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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

Taking the Measure of Online Journalism   

And Thatís the Way It Will Be: News and Information in a Digital World
By Christopher Harper
New York University Press
256 pages; $24.95


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Speculating about the future of online journalism has become a top armchair sport, so let's begin by giving points to Christopher Harper for rising from the chair and venturing into the game. But some deductions are also necessary, mostly for over-promising.

As this book opens, the veteran journalist-turned-professor positions himself ingratiatingly as a kind of regular person tussling with, but open to, the dawning cyberworld.

"For the past twenty-four years, I have struggled to come to grips with my relationship with computers," he assures us.

"I am not a computer geek."

But Harper is sold on the Internet, and he quickly announces his manifesto, playing off longtime CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite's famous signoff, "And that's the way it is."

"Journalism had best get used to the new medium," Harper declares. "Cronkite's role seemed appropriate during a certain period in the nation's history, when families gathered around the television every evening to watch the news. That's the way it was. Today and tomorrow, digital journalism is the way it will be."

Harper briskly and efficiently explains the emerging appeal of online journalism, particularly among the young, whom he labels "the new digerati." Visiting one school, for example, he learns that every seventh-grader uses a computer, but less than half of them read a newspaper. Nearly half of twentysomethings, he reports, say they can "get along just fine without reading a newspaper."

What do they like about being online? To start with, Harper cites control and community. Control, because people, especially the young, like telling the computer what to do and seeing it respond. Community, because they enjoy socializing online "where people share common bonds and interests" unrestricted by geography.

Digital journalism, he says, offers four powerful advantages: immediacy, interactivity, intimacy and a multimedia blend. By comparison, traditional media seem lackluster and limited.

Unlike some new media enthusiasts, Harper doesn't duck the downside.

In one provocative observation, he notes that despite hopes the Internet will help democratize information, the early trends are that, online and off, "large companies tend to dominate the information business" and "fewer news organizations produce news than ever before."

He also examines how "hackers and cyberterrorists" can sabotage the digital highway, how technical problems such as the "millennium bug" could lead to crashes, and how privacy and pornography problems give the Internet a distinct "dark side."

Unfortunately, his discussion of online ethics takes a curious turn when he declares, "In some instances..I believe that freedom of speech should be restricted on the Internet."

He appears to favor banning racist and hateful speech but fails to adequately explore the immense constitutional and definitional problems with such a position.

The book also falters in the crystal ball department.

Harper profiles several "movers and shakers" who are busy harnessing the new online powers, and he advances a few modest predictions of theirs and of his own. But his last chapter, "The Future of the Internet," sputters to a conclusion with a handful of predictable quotes from online insiders.

Readers looking for an inspired vision of "the way it will be" stand to be disappointed.

What seems clear so far is that we as a society can be counted on to do two things with every new medium: commercialize it and personalize it.

Commercialization is creeping along in etherspace for now. But as soon as consumers perceive cybermarketing to be as secure as telemarketing, expect a hyperkinetic acceleration.

Personalization of the Internet is well under way, with e-mail and chat groups and early versions of personalized information services. The sudden emergence of Web cameras, it strikes me, may be the leading wedge of greater revolution: homes, highways, sidewalks, day care centers and who knows what else, on camera, all the time.

Harper writes at his best when he is synthesizing existing data on media roles and usage. He delivers a good briefing on where things stand now.

The problem with focusing on the online here-and-now, though, is its marginal relevance. New media always fool us. They start slowly and traditionally, then suddenly rocket to warp speed and transport us into completely unexpected and unknown galaxies.

So it is hard to blame Harper. Like those people who thought the telegraph would eliminate warfare by ending miscommunication, we all gaze ahead with grand ideals but little real clue.

That's the way it still is, and, for at least a while, the way it will be.