AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1996

Doing It All   

The Chicago Tribune is one of the few papers with reporters devoted exclusively to its online version. Staffers cover stories, take pictures, operate video cameras and create digital pages.

By Christopher Harper
Christopher Harper teaches journalism at New York University. His book, And That's The Way It Will Be: News in the Digital Age, will be published by NYU Press next September.     

C ORNELIA GRUMMAN PRESSES the sixth-floor button on the elevator at the Henry Horner public housing project. The City of Chicago has planted flowers outside the building in the West Side neighborhood often run by gangs and drug pushers. But the elevator does not work well and reeks of urine. After two tries at the button, Grumman finally reaches the fifth floor and walks up a flight of stairs strewn with garbage. Two young boys climb on a safety fence that's supposed to keep them from falling into the garden below, but the fence seems more like a cage to keep them in.

Grumman, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, wants to know what people on welfare think about massive changes in the federal program. She visits 24-year-old Melineice Reed and her three children who live in a well-kept but tiny three-room apartment. Reed has lived in the projects all her life. The next day she has an interview for a job as a cleaning woman, and she's a bit nervous. "Do you have anything to wear that's nice?" Grumman asks. "Nice enough," the woman says.

Nearby, a group of worshippers gathers at a Baptist church for Sunday services. Grumman finds several people willing to talk about the federal plan that would limit benefits to the poor. One woman, Demitraius Dykes, has spent all of her 26 years on welfare. A recovering drug addict, she has five children. Dykes says she's trying to turn her life around, attending a course in office skills. "I don't want my kids to grow up and think they should sit around and wait each month for their check," she says. Grumman scribbles notes, runs a tape recorder and later takes a picture. Although she does not like using video cam- eras, Grumman wishes she had one along for this interview because Dykes is a good talker.

The 33-year-old reporter is one of a new breed of journalist--the digital journalist. Although more than 200 American newspapers offer an online edition, most are simply an electronic version of the printed newspaper--a "shovelware" version, as it's known on the Internet. The Tribune, however, is one of the few newspapers in the country that has devoted reporters like Grumman to work exclusively for the Internet edition. The reporters write stories, take pictures, operate video cameras and even create digital pages. With more than 20 other staff members, the seven reporters produce one of the most innovative online editions available today.

Forty-three-year-old Owen Youngman, director of interactive media for the Chicago Tribune, seems like a high school science teacher behind his glasses, and his nasal-dominated cadence can put some people to sleep. But his zeal for the future makes this son of an evangelical minister come alive.

"My neighbor on one side buys the Tribune because he's a stockbroker," Youngman says. "My neighbor on the other side doesn't. Why? It's not really fulfilling for someone with two kids in school in suburban Chicago. She cares a lot more about what affects her kids. It's not her fault. It's my fault. Now I have a technology to provide information to her. We need to do a better job of understanding what is valuable to people and deliver on what we say we will deliver."

Online consultant Leah Gentry, who started the online version of the Tribune, wanted to deliver to users what she thinks they should have and what they want. She proudly called her team "the hardest working band in the business." Gentry was the band leader, and the 36-year-old former editor for the Orange County Register put into place a set of exacting standards, called "Leah's Rules," that would make any conductor envious:

1. All the regular rules of journalism apply. Reporting and editing must be solid. Facts must be checked and rechecked. 2. If you're going to use this week's gizmo, it has to help advance the telling of the story in a meaningful way. 3. No instant publishing. Everybody has his or her finger on the press, but nobody is allowed to post a page that hasn't gone through the editing process. 4. Reporters need to think of the medium while reporting. In addition to story information, they must gather or assign information for animated or still graphics, video and audio.

"The main rule: What we're doing is journalism, not stupid technology tricks," she says. The Tribune Internet edition, which started in March, contains most of the information from the print version--news, sports, job listings, real estate and automobile advertisements, weather, stocks and television listings. For its readers, the Internet edition offers in-depth stories, special technology reports, games, discussion groups and everything someone would ever want to know about the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Bulls. The Internet edition also provides audio interviews and information from the company's radio station, as well as video from the Tribune's 24-hour news service, ChicagoLand Television News (see "The High-Tech Trib," April 1994).

The Internet band includes 44-year-old Thomas Cekay, a former financial editor of the Tribune. He is the associate Internet editor--the gatekeeper of what makes it online and what does not. "The traditional role of the editor stays the same. Do the readers need to see this? Is it intelligently done? Is it sophisticated reporting? Is it what the Chicago Tribune wants?" observes Cekay, a longtime Tribune editor who also has worked for newspapers in Ohio and Oregon.

"The differences are the demands on the editor are much higher because the editor has to know a lot more stuff than on the paper. The editor has to know about the audio that goes into these packages. The editor has to know about the video that goes into these packages." And, he admits, "I have to edit a whole lot faster" because of the constant deadline pressure of the up-to-the-minute Internet edition.

The rest of the band is young, energetic, serious and sometimes irreverent. The newspaper editors and reporters at the Tribune tend toward blue shirts, khaki pants and expensive shoes. With few exceptions, this group tends toward T-shirts, blue jeans and tennis shoes.

Grumman, by far the best-dressed in her business suits, studied public policy at Duke University and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She worked as a freelance reporter in China and scouted rock 'n' roll bands there. Another reporter, Darnell Little, 30, studied computer programming and developed telephone software for Bell Labs before becoming a journalist. Stephen Henderson, 26, wrote editorials for newspapers in Lexington, Kentucky, and Detroit before joining the Tribune's Internet staff.

During the Democratic convention in Chicago, the Internet edition of the newspaper reached nearly 100,000 users a day by putting together a mixture of original reporting, audio reports from the Tribune's radio station, video clips from two Tribune television stations and articles from the printed edition.

Reporter Little had an idea for a historical tour of some of the 24 previous political conventions in the city, starting with the one that nominated Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Little, who received master's degrees in both engineering and journalism from Northwestern, went to the Chicago Historical Society to get a visual sense of how to conduct a tour on the World Wide Web.

"The idea was to take people on a tour that was a virtual museum. There were three parallel streams. There was the tour guide--a walk through six conventions. The second was a behind-the-scenes look at what was happening in Chicago at the time. The third part included archives and political cartoons," Little explains. "The reporting is the same as working for a standard newspaper--gathering the information and talking to people. But you put it together and write it differently."

Before writing the story, Little designs a story board for what each of the main pages will show--a practice used extensively in the film, television and advertising industries. The storyboard contains an outline of a page's content, graphics and computer links to other stories.

After Little reports a story, he then follows his original story board--with adaptations--to make certain that the reporting, photography, headlines and navigation make the story easy for the reader to enjoy.

Little likes to imitate the articles on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, a style that he says works well on the Web. The first page uses an anecdotal lead to draw the reader into the story. The second page broadens the story with the nut graph. The other pages flow from these first two pages to allow the reader to follow a variety of links that expand on each report.

The process is called "layering." Because a computer screen contains less space than the front page of a newspaper, the first layer or page of a digital story contains a headline, a digital photograph and text designed to make the user continue to the next layer. The pages are usually about 500 words, with the option for the reader, with a click of a mouse, to follow a highlighted path. But a user may want to follow another path. He or she could read about the 1860 convention and want to learn more about what was happening in Chicago during that period. After searching through the archives of that time, the user can proceed to the next convention or even skip ahead to another convention. The layers provide a logical way to proceed, but they also enable the user to read the digital pages in any order.

"I write the story in chapters," Little says. "What works the best is when you have a design on the Web that is the equivalent of the layout of a magazine and your eye and attention are focused on one part, which is easily digestible, and it flows and leads you into other parts."

Reporter Grumman found her first weeks at the Internet edition frustrating. She started on the newspaper's print side, where she covered suburban police departments. "My first instinct was to do quick hits," she recalls. "They went nowhere. They were up for a day and, boom, they're gone." The reporter's first attempt at using the Internet for a more complex story involved the murder of a 24-year-old woman in suburban Chicago and the police investigation into the crime. The main story of "Who Killed Stacey Frobel?" appeared in both the online and print editions without significant editorial differences. In the Internet edition, however, readers could click on a chronology of events, descriptions of people involved in the crime and its investigation and a variety of background stories--far more than would have been available in the daily newspaper. Simply put, there are no space limitations on the Internet, and an online story can be as long as the reporter and editor think it should be.

Reporter Henderson studied political science at the University of Michigan. Within days of his arrival in Chicago, he noticed a story about the 1995 murder rates in the city.

"It wasn't a big deal. It was a story that the paper does every year," he recalls. "I said to myself, 'I bet there's a lot more there.' " Henderson asked the print reporters for all the information about the murders--the time, the neighborhood, the cause of death and a variety of other statistics. He put together a map of the city and allowed readers to look for information about their neighborhoods--again with a click of the mouse rather than a visit to the records office at the police precinct. "We got thousands of people interested," he says. "If we use a big database in telling a story, you also have to give the readers a chance to use that database. That's giving people information that's important to them."

Now he intends to do the same with fires in Chicago to allow readers to find out when fires occurred, the causes and how well the authorities handled the alarm. "The medium really shapes the writing. It makes you write shorter and sharper. I try not to write long stories, but break the story up into digestible parts that people can read," Henderson says. "When I worked on the city desk, I would go do my story and I might assign a photographer. Then I'd just pass the thing on. Somebody else edits it. Somebody else copy edits it. Another person would read it and decide whether it would go on page one. Someone would decide where the photos would go. Here, it's so much more important for me to be there through the whole process, shaping the thing so that it makes sense in the medium."

A large portion of the Tribune online readership mirrors that of the Internet--men with middle-class incomes between the ages of 25 and 35. As a result, the most popular section of the Internet edition is sports, where fans can follow the Bears and the Bulls, as well as college and high school sports. Internet Sports Editor Mike Reilley says that "the section becomes your bar stool."

The Bulls' site is a good example of what can be done online when there aren't the space limitations that there are in a newspaper. The pages include a list with stories about every game of the Bulls' 1996 championship season. There's even a reprise of how fans tore up the city during previous victory celebrations. And there's a section on forward Dennis Rodman, whose bestselling book and dramatic appearances in drag at book signings have attracted readers from throughout the world. "The Bulls and Dennis Rodman have been great for us," says Reilley, a former Los Angeles Times reporter.

The next step is taking the stories and sections and putting them online. Unlike the front page of a printed newspaper, there often is only one story that's promoted with a photograph and a large headline in the Internet edition. For other parts of the online edition, there is immediate access by section or specific story. "We looked at the daily paper and said, 'What works?' Our brand name--the Chicago Tribune--works," explains Andrew DeVigal, the 27-year-old producer and designer of the online edition. The major differences between the online edition and the printed version are immediacy, interactivity and multimedia, DeVigal says. During the Democratic convention in Chicago, for example, the online edition updated stories throughout the day, including the resignation of Clinton political adviser Dick Morris. In addition, "Buzz" and "For Junkies Only" provided offbeat tidbits and gossip of what was happening at the convention, the parties and on the streets.

Interactivity allowed the Internet edition to include a Tribune poll of 500 people about President Clinton and Robert Dole, and then asked readers of the Internet Tribune how they would respond to the same questions. The online Tribune's poll results tracked rather closely with the official poll.

Multimedia allowed users to listen to every speech at the Democratic convention through a program known as "RealAudio," which stores audio programs for use at any time. Video clips included interviews with ordinary people and delegates from the convention and a reunion of protesters from the 1968 convention. A new technology, PhotoBubble, presented a still picture of the convention site with an amazing 360-degree view of the United Center. The viewer could zoom in to take a look at the television network skyboxes, or widen the shot to see the entire convention floor.

Along the left side of every page is something called "the rail," which starts at the top of the page and runs all the way down to the bottom. The rail guides readers to featured stories in the Internet edition. By clicking the mouse, the user can travel to a particular section or story. Basically, the editors do not want users to get lost going from one section to another. If the user chooses a section, the title will turn from red to blue. That shows the user where he or she is.

The bottom line of any publication, however, is the bottom line. How will this operation make money? It's difficult to pry much specific financial information from anyone. The Tribune Co. has spent several million dollars on Internet publishing in 1996. Youngman says he has a business plan that he thinks will make the digital operation a profit center after a few years.

"The newspaper business is really good at charging a token amount of money for an expensive product. Fifty cents doesn't cover the paper and ink, let alone the transportation, the gasoline," Youngman says. "We can recover a token cost by saying if the Chicago Tribune thinks something is interesting, it's free. If there is something you think is interesting and you ask me for it, that's going to cost you something. It might cost you something like information--your e-mail address or your zip code--a nickel or a couple of bucks a year. But it's going to cost you something."

At the moment, the Internet edition costs subscribers nothing. That is expected to change. There are no comics, no crossword puzzles and no business section--all of which will be added soon--possibly for a charge. A reader can search the archives of the newspaper--another service that may be provided for a charge in the future. The special sections for the Bears and the Bulls will almost certainly cost a fee.

At the Tribune and elsewhere, digital journalism remains in its infancy, and there are growing pains. The reporters at the Internet Tribune sometimes resemble one-man bands, carrying a variety of technical instruments without the necessary skills to do the job properly. At a printed newspaper the reporter generally takes a pen, a notebook and sometimes a tape recorder. At the electronic version, the reporter carries a pen, a notebook, a tape recorder for audio clips, a digital camera for single snapshots and sometimes a video camera for video clips. At the GOP convention in San Diego, Grumman sent back videotape after videotape.

"You have four things slung over your shoulder," she chuckles. "I had to run to Federal Express at 6:45 p.m. every day to ship the tapes. When they got them in Chicago, they said that there was too much movement and too many zooms. It was just a comedy of errors." The era of digital specialization, in which a reporter reports and a photographer photographs, is likely to come soon. But some glitches will continue to arise. Malia Zoghlin, who worked as a television reporter and producer in Hawaii, got separated from a reporter while shooting videotape of a reunion of protesters from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Zoghlin tried to conduct an interview while holding a microphone and a camera. She asked the interview subject, activist Bobby Seale, if he could hold the microphone. Unfortunately, Seale accidently turned the microphone off, so there was no audio when Zoghlin returned to the office.

More important, there sometimes remains a gulf between those who work at the newspaper and those who work at its electronic edition. "When I first was going to the Internet edition, people would nod and say, 'It's the wave of the future,' and they would smile and that was it. They couldn't think of anything to say about it," Grumman says. "People think it's an interesting diversion. A toy. It's not meaty. But it's another way for people to get their news."

There also is resentment among some print reporters because of the huge infusion of capital into digital technology. "There isn't much money for raises," grumps one writer. And there is some fear that the electronic newspaper may someday replace the printed edition.

In one rift, the print newspaper published a series about medical emergencies on airplanes, "Code Blue: Survival in the Sky," which went online in June. The stories ran more than 20,000 words--a daunting task for anyone to read. It was decided that the series should be added to the Internet edition with graphics, audio clips, video clips and even a demonstration about how a defibrillator--a device to help heart attack victims--works. One well-known journalist criticized the approach of the Internet version, and copies of the complaint circulated all around the Tribune. Still, there are converts from the printed paper. One reporter whose story faced severe cuts at the newspaper offered the original version to the Internet edition, which ran it. Reporters who saw stories left out of the newspaper for space reasons brought them to the Internet edition, where they were published online.

Those closest to the electronic product realize the medium must win converts--both readers and fellow journalists. "This medium is in its infancy," Gentry explains. "There are thousands of ways to do things. We just have to figure them out and convince people we're right."
Go to Christopher Harper's sidebar on the Tribune Co.