As online news matures, we're beginning to seeWeb publications evolve into true news channels rather than warmed-overdigital versions of their pulp parents.
While the term "channels" may seem strange whenapplied to an online newspaper, a year from now millions of us will begetting the news from channels we've chosen on our personal computers.Already, the New York Times and ABC News are the premium news channelson America Online. In August, Netscape released its new Netcaster pushcomponent, which will "Webcast" more than 700 channels of information fromsuch sources as USA Today, CNNfn and CBS SportsLine. Microsoft, which willrelease its new browser this fall, has signed up the Web editions of theNew York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
As the online news world begins to cover newsas it happens rather than once a day, are there risks that journalistswith ink-stained backgrounds face in moving toward a broadcast model ofNet news? Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC's "Nightline," thinks so. In his firstinterview on the subject of the Internet, Koppel has some words of warningfor online reporters eager to reinvent the wheel of journalism.
"Reporting is not really about, 'Let's see whocan get the first information to the public as quickly as possible,' "Koppel says. "It's about, 'Let's see who can get the information to thepublic – as soon as we have had a chance to make sure the information isaccurate, to weigh it against what we know, to put it in some sort of context.'Only when you're satisfied as a professional journalist that you've gotthe story and the facts have been verified, only then can you go with it.
"If we are moving into an era in which reportersare pressured to get it online before we have a chance to check and editthe material – if speed is the main criterion of putting something online – thenI think that's dangerous. Ultimately, a journalist has a responsibilityto separate truth from rumor."
Some have suggested that the news is alive andever-changing, but Koppel calls that "a colossal copout. It suggests thatall we have to do is put any information we collect on the air becausewe can never hope to have it all anyway. No, there are several threshholdsyou have to cross before you go with it."
We've seen competitive pressures in local TV newsmarkets, where being first is often more important than being accurate.Does Koppel see a similar future for online news?
"There's always going to be room for the outletthat says, 'We're not worried about getting it first, we're about gettingit right.' As a news consumer, I'm more interested in the quality of theinformation I'm receiving. Whether you're the New York Times, or Wall StreetJournal, or Washington Post, or Los Angeles Times – or whatever your newsorganization – you have to maintain your quality while you're being fasterand better than the other guy on the block," Koppel says. "But if you succumbto competitive pressures and you're willing to sacrifice quality and contextand completeness, I think that's going to rear up and bite us in the ass."
Bruce Koon, managing editor of the Mercury Centerin San Jose, sounds a similar note of caution.
"There's something to be learned from TV and thewire services in getting news headlines and summaries up on our Web sites,"he says. "But this rush to get the information out before it's had a chanceto settle and get some perspective – TV and technology have contributed tothat rush to judgment, which hurts journalism and harms society in general.
"In TV, you're dead if all your competitors havethe story and you're holding it back. On the Web, readers can find lotsof sites reporting speculation and rumor. But then they say, 'OK, now Iwant to know what really happened.' They want information that has beenvetted through all the usual checks and balances, and that only happenswith a little bit of time."
The Merc Center is one of the few online newspapersthat covers breaking news with more than just wire service reports. Beatreporters from the San Jose Mercury News or rewrite editors from the centerreport on a range of timely stories, from high-technology business newsand local sports to high-profile disaster stories. The Mercury Center isnow moving into coverage of Bay Area news, with multiple deadlines throughoutthe day – Koon calls them "scheduled news programs" – rather than a round-the-clockdeadline.
"A newspaper can afford to be a little more circumspect,"he says. "We don't mind being beaten on a story. I'd much rather get itup there only after we feel comfortable with it."
Amen to that.