From AJR, July/August 1999 issue
America's newsrooms, long behind the technology curve, are stepping up efforts to plug reporters into the Internet. The PC influx is already paying big reporting dividends.
By Tom Boyer
Tom Boyer is research editor for the Seattle Times.
THE INFORMATION AGE arrived in March at the Baltimore Sun's Anne Arundel County bureau. Reporter Cheryl L. Tan remembers the day--it was a Thursday--when technicians carted in long-awaited boxes with the IBM logo, cracked them open and hoisted a white, 17-inch monitor onto her desk.
After years of being tethered to an old computer system that was little more than an electronic typewriter, Tan and other Sun reporters in suburban bureaus suddenly had, right on their desks, Internet search engines, government agency Web sites, e-mail lists and billions of articles and government documents through Lexis-Nexis. Like tourists disembarking in a strange land, they sat down in front of the new machines and started clicking and surfing, thrilled with the prompt response of a high-speed Internet connection and fast computer. "We started putzing around, using Lexis right away," Tan recalls. "It was just amazing. Right away, we could do our own searches."
But maybe the coolest thing was that Tan was finally on equal footing, technology-wise, with the people she covers. "The mayor is Internet savvy," she says. "I know he does check his e-mail a couple of times a day. That can be a way to get a hold of him, if I need to find him and he isn't returning calls."
It's a scene that's being repeated across the country this year. American news organizations, years behind other businesses on the technology curve, are finally playing catch-up. Helped by several highly profitable years, and prodded by Year 2000 obsolescence, scores of newsrooms are finally flocking to upgrade editorial front-end systems and put PCs on everybody's desks.
Past waves of computer upgrades in the 1980s and early '90s, from electronic page layouts at news desks to Macintoshes in art departments, have revolutionized production and improved the look of American newspapers. But they've done little to help reporters write better stories. More than two decades after the debut of the personal computer, many toiling at big, profitable newspapers from Baltimore to Sacramento are still chronicling a networked world from mainframe "dumb terminals"--dedicated word processors based on 1970s technology. They're getting to the Web from PCs halfway across the newsroom, or on their AOL accounts at home.
By most estimates, more than half of America's 1,500 daily newspapers have built their own Web sites. But a much smaller number have spent the money to let their reporters access the Web and its wealth of information from their desks. "I can say with a great deal of comfort that the vast majority of newspaper reporters do not have Internet access," says technology consultant David M. Cole, editor of the Cole Papers. He says the typical American newspaper is a 10,000-circulation daily with a news staff of three or four, operating on computers that are five to 10 years old--not powerful enough to run a Web browser. Other papers, Cole says, use PCs as word processors but don't provide Internet access.
Despite these obstacles, journalists are getting to e-mail and the Internet, even if it's from their home computers or a personal laptop they cart to work. Some 98 percent of journalists surveyed last year by Columbia University associate professor Steven Ross and public relations consultant Don Middleberg reported having access to the Internet. The Internet is now considered a "leading" source of information in 92 percent of newsrooms, compared to 25 percent just four years earlier, according to the annual computer-assisted reporting "census" by University of Miami professor Bruce Garrison.
So bringing Web access to newsrooms--especially in an era of $500 PCs--would seem to be a no-brainer, right? But this is the industry that displays Linotypes in its lobbies and celebrates images of the ink-stained desktop and the silver flask in the top drawer. "I have been disappointed, quite honestly, in how not just newspapers, but journalism in general, have reacted to the opportunities in technology out there," Garrison says. "It seems like we don't know what the missed opportunities are. I'm not sure we even know what we could be doing in terms of newsgathering."
George Landau, a reporter turned technology consultant who has worked for newsrooms as diverse as the Washington Post and the 52,000-circulation Ocala, Florida, Star-Banner, agrees: "I think journalists tend not to be plugged in as well as the rest of the world in terms of what's possible for technology. They kind of don't realize that they're being screwed."
Broadcast journalists may have better computers than their print colleagues, because TV stations are used to upgrading equipment on a faster cycle. But Mike Wendland, a veteran TV investigative reporter who has taught computer and Internet skills around the country, says he doesn't see much difference in the level of sophistication of TV and newspaper shops. "Newspaper reporters generally have more time to learn it. They don't, though. And TV reporters generally have short-attention-span syndrome. So, even if they did have the time, they wouldn't."
Still, in newsrooms that have had PCs on journalists' desks for more than a few months, there seems to be little doubt about the payoff. Reporters and editors interviewed were easily able to come up with examples of facts they nailed, sources they found and tips they got through their PCs.
WAY BACK IN VACUUM-TUBE days, longtime New Yorker media columnist A.J. Liebling observed: "The American press makes me think of a gigantic, supermodern fish cannery, a hundred floors high, capitalized at eleven billion dollars, and with tens of thousands of workers standing ready at the canning machines, but relying for its raw material on an inadequate number of handline fishermen in leaky rowboats."
Cole says publishers are typically too preoccupied with production issues to invest in technology that would improve news content. "We are a manufacturing business.... The hard part of our business is not gathering the information, it's not presenting it. When a publisher sits down in the morning, his problems are with the manufacturing process. His problems are not how to get better stories into the paper. That's the editor's job."
Editors. Uh-oh. So technology decisions rest with those guys and gals who still keep the old manual Underwoods in their offices?
Landau, president of NewsEngin Inc., a newsroom information technology company, says he expected change to come slowly in American newsrooms. But not this slowly. "The critical step that's going to change things [is] when there's enough demand from reporters and editors.... It's a classic thing: You can't have a solution before you have a problem."
Nevertheless, this will be the year a lot of reporters exchange their leaky rowboats for speedboats. Nearly every metropolitan newsroom contacted for this story was in one stage or another of the transition from old, mainframe-based computer systems to new systems based on networks of PCs. This may only be happening because the old systems have arteriosclerosis and liver spots, but it's happening.
"Eventually, the typewriters wear out," says Bob Port, New York-based systems editor for the Associated Press, which has built an ambitious "intranet"--a Web site for bureau reporters' use--and is in the process of replacing its 11-year-old PCs. "By the end of the year, every AP reporter will have a Windows PC and an Internet connection. It will have taken four years to get that job done."
Technology-starved journalists such as Mike Sante, business editor of the Detroit Free Press, are for the first time experiencing Internet e-mail at their desktops. They will no longer have to walk to a shared PC halfway across the newsroom. "What it allows me to do is communicate with more people faster," Sante says, weeks after becoming one of the first news staffers to get a new PC. "It's more satisfying, somehow, than voice mail."
When the new systems finally are put in place, e-mail will be the least of it. Dozens of papers have started information-rich intranets for internal office use--many of them with easy-to-search collections of public records or background information on timely subjects. And a PC enables reporters to crunch the data on a desktop spreadsheet.
Newark's Star-Ledger, which installed PCs newsroomwide three-and-a-half years ago, gives reporters access to a "virtual library" on its formidable intranet. Reporters can type a name into their Web browser and search across several New Jersey public records databases, including voter registration, campaign contributions lists and public payrolls. They can search thousands of publications on Lexis-Nexis and check facts using online encyclopedia, electronic "Who's Who" and "Facts on File." Without leaving their desks, they can find sources using PhoneDisc, an electronic nationwide phone directory, and the Yellow Book directories of government officials.
"I'll tell you what, it's improved my reporting and writing immeasurably," says Star-Ledger reporter Peggy McGlone. "Today, I needed someone from the State Department who deals with consulates.... I'm an arts reporter. This is something that I don't do a lot of." Using the newspaper's intranet, the search took her 90 seconds.
M.J. Crowley, the Star-Ledger's information editor, has led an aggressive program to make the newspaper's journalists information-literate. Crowley joined the paper in 1995 after managing news research at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. At Newark, which had only a limited paper archive of its own stories, Crowley had the opportunity to build a research operation from scratch. Since reporters at the Newhouse paper were accustomed to doing their own digging, Crowley emphasized computerized reference tools that they could reach from their desks. And instead of hiring a research staff to answer questions, Crowley hired people who could maintain servers, build databases and teach computer skills.
The paper is developing minimum computer literacy standards for the newsroom. Journalists are being taught what the right mouse click means, how to use a simple spreadsheet to tally numbers, how to check e-mail. "We're heavy into training. I don't see how most people can go any other way," Crowley says. "The person who knows best what they need is the person writing the story."
Now, with so much accessible from the desktop, "the biggest challenge in all of this is keeping people from information overload," she says. Reporters and editors can be so overwhelmed by the plethora of information on their desks, she says, they just throw up their hands and ignore it.
Another problem can be burdening the tech-savvy reporters, as newsrooms become aware of the value of computer data but too few people know how to use the tools. At KOMO-4 in Seattle, reporter Chris Heinbaugh has collected databases, such as those listing Washington driver's licenses and Department of Corrections inmates, which the station uses almost daily on breaking news stories. Heinbaugh laughed as he recalled being on the phone from a helicopter while on deadline one recent afternoon, trying to explain to a reporter back in the newsroom how to tap into the corrections database to find information on a bank robbery suspect.
Information overload is less of a problem at the Indianapolis Star, which as of May had only one shared PC for 20 people on its metro staff. A new editing and layout system has brought PCs to the copy and layout desks, and more PCs are scheduled to be delivered to the newsroom this year. But most reporters will continue to work at Atex mainframe terminals into next year, when the new system is scheduled to be in place.
Eric Schoch, the Star's science and technology writer, brings his personal laptop from home so he can get to the Web and e-mail from his desk. "People in government are a little taken aback when they find out we don't have easy e-mail access," he says. "The first suggestion from anybody when you want a document is often, `I can e-mail it to you' or `you can pick it off our Web site.' If nothing else, we're getting pressure to get more wired because the people we cover are."
MANY PAPERS ARE UPGRADING in stages, a bureau or a desk at a time, creating internal groups of information haves and have-nots. Can editors see the difference in the copy? Surprise, surprise: yes!
The Buffalo News equipped its new Northtowns bureau with PCs two years ago--not only to provide Net access but because there weren't any more mainframe dumb terminals available that would connect with the News' system. Two years later, the seven-person bureau is cranking out a lot of the paper's best work, says Stan Evans, assistant managing editor for local news. Coincidence? Evans and Susan Schulman, the Northtowns bureau chief, don't think so.
"It's richer detail," Evans says.
Schulman says reporters' natural curiosity takes over when they receive PCs for their desks. "They actually use the Internet in their reporting on a daily basis. They're thinking spreadsheet. And these are people who never in your wildest dreams would be doing CAR [computer-assisted reporting].... We're a small bureau, but we produce a lot, and we produce a lot of stories that are number-crunched," she says.
The bureau's reporter covering education now routinely uses a spreadsheet to manipulate and rank numbers and lately has been experimenting with statistical functions to predict, for example, how many teachers in the region will be earning $70,000 five and 10 years from now.
Last year, the bureau tackled a project Evans had wanted to do for a long time: It took a look at the performance of 92 volunteer fire departments in Erie County. Northtowns bureau reporters gathered mostly paper records and typed figures into a database. The data showed fast-growing costs for fire protection and numerous slow responses to medical emergencies.
At the Baltimore Sun, suburban bureaus have also gotten PCs ahead of the main newsroom. At the main office, more than 200 reporters share eight "public terminal" PCs. New machines are expected to arrive this fall. But the Anne Arundel bureau got its PCs--and fast Internet connections--in the spring. Before, the bureau's only access to the Internet was a shared terminal that connected at slow speed.
"Here's the difference," says Anne Arundel Bureau Chief Rosemary Armao. "Say I'm sitting at the computer editing a story, and there's a mention of an Orioles game. You want to know, is it a day game or a night game? Before, you would have had to walk across the room, wait to see if nobody was on [the computer], because 12 people are sharing it," then decide not to bother. "You would fudge it. You would just write `an Orioles game.' " Now Armao can mouse-click to the answer in seconds. "That's the difference. It's not the big stuff. It's in all the little details."
"I am really surprised at how valuable the Internet is, and our growing reliance on it," says Pat Stith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at Raleigh's News & Observer. It was one of the first papers in the country to provide high-speed Internet access to its staff, in late 1994. "Company Web sites, government Web sites, there is so much" information, he says.
Stith recalls editing a story one night with N&O reporter Bob Williams, who didn't know how to spell the name of the amphibious warship USS Kearsarge. "I went back to news research, found Jane's Fighting Ships and looked it up," Stith says. "By the time I got back, he'd already gone to the Web, found what he'd wanted, put it in the story and moved on. For that kind of background, the Web is really useful."
At smaller papers it's harder to find fully wired newsrooms. An exception is the 52,000-circulation Ocala Star-Banner in Florida, where PCs were hooked up for high-speed Internet access when an Atex system was phased out last summer. Assistant Managing Editor Cherie Beers says the paper hasn't regretted the investment. "It's changed the newsroom. It does give [stories] an additional depth, an additional sense of place and perspective.
"Some editors say, `Ah, if we give them Web access, they'll be sitting there reading!' " she adds. "As if that's a horrible thing."
Last spring, Star-Banner reporter Joe Byrnes was preparing a routine story about a fair in Marion County when a local official told him about the U.S. Census of Agriculture, which had just been posted on the Agriculture Department's Web site. Byrnes clicked his way to a table listing the 100 counties with the largest number of horses and ponies. "There was the No. 1, right by our county." That story led the paper.
THIS SPRING, PULITZER PRIZE jurors weighed in again on the value of computers to reporting. The Miami Herald and the Washington Post won Pulitzers for stories that relied heavily on computer-assisted data analysis. The Herald documented widespread vote fraud in a mayoral election; the Post reported that D.C. police had the highest rate of fatal shootings of any U.S. city police force. At the Post, it was the first gold medal for public service since Watergate; this didn't go unnoticed in a newsroom that has its share of technology skeptics.
But interestingly, both the Post and Herald newsrooms have worked hard the last two years to improve information access for day-to-day reporting, not just projects. The Herald has built an intranet through which reporters can search 35 databases--including vehicle licenses, campaign contributions and worker's comp records--to help them report breaking news. The Post, following the recommendations of an in-house technology committee, last year created its first high-level position to oversee newsroom technology and database journalism. It named veteran Post correspondent and editor Don Podesta to the job. With desktop Web access, Post reporters have the tools to do more of their own basic research, from looking up records to searching Nexis for published stories--freeing researchers for more specialized work. Research editor Margot Williams, for example, oversaw a project last fall that computerized local campaign contributions and mined the data for stories.
"The idea here," Podesta says, "is to let researchers work on stories and on training rather than document delivery and answering discrete, minute questions. And I think that pays off for the journalism. That's where we get the high-impact information that informs our stories and makes them better."