Dissing Web Journalism  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   June/July 2004

Dissing Web Journalism   

Contrary to what NAB's president says, the Internet has done plenty for community service.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

As a secure, thriving branch of journalism, we Web folks have mostly outgrown the impulse to answer every critic and heckler. But once in a while, somebody influential enough says something wrong enough that we'll take the bait. Such as this gem, offered by National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO Edward O. Fritts at NAB's national convention this spring:

"Look how Congress is loath to regulate the Internet or to do anything that might stifle its growth. I think the Internet is terrific, but what has the Internet done for community service? How many kidnapped kids have been saved by a Web site?"

Visit NAB's Web site (www.nab.org) for a full transcript of Fritts' opening address. The bit about the Internet is part of a diatribe against new information technology that ranges from a joke about new-fangled mobile phones to a jab at satellite radio. ("[E]very morning when I get up, I look out the window to make sure an XM satellite is not plummeting toward my roof.")

Maybe his audience influenced Fritts' approach. The address was part of a private pep rally for an industry that feels unfairly hobbled by federal regulations, as it bleeds audiences to cable, the Internet and satellite broadcasters. Maybe he was indulging in a little feel-good rhetoric, rallying the troops. Perhaps he didn't expect his words to end up on the Web, where the rest of us could contemplate them.

If somebody wants to poke a little fun at the Web, that's fine; there's plenty to laugh about. But to dismiss the value of the Internet to community service is a serious slight to many committed, visionary people in his own industry. Does Fritts have any idea what we're doing out here? Has he bothered to look?

For example, the Internet company I work for (and we're not alone) has made the communication of Amber Alerts a priority among our 63 local TV station Web sites. When an alert (a warning that a child has been abducted) is issued, we publish the details on sites in the geographical areas where search efforts are focused. We send notifications to thousands of e-mail and cell phone subscribers, and we issue pop-up alerts to the computers of hundreds or thousands more. Broadcasters were the first to distribute Amber Alerts, and now the Internet can amplify their reach.

(I don't know whether Internet-delivered Amber Alerts have led to any rescues yet. If not, it's only a matter of time. There are other documented cases of Web sites leading to the recovery of abducted children.)

In another vein, we've worked with WCVB-TV in Boston to build an online donation engine that matches the needs of about 300 local charities with the specific goods and volunteer resources that donors have to offer. Karen Holmes Ward, WCVB's director of public affairs and community services, says the Internet has helped her station reach "a new generation of givers."

Fritts also listed "free local news, free local weather reports and school closings" and "information on local emergencies" among the services that broadcasters uniquely offer. Perhaps that was true 10 or 15 years ago. Today local news Web sites specialize in immediate delivery--via the Web, e-mail and mobile alerts--of breaking news and weather reports. School closings are a beautiful example of content that Web sites are inherently better at presenting than broadcasters are. On the Web there's no straining one's eyes or ears to catch the name of a school as it sails across a ticker or is read by an announcer; everything is right there on the page.

I could list a hundred more examples of Web-based community service projects, from emergency bulletin boards to community calendars. Anybody who's bothered to look already knows that. Contrary to Fritts' closing line, broadcasters have not cornered the market on localism. The kicker is that--at least for now--many of these projects are made possible by local broadcasters and publishers. The Internet isn't necessarily a competing medium; it can be a complementary one.

Whether Fritts acknowledges that local news and outreach are thriving on the Web is of little consequence to the online community. It matters more to his own audience; to local broadcasters who deserve a less reactionary and more progressive vision for the future. They need to see that emerging media will be just as good--in some cases, better--at many of the services that were once uniquely theirs. Instead of being frightened by that, they have an opportunity to embrace it, and use the Internet to their advantage. At the same time, they should evaluate their over-the-air services with an eye for the strengths they still own, and figure out how to emphasize those--even if that means radical revision of some long-held conventions.

An inflexible, protectionist mind-set--not government regulation or unfair competition--may be the greatest threat broadcasters face today.

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