Surf City  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2003

Surf City   

Using technology to enhance the presentation of news

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


I believe utterly in the future of the Internet, because of its power, because of its ubiquity and utility, because of its ineffable magic, and maybe most of all because of its inevitability. But I believe this more in a philosophical than a tactile sense. That is, I believe it the way I believe it hurts when Mike Tyson hits you--not out of personal experience so much as informed intuition.

Don't get me wrong; I use the Internet every day. I regularly consult the homepages of several newspapers and CNN and ESPN, for instance. I am a promising Googler, and I am as pathetically hooked on Romenesko as you are. But I have yet to integrate the Web into the fabric of my life the way millions of other people have. I know eBay must be wonderful--everybody says so--but I have never purchased anything there. When Time magazine recently published a list of 50 Web sites it deemed especially interesting, I was familiar with maybe four of them.

I'm still not quite sure how the news media will ever make the Web a serious paying proposition--if I knew, I'd be out there amassing my fortune instead of writing this column. But I believe they'll figure that out too (though they ought not dawdle about it, given how rapidly teens are turning to the Web almost exclusively for their information).

Yes, soon enough technology will re-invent how journalism, from nuts-and-bolts data delivery to powerful storytelling, can be done.

Indeed it already has, if you know where to look.

I saw that for myself just the other day, sitting in on the judging of the Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism.

The Batten Awards, honoring the vision of the late chairman of Knight Ridder, James K. Batten, are administered by the newest professional center here at Maryland--J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. J-Lab is the brainchild of its executive director, Jan Schaffer, an award-winning journalist who wants to help the industry utilize cutting-edge technology to produce news in more innovative and interactive ways. If the media really embrace the potential of the Web and other emerging technologies, Jan believes, they can achieve several desired aims in one stroke: produce better, more accessible journalism; engage more citizens in the issues that affect them; and maybe even hook some of those young people who would sooner eat stewed turnips than read a newspaper.

As the Batten competition made clear, this is starting to happen. One Sunday morning last September, for instance, more than a million readers of the Chicago Tribune got a CD-ROM with their newspaper. It contained an anniversary recap--a "virtual time capsule"--of the events of 9/11, a product that seamlessly wove together graphics, still and televised images, stories, history and testimony, all in a format that the consumer could steer in countless directions.

Another entry, from Kent State University tech guru Roger Fidler, took the Pulitzer-winning "Enrique's Journey" series from the Los Angeles Times and demonstrated how it could be packaged for consumption in what he calls a "digital newsbook," a high-tech hybrid of newspaper and computer.

Equally inventive were Web-based entries. Some had a glossy sophistication while others showcased low-tech charm. What they all had in common was an invitation to the news consumer to get personally involved with the report itself.

A compelling example was the Sonic Memorial Project, which is an audio history of the World Trade Center, told via myriad voices, recollections and even ambient sounds. (Find it at www.sonicmemorial.com.) Another favorite of mine was Village Soup, a citizen-driven Web site that, with a Mayberry sweetness, documents life in three small Maine communities (www.villagesoup.com).

Still other entries demonstrated how software makes it possible for news organizations to be more creative in personalizing important public issues, even permitting consumers to vicariously sit in the chairs of their elected officials and see firsthand how difficult the choices can be. If you're a Seattle resident, do you want $5 billion in transit improvements badly enough to pay another 20 cents a gallon in gas taxes for them? A Seattle Times interactive calculator can show you the tradeoffs (at seattletimes.nwsource.com/news/local/links/transportationgame/calculator/). Minnesota Public Radio did something comparable with its "Budget Balancer." (See news.mpr.org/features/2003/03/10_newsroom_budgetsim/.)

Who won? You'll just have to wait a few weeks for Jan to tell you. In the meantime, I'll see you in cyberspace.

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