On This Internet Forum, No News is Good News
By Peter Brush
Peter Brush is a freelance writer based in New York.
One wouldn't think that the average journalist with access to the myriad news sources available online would harbor a deep-seated aversion to breaking news. But perhaps even the most addicted of news junkies are finally reaching their saturation points.
Their frustration is beginning to manifest itself in a manner bordering on hostile. Even while journalists online swear they couldn't do without that breaking brief from Sarajevo, they insist that such news flashes must stay in their place.
A recent debate on the Internet forum CARR-L, a journalist's swap meet for tips on the subject of computer-assisted reporting, the Internet and often journalism in general, shows that the vast majority of participants feel that messages containing breaking news are superfluous to the listserver's purpose.
Not only superfluous, the most adamant among them contend, but, considering the number of conventional outlets to which CARR-L's participants – mostly reporters, professors and students – have access, downright irksome.
This battle began in July when Joe Shea, editor in chief of the online newspaper the American Reporter and a New York Post stringer, decided to post a bulletin to the group's approximately 1,000 participants.
"ABC News reports that NATO airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions are currently underway in Bosnia," he wrote on July 11.
Gordon T. Thompson, manager of Internet services for the New York Times, posted a warning to Shea that his message was inappropriate. But Shea, by all accounts an enthusiastic newsman, persisted, adding two similar posts gleaned from radio reports.
So Thompson took another approach: "There's a 20-minute backup at the outbound Lincoln Tunnel. WINS [radio] suggests the Holland or the George Washington Bridge, but avoid the upper level," he wrote on July 19.
With CARR-L's full time proprietor away in Europe, Thompson's sarcastic New York City traffic report set the stage for a bitter online shouting match.
During the course of the argument, which swerved in many insulting directions, other "threads," or online topics of discussion, ground to a halt on CARR-L. The list's volume of messages remained constant, but the number of topics dwindled to just one.
"These things usually burn themselves out," says stand-in list proprietor Samer Farha. A mild-mannered videotape editor at Reuters in Washington, D.C., and a seven-year Internet veteran, Farha adds that "e-mail isn't exactly the best way to send out breaking news."
But the disparaging debate, which comprises about 100 kilobytes in the CARR-L electronic archive (about 60 pages of printed material), took its toll. Some reporters departed from the list in search of cyber-forums with less "noise."
With similar listservers growing larger and more prolific, and with the number of listservers on the Internet growing exponentially, many CARR-L participants are now concerned about the discussion group's integrity.
"CARR-L is one of the oldest and most respected lists of its kind on the Internet, and it saddens me to see what's become of it," wrote Thompson to those threatening to flee the flames.
A week or so into the flame war, list proprietor Elliott Parker, by now no stranger to such cyber-tantrums, returned from his vacation and promptly ended the slugfest with a message titled "No News."
"If I want to find out information about snail diseases, I would not expect to find it in Sports Illustrated," wrote Parker, who teaches journalism at Central Michigan University.
So for now the list is relatively calm and its participants are back to discussing the merits of new software, strategies for getting government data, and other reporting-related issues. For his part, Shea continues to be flamed periodically by CARR-L members who don't want him wasting valuable bandwidth – or as it is known in cyber-jargon, "spamming" – by flacking the American Reporter online.
"I urge you to take a look at a story republished in the American Reporter today concerning Vince Foster's suicide," Editor Shea wrote to CARR-L on August 7. "If even a word of it is true, it is absolutely stunning."
He was instantly immolated. "Give us a break and stop posting notices about Vince Foster. Save it for a newsgroup like fan.rush.limbaugh," wrote one CARR-L member in disgust.
In spite of regular scorchings, Shea is not yet permanently scarred. He still posts to the listserver faithfully, and the intensity of the online heat suggests that many of CARR-L's participants like nothing better than a good verbal brawl. Perhaps they even like such firefights better than the news itself.