A Breakthrough In Cyberspace  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   April 1997

A Breakthrough In Cyberspace   

The Dallas Morning News uses the new medium as a news medium.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It's an instinct as deep-seated as any in journalism: protecting the scoop.

..oming up with an exclusive high-profile story is one of the field's sublime moments. The notion of giving one away is sacrilegious.

So what was up with the Dallas Morning News giving away its story about Timothy McVeigh's alleged jailhouse confession – to its own Web site, no less – putting the story in play hours before the newspaper was published? Was this a case of the paper scooping itself?

Or was it in fact a breakthrough, a major step toward a more sophisticated relationship between print newspapers and their online cousins?

Media critic Jon Katz, a battle-scarred veteran of the traditional media and a new media enthusiast (see Books, page 55), answers the latter question with a decisive yes. "It's an amazing thing," he says. "It really is historic."

Why is this a big deal? For a number of reasons.

For one thing, many traditional journalists continue to regard the online world with unvarnished hostility. They see it as a place filled with unverified rumors and salacious half-truths, a place where traditional journalism standards count for nothing.

Many newspapers, of course, have created their own Web sites. But most of them simply recycle stories that have already appeared in print. Some are intrigued by the prospect of using the sites to entertain, with interactive games and contests and the like.

ýirtually none has taken advantage of the new medium's ability to function as a news medium. And few are the newsrooms that look fondly on the idea of distributing their exclusive stories to the world via computer before they show up on subscribers' doorsteps.

Of course, there was another factor at work in connection with the Oklahoma City story. While the Morning News downplays its significance, there was the possibility that McVeigh's attorneys would go to court to try to block the story's publication. The iqmediacy of the Web made that issue moot. In fact, Katz argues, cyberspace "makes censorship almost impossible."

ýnd the story has been engulfed in controversy. McVeigh's lawyer, Stephen Jones, first dismissed the "confession" as a hoax, then, in a bizarre twist, reversed his field and described it as a phony interview that had been put together to help convince a witness to talk. He also accused the newspaper of stealing defense documents, a charge rejected by the Morning News' lawyer.

But regardless of the paper's motives for posting and the story's validity, the larger implications of what Dallas did are enormous.

Too often the traditional media and the new media are depicted as rivals in a death match. In fact, the Dallas episode shows how well they can complement each other.

Let's face it: The time when newspapers could really break much news is long past. The advent of television marked the beginning of the end. In a world of 24-hour cable news and instantly updatable Web sites, it seems almost quaint to consider breaking news a major part of a newspaper's raison d'etre.

But that's not necessarily bad news. While print can't compete with TV and cyberspace when it comes to speed, it can clean their clocks when it comes to analysis and context and depth. Even if a full package is placed on the Web, reading it in the newspaper is a much more convenient and satisfying experience.

And the electronic version of news can whet the appetite of the news consumer for more. That's why USA Today's sales soar during an event like the Persian Gulf War, even though CNN is providing saturation coverage around the clock.

So what did the Morning News gain by breaking the story on its Web site? It didn't have to sit on the piece because of artificial deadline barriers. It got its story out first. Its efforts received enormous exposure. As for "scooping itself," everyone knows the Dallas Morning News broke this story. The question of how it was transmitted is really details.

The bottom line? "Smart people in journalism," says Katz, "are waking up and saying, 'Whoa!' "

There is another aspect of this saga that is good news for newspapers. Much is often made of the democratic, not to say anarchic, nature of the Web. Anyone, from the mightiest media conglomerate to the lone geek, can put up a home page. Everyone can play, regardless of his or her budget.

ýut many of the players do not share basic journalistic values. Attitude and edge often seem more valued than triple-riveted facts and balance and fairness. And that Wild West frontier atmosphere, all of that, as they say, "unfiltered" information bouncing around out there, makes many traditionalists nervous.

ýgain, the Dallas Morning News experience is instructive. Why did its story spread so quickly? Because it had been produced by a highly regarded news organization. Its "brand name" gave the story credibility. That wouldn't have happened if it had been filed by one of those lone gunfighters.

ûll of which has Jon Katz excited. Now a media columnist for Wired magazine and its online version, HotWired, Katz is widely identified as a champion of new media and youth culture. At the same time, and this is often overlooked, the veteran newspaper editor retains a belief in the enduring value of – and a strong affection for – those retro ink-on-paper dailies he long worked for.

"This is the breakthrough people have been waiting for," Katz says. "It's tragic that it took so long to happen. It's great that it finally happened."

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