectivity” in its place.
My own view is that we don’t need to abandon reporting that strives for fairness, even-handedness, telling all sides of a story, getting at the truth without letting personal biases color our reporting (though the word “objectivity,” with all of its underlying connotations, seems a worthy candidate for jettisoning).
But neither do online news publications need to relegate all opinion and viewpoint to the backwaters of the digital op-ed page. Too often, objectivity has been used as an excuse to bleed feelings, texture, sensory experience — the passion of everyday life — from our pages.
Fallows says, “Great narrators throughout history, from Homer to Truman Capote, have found ways to involve people’s emotions as well as their intellects.”
We tend to forget that some of the best reporting of our age was first-person reportage. Think Edward R. Murrow during the London blitzkreig, the Berlin bombing raids and his courageous broadcast attacking Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Think Ernie Pyle reporting from the bloodied sands of the Pacific front. Think John Steinbeck, I.F. Stone, George Seldes, George Polk, Dorothy Thompson, Ben Hecht, Jessica Mitford, George Orwell, Jimmy Breslin.
It’s not objectivity that is our goal. It’s truth-telling.
Transformation 4: Using multimedia’s full palette
To date, online papers have been timid in embracing the tools of multimedia. Instead, they’ve been trying to walk the old-fashioned model of newspapering into cyberspace by “repurposing” content from their print product — there’s even a new word for it: shovelware — adding a couple of hot links, and then wondering why nobody’s stopping by to say hello. In the next year, as these sites become virtual ghost towns, we’re certain to see some papers shut them down, declaring the experiment a failure.
What they’ve failed to grasp is that the Net is an entirely new medium. When we visit an online media site, we don’t have a newspaper experience. We have an online experience, and that’s a very different thing.
“Most online ventures by newspapers are a waste of electrons,” says author Kline. “But it’s still early in the game.”
Already, there have been some noteworthy examples of how to do multimedia right. Instead of running a story on the Web about how to write a resume, we’re beginning to see publications guide users through a worksheet to help them instantly create one that’s tailored to their needs. Instead of running instructions on how to fill out a tax return, the Chicago Tribune uses multimedia applications that lets readers fill out their own 1040 U.S. tax form online.
Publications large and small are experimenting with new story structures, new narrative voices, new graphical devices.
Word, an Webzine based in New York, obtained the court transcript in the Philadelphia murder trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal and put up a site with a street map of the crime scene, allowing readers to click on each eyewitness’s account of the shooting, letting us draw our own conclusions about what really happened.
The Philadelphia Inquirer took the city’s 1994 homicide statistics and broke them down into dozens of categories, letting readers set their search parameters in the way that’s most useful to them. “You could say, ‘Show me all the homicides in the zip code I live in, committed with automatic weapons, where the victims were Hispanics under 17,’ ” says Robin Palley, editor of Philadelphia Online. “There’s even a database of hospital data that can show you which hospital will improve your odds of surviving a heart attack.”
Palley’s nine-person staff also crunched the raw statistics for school districts in the region. “Say you’re a reader thinking of moving to a district in New Jersey,” she says. “We let you go fishing in the database to find out all the schools in the district, the enrollment, average class size, attendance rate, student-faculty ratio, SAT scores, what languages are spoken, and on and on. We’ve included every school in the state.
“This is a big change in journalism. We can go right down to the neighborhood and corner school level, giving readers information that the news hole crunch would almost never let us print in this kind of detail.”
Palley says reporters are now asked to bring in documents, tapes and floppy disks whenever background information is available so that the source data can be put online. Besides hypertext, Philadelphia Online also makes use of such multimedia tools as Java, Shockwave, animation and sound clips.
In September 1996, Philly Online brought the new dimensions of multimedia to the 10-part series “America: Whole Stole the Dream?” In addition to the text, an interactive part of the site gives readers access to features such as “Where do I fit in,” which lets families compare their household income to the national average; an economic IQ test; a “Finding work in America” feature that showcases jobs the government says no U.S. citizens are willing to do; and the Blame Game, an animated program that allows readers to dictate public policies and then shows the course that government and business leaders actually followed.
All in all, Palley says of her paper’s brand of cyberjournalism, “We try to make things a little funkier, more graphically driven, more searchable, more fast-paced and fun, without compromising our commitment to serious, responsible journalism.”
Leah Gentry, Internet editor of the Chicago Tribune, also believes that journalists need to bring a fresh perspective to story-telling on the Web. (Gentry left her post at the Trib in September, and now heads up the Los Angeles Times’ Web site.)
“The greatest legacy we can leave to journalism is the ability to create non-linear stories, not just adapt linear ones. Only by approaching the medium cold, without preconceived notions of inverted pyramids and leads, can we discover the Web’s potential as a news tool.
“I think there are two real key beauties to the Web: its immediacy, and the way the Web allows you to move through information. Our challenge is to deconstruct the story in a way that allows users to move through the various parts in any order they want and still walk away with a sense of what the story’s about.
“The writing should be less formal than the typical newspaper story,” says Gentry, who has four online reporters on her 20-member staff. “I tell my writers, ‘Pretend like you’re on the phone, telling the story to your mother.’ ”
The Internet Tribune has successfully used this approach to story-telling on several occasions. One was a roundup of Chicago’s homicide statistics that let users drill down to a neighborhood level, translating cold homicide stats into victims’ stories through a series of interactive graphics.
A second was a series about a murder victim whose body parts were carried home by two farm dogs; readers could choose to experience the story from a variety of viewpoints: the victim’s, the investigators’, even the dogs’.
Gentry says her reporters bring back documents, take digital still photos, and collect RealAudio clips by recording phone interviews with the source’s permission. “It gives us a richer package,” she says.
Other papers are beginning to follow suit. Several put up the FBI agent’s report that listed the contents found at the Unabomber’s cabin.
Says investigative-journalist-turned-multimedia producer Pizzo: “In the old days, when I wrote about a secret White House memo that I obtained indicating the president knew about Iran-Contra, the reader had to trust that I had it and I was interpreting it correctly. Today I’m able to say, hey, here it is. Look it over and come back to me for the story. Readers are coming to expect that now. And woe be the journalist who plays fast and loose with the facts.”
A reputation for trust and thoroughness
Ultimately, publications that effectively use hypertext links to source materials will earn not only the respect and gratitude of readers, but their trust as well.
“Good journalists and good publishers will develop a reputation among intelligent people for levels of thoroughness not heretofore imagined,” says Ken Goffman, a.k.a. R.U. Sirius, founder of Mondo 2000. “It will be easier for their readers to presume that they’re at least approximating truth, which is all you can ever do.”
John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, suggests that reporters provide not just hypertext links to raw documents, but e-mail addresses of the sources they interviewed.
As if all this weren’t enough for the dead-trees crowd to absorb, online journalists will soon have to contend with live audiovisual feeds from the scene of a breaking news event — a development certain to blur traditional roles as print reporters begin toting digital cameras and camcorders to news events. (Already, reporters in the field provide audio feeds on the Chicago Tribune’s Web site.) Also at the computer screen, the 3-D effects of Virtual Reality Modeling Language has the potential to dramatically change the way we filter information online.
Russell Neuman, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, says that the convergence of newspapers, television, radio and other media will result in reporters routinely carrying video cameras, performing sound editing and doing chats and other interactive components.
“Oh, they’ll circle the wagons and put alligators in moats and they’ll say it’s just an electronic fad, but the trend is inevitable,” he says. “A 50-year-old journalist can plan on finishing out his or her career by editing text or taking still photos. But anyone younger would be wise to plan on a knit career where all these other skills come into play.”
With all these powerful new tools, journalists need to be careful not to use them merely for the sake of getting a bigger bang for their multimedia buck. Audio, video, animation and 3-D effects must fill some expository need.
“The first rule I laid out for my staff was, I don’t want anything that blinks for the sake of blinking,” Gentry says. “There are too many bells and whistles around that make no sense. If it’s something flashy, it’s got to help you tell the story.”
Transformation 5: A dialogue with our readers
Cyberscribe Meeks recalls a conversation he had over lunch earlier this year with an assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. “I asked him why I never saw any Wall Street Journal reporters posting online. He told me the Journal didn’t want its reporters giving away their thoughts for free. I just about fell off my chair.”
The Journal does, in fact, prohibit its reporters from participating in online discussions outside of the paper’s own Web site. Managing editor Paul Steiger explains that the company doesn’t want its reporters to give away a “unique product” to others when their real audience ought to be the paper’s 2 million readers; he also says that stories in the Journal are heavily edited, and “when a reporter’s off on his own, there isn’t that same rigorous editing process.”
Adds Steiger: “If they’re expressing opinions and identifying themselves as a reporter for this newspaper, I want to be real careful about that. They’d need to clear that with their editors.”
You can almost hear John Perry Barlow shaking his head over the phone at that. Barlow, who’s been called cyberspace’s theoretical architect, says it’s just those sorts of practices that will “doom” mainstream media in the online world. “It’s very hard to reinvent your culture, and existing news organizations have a set of habits that are very burdensome in cyberspace,” he says.
One of the news media’s most burdensome habits is the unwillingness to enter into a true dialogue with their readers. Earlier this year, in a running discussion in the media conference of the WELL, many readers bemoaned the lack of access and interactivity that online news organizations now offer.
Tom Conrow, a manager in San Francisco social services department, complained: “One of the most annoying things about newspapers’ online sites are the invisible, untouchable writers and editors. Go to the Gate (the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner), an estimable digital presence. Try to contact a reporter or editor there. See staff comments or responses in any of the conference areas? The same is true, in spades, at the NY Times and elsewhere. As handy as these sites are now, they function more like psychological firewalls than gateways.”
If anything, Conrow understates the problem.
We’re terrible at communicating with the public. Anyone who has ever called a newsroom, only to be shuffled from one gruff or impatient voice to the next, knows full well the message we in the news media project: inaccessibility. Aloofness. Remoteness.
Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the premier columnists in the nation, says: “In general, news gathering organizations have become hopelessly spoiled by their own comfortable insulation from their readers. They’re terrified of feedback; they’re terrified of revealing the nuts and bolts of the process. They’re like doctors were in 1950 — they form a kind of priesthood, talk in jargon, and suggest that what they do is so incredibly technical and complex that the average person just wouldn’t understand it.”
Carroll, who co-hosts the WELL’s media conference and dives in with his own puckish observations at every turn, is given a special dispensation because of his large public following. But he says, “Newsroom managers are wary of unmediated reporters just talking about their jobs. It’s very odd, because you can learn so much from the dialogue. And also, once you show up and act like a person, people tend to become friendly. It’s easy to trash a faceless institution; harder to trash a guy who just made a joke in the previous topic.”
Noth, the consultant whose Dom’s Domain Web site offers some of the most thoughtful media commentary in cyberspace, underscores the need for the news media to reinvent their culture. “Newspapers have a difficult time with interactivity. We like to celebrate the idea that we’re open to the community. But in truth, print newsrooms control the nature of the dialogue. We’re the professional communicators, the readers are passive recipients of content created by experts, and if you have a complaint, well, write a letter to the editor. That’s just not going to fly on the Net. Much of the Internet is built around contact, response, a free exchange of ideas. The two-way nature of the medium is one of the highest psychological hurdles for newspaper people to overcome.
“Newspapers are just going to have to start trusting their staffers. They’re going to have to abandon that old sense of control, where everything is filtered through the top levels of management and everyone falls behind an official posture. That was probably never healthy for newspapers anyway. On the Internet, it’s poison.”
Terence L. Day of Pullman, Wash., who put in 11 years in newsrooms, posted this observation on Steve Outing’s online-news mailing list: “Too many editors and reporters today are insulated from the livid little old ladies who used to come in and pound on the editor’s desk. Now there are physical and human barriers between journalists and the public, not to mention voice mail. It looks to me as if e-mail is the last great hope for communication between readers and journalists, but I already hear grumblings from editors and reporters about the demands of e-mail.”
E&P columnist Outing has heard those same laments from journalists. His advice? “Get used to it. That’s just the way it’s going to be from now on.” Outing has this prescription for online newspapers: “Start printing e-mail addresses along with bylines. Give all your editors and reporters e-mail accounts. Encourage reporters to set up their own home pages. That lets readers see that it’s a real human being who’s writing this story, not someone who’s taking marching orders from the corporate offices.”
Journalists as real people — it’s a concept worth exploring.
A sense of personality
Even cartoonists take on more human dimensions on the Net. Scott Adams, whose “Dilbert” was the first comic strip available on the Internet, says, “On the Web, you can’t just run a digitized version of your cartoon. You have to make it more of an interactive event. So there’s a lot of stuff about me in the Dilbert Zone. You’ll see my house, my cats, a shot of me getting my coffee fix, and an art test I took when I was 11. Amazingly, a lot of people care about that. It gives them a sense that they know me a little better.”
His Web site gets about 80,000 visitors a day — still tiny compared to his cartoon’s print circulation of 120 million worldwide. But the site has already paid an unexpected dividend. “Most of the themes that wind up in the strip are suggested by readers. I get hundreds of good ideas that way, things that I’d never dream of on my own.”
Online columnists and reporters like Weise, Outing, Pizzo, Kline and others say they hear from readers far more often — and more forcefully — than before, with readers often providing valuable news tips or story ideas.
Kline, who writes about new technology for Wired, says, “I’m surprised by the extent to which I can keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening on my beat because the feedback is so immediate. One article I wrote about lousy service by Internet Service Providers got me ten times my usual volume of e-mail. I had hit a public nerve completely by accident, wrote a follow-up column, and it became a subject that the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets picked up on.”
The demands of interactivity
A few papers have begun to wrestle with the issues posed by real interactivity. Staffers of The Village Voice interact with readers on New York’s ECHO, a hip, arty digital hangout for members only. The Voice publishes e-mail addresses in its print edition and has asked writers to participate in chat room discussions and to answer all e-mail, which has led to some groans from the newsroom.
Linda Nelson, who heads the paper’s new media division, says, “Even here on the cutting edge, reporters are loath to respond to all these readers. Their feeling is, after they report and write the piece, they want to walk away from it and go on to the next project. The problem is, the reader’s involvement has just begun. We’re trying to find a happy medium.”
She says readers appear satisfied with a live daily chat session on an announced topic during which readers have access to an editor or writer for one or two hours.
As for The Wall Street Journal, managing editor Steiger says, “So far, the interactivity of the Journal is confined to the material published on our site. We may evolve beyond that.”
Transformation 6: The virtual commons
Early in 1996, readers of New Jersey Online, the Web site of the Newark Star-Ledger, got a fascinating, close-up look at the human costs of corporate downsizing.
After AT&T, whose headquarters are in Basking Ridge, N.J., reduced its workforce by 40,000 employees, NJ Online put up a chat area called “the Unofficial AT&T Insider.” The discussion forum quickly generated a heated give-and-take between scores of readers, many of whom were AT&T employees telling of their personal job situations, their fears of the future and, as one poster put it, his anger at being “chewed up and spit out” by his lifelong employer. Other readers weighed in, some arguing that profits should take precedence over job security.
It was a breathtaking glimpse of the power of this young medium to bring people together on subjects that are central to their lives.
The question is, who will build the places in cyberspace for people to gather to discuss their communities? Who will build the Virtual Commons?
Already, competitors like America Online and Microsoft are eyeing the prize. Linda Stone, director of Microsoft’s Virtual Worlds Group, told the Storytelling for the New Millennium conference last March: “When the Microsoft Network was being created, we asked ourselves, ‘What are people doing online?’ The Internet is rich in content with information, shopping and games, yet the experience was somewhat empty. Now something deeper is going on. People are craving to communicate with each other. They want a place where they can meet other people.”
If Stone is right — and I think she is — online media need to look at their mission as more than providing news and information. They need to look at their historic role in the community.
“Newspapers hold a very special place in people’s minds in this country,” says Harwood, the newspaper consultant. “When you walk into most newspapers, there’s usually a saying above the door about, ‘We’re here to help create informed citizens and make democracy work better.’ And people want us to do that. They look to newspapers to provide a community lens, to give them a sense of what’s happening in their neighborhoods. But are we doing that? People think journalists do not understand their concerns, their fears and aspirations, the things they struggle with day to day.”
There are many reasons for that, too many to detail in this article. Journalism desperately needs to address those shortcomings in its print form. But we also need to learn how to use technology’s new tools to reach out to our communities in wonderful new ways, to interact with our readers, to ignite civic discussion of topics important to the community, to bring people together and help them overcome the sense of isolation that is tearing at the fabric of society.
“I think community building will be an important part of Net journalism,” Hallinan of USA Today says. “Local and regional media enterprises can become the online gathering spot for their areas. Boston.com, where the Globe has aligned with radio stations, art museums and civic organizations, does a brilliant job of this. For national media, the Net offers a means of building virtual communities.”
A return to journalism’s roots
Philadelphia Online’s Palley says, “Newspapers used to have the role of being the hub of the community. We would print every engagement, every wedding, every 50th anniversary. Now, with the bottomless news hole of the Net, we’re able to return to that role.”
Some small online papers are pioneering the way. The Delta County Independent in Colorado has a “Brag Book” on its Web site, where proud parents and grandparents can boast about newborns or a child making the honor roll — complete with photos.
The Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Va., offers a list of area restaurants along with an area for readers to post their own reviews.
The Evansville Courier in Indiana allows subscribers to create their own personal home pages, sharing the power of publishing with its customers.
The irony is, as online papers acquire a global reach, they need to become even more local. Newspapers have a great opportunity here to return to their roots in the community, providing services that matter to people’s day-to-day lives. We haven’t begun to plumb all the possibilities.
Readers probably won’t storm our sites for the latest on Bosnia, but they’ll want a capsule summary of all movies playing in town, including links to other reviews and an area for readers’ comments.
The Net has been a digital wonderland for sports junkies. Newspapers ought to run not just daily coverage of their local professional, college, amateur and little league sports teams, but an archive of all games played during the season, letting readers relive their favorite moments. And the local pro sports teams’ season schedule ought to be carried in full.
What about a SimCity-style program that provides a virtual tour of your city? Or one that re-creates the downtown of an Atlanta, Dallas or Miami in a three-dimensional motif, letting readers see the impact of proposed new buildings, developments, waterfront projects and so on? Residents could become more directly involved in shaping the face of their city.
Ways to make readers’ lives easier should be a top priority. Readers should be able to access an archive of all obituaries and death notices, searchable by name and age. And a standing list of all college and high school reunions. Says Palley: “On the Net, there’s no reason we can’t publish anything right down to the level of the local school lunch menu.”
Equally important, a newspaper Web site should give people a space where they can stand on an electronic soapbox and speak their minds. People crave a forum for meaningful discussion about what’s happening in their lives. They want to talk about the news of the day, whether it’s about the news down the street or the news in Washington.
The New York Times’ letters page has long been a tough nut to crack, printing fewer than 3 percent of letters received. The CyberTimes, by contrast, is a far more accessible forum, with threads carrying headlines you’re not likely to see in the Times proper, like: “Dole — Waffler Without a Spine!”
Imaginative newspapers will extend the Virtual Commons beyond the predictable op-ed pages and directly into news events themselves. Barlow, who’s skeptical that newspapers will do this, says, “If I were in charge of an online news site, I’d have as many eyes on the scene that users could click on as possible. I’d put out a completely raw, unedited feed from the site of the action, giving people the ability to hone in on details. Users would be given direct contact with experts and sources in the field. The real issue is whether it’s a true two-way medium.”
Sounds similar to the Houston Chronicle’s Virtual Voyager. The paper’s reporters attend news events and conferences with a laptop, digital camera and cellular modem, and their reports are published online. Readers can send e-mail to the correspondent at the site, making requests or suggestions.
The experiment has just begun.
The new paradigm: A two-way window
One of the most hallowed traditions of journalism is the veil of secrecy that newsrooms cast over the news-gathering process.
That mystique — wrapped up in inaccessibility, aloofness, arrogance — has hurt us, I think. It feeds the public’s mistrust of large institutions. It gives ammunition to the conspiracy theorists and creates doubts even among loyal readers. And it gives us a far too comfortable insulation from the public’s ire when we fail to live up to our standards and values.
“I’ve always said the great untold story of journalism is journalism itself,” says Nauman, The Sacramento Bee’s ombudsman. “Too many readers mistrust us. We need to show that there isn’t some evil genius sitting in the cockpit pulling the levers. It’s a collegial process where decisions and mistakes are made at any number of levels.”
Opening up the process will give readers more confidence in what we do. Giving them a window into the newsroom will instill a sense of trust that news judgments are made honestly and responsibly.
Interactive Journalism is that window.
The Internet, at heart, is much less a publishing medium than a two-way communication medium. The Zeitgeist of the Net — its unifying principle — is centered in interaction and interconnectedness. Not I-will-publish, you-will-accept. The Net is not a megaphone. The Net is a conversation.
At present, it’s a noisy conversation, but noise is the price we pay for signal. As news publications climb online, they should resist the temptation to give in to the Net’s slicker, baser instincts — the cheap attitude, the smug hipness of the Irony Zines that pose as official arbiters of all things cool.
Newspapers should look at the tools of multimedia not as a chance to jazz up their sites with dancing electrons, but to engage in a true give and take with their readers. To grasp the Net’s unparalleled opportunities for making us all more informed and more connected.
Readers don’t want pixel pyrotechnics — not in the long run. They want humanity. They want passionate journalism that’s grounded in facts. They want substantial reportage about real people’s lives.
JOURNALISM NEEDS to look at the Net not as a threat but as an opportunity to repair our strained relations with the public. But it goes beyond image-repair; we need to change the way we do business.
“Unless certain newspaper practices are reconsidered, there’s no amount of explaining to the public that will help,” Harwood says. “People aren’t much interested in the technology, whether it’s new media or old media. In all the studies we’ve done, people keep coming back to the same themes: context, perspective, meaning.”
Adds Fallows: “We need to make ourselves more accountable to our readers. Not become lackeys to that audience, but find ways to respond to and respect their real concerns about thoroughness and fair-mindedness.”
There’s still time for newspapers to adapt to this bright new medium. These are the Kitty Hawk days.
“I think we’re nowhere near where all this is going to lead us in a few years,” Palley says. “This is the baby. I don’t know who it’s going to grow up to be.”
Barlow agrees. “I think the Net is still in the paper-cups-and-string mode compared to what it will soon become. With the huge increases in bandwidth just around the corner, there will be consequences for interactivity and the kinds of things you can do online that are unimagined at this point.”
The Net has the potential to be the greatest First Amendment tool in history. As we adapt to the new technologies and reinvent ourselves, it’s up to us to hold onto the timeless values of journalism and discard the ink-on-dead-trees baggage.
At bottom, this is the secret of journalism: To those of us in the field, it’s not about marketing, or business earnings, or technology. It’s about a reporter going out into the night to live a story and bringing the reader along to share in the secret that he or she has discovered.
Journalism, at its core, is an interaction between a writer and a reader. The Net brings those two closer together. And that’s something to celebrate.
Following are additional resources for users interested in this topic:
The Poynter Institute for Media Studies: http://www.poynter.org/poynter/
News on the Net: http://www.reporter.org/news/
National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting: http://www.nicar.org/
Investigative Reporters and Editors: http://www.ire.org/
Reporter.org Project: http://www.reporter.org/
National Association of Black Journalists: http://www.nabj.org/
Asian American Journalists’ Association: http://www.aaja.org/
Education Writers’ Association: http://www.ewa.org/
MIT Media Lab: http://www.media.mit.edu/
The Newspaper Association of America: http://www.infi.net/naa
Articles, studies, books and publications
American Journalism Review: http://www.ajr.org
Editor and Publisher: http://www.mediainfo.com
“Tabloids, Talk Radio and the Future of News: Technology’s Impact on Journalism” by Ellen Hume for the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies
“A Seat at the Table: The Role of Journalism in the Digital Era,” a report by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation
“Public Interest Journalism: Winner of Loser in the On-line Era?,” a discussion with Richard Harwood and Neil Postman, sponsored by The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
Michael Crichton, “The Mediasauraus,” Wired, October1993
Nicholas Negroponte, “Being Digital”
James Fallows: “Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy”
JD Lasica is a startup founder, thriller author and journalist with a special interest in VR, AR and AI. Follow him on Twitter at