AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 1996

Net Gain    

If newspapers and magazines hope to flourish online, they must engage in a two-way conversation with their audiences. A more open relationship could be good news for the future of journalism.

By J.D. Lasica
J.D. Lasica is a former AJR new-media columnist.     

Net Gain Journalism's challenges in an interactive age by J.D. Lasica November 1996

A GREAT MANY of the Internet's 20-million-plus users consider Old Media's practice of top-down, father-knows-best journalism to be clunky, obsolete and irrelevant to their lives. And, in an age when anyone with a computer and modem can be a virtual reporter, they're right.

So does this mean that professional journalists--the middlemen in the news equation--are expendable in a wired world? Hardly. Many Netizens want reporters, editors and news directors to bring their fact-checking skills and other timeless journalistic values--trustworthiness, accountability, balance, fairness--to this bright new medium.

But they also want Old Media to jettison the tired, stale baggage of traditional news culture. They want fewer, better filters and less spin on the news. They want journalism professionals to grasp what's essential to their lives--something that seems to be missing from their daily newspapers and on the TV news.

Increasingly, readers want to engage us in a dialogue about the news.

Are we ready to listen? If so, the Net's ubiquitousness and democratic tendencies have a lot to offer us as news providers.

As author J.D. Lasica concludes, it's time for journalists to trade in our gatekeeper role for a brand of Interactive Journalism

that makes readers true partners in the news process. First installment

Whose News? It's time to trade in our gatekeeper role for a reader-empowered brand of interactive journalism. by J.D. Lasica November 1996

MICHAEL CRICHTON stood before a lunchtime crowd at a National Press Club banquet in April 1993 and delivered a simple message to the movers and shakers of journalism: Change your news culture, or become fossils. Adapt to the new digital

realities, or become museum relics.

The author of "Jurassic Park" called upon news organizations to reinvent themselves, to abandon sensationalistic "junk-food journalism" in favor of a sensitive, informed, responsive approach that empowers the reader and removes the artificial filters that distort or trivialize the news.

He issued a warning: "To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within 10 years--vanished, without a trace."

Since that day three-and-a-half years ago, a lot of bits have passed under the virtual bridge. Consider:

The Internet has exploded in popularity, attracting an estimated 20 million users, many of whom spend every free moment cruising the World Wide Web. Almost overnight, new breeds of information-providers--from niche-news purveyors, like AT&T and c/net: The Computer Network, to more broad-based efforts from competitors like Microsoft--have jumped into the news pool, siphoning off subscribers, advertisers and employees from Old Media.

In response to that impending threat, newspapers have stampeded onto the Web. The number of online newspapers has soared from a handful to over 1,300 according to AJR/NewsLink.

So does Crichton approve of the news media's efforts to jump into the electronic frontier? "I think the major media are more

out of touch than ever. And doing a worse job than ever. And receiving more public disdain than ever," he said in an e-mail interview.

It's a conclusion many Americans would seem to endorse, according to public opinion polls. Slamming the media is a sport that's particularly popular in many quadrants of cyberspace.

For journalists like myself who spend a lot of time online, Crichton's critique is echoed a million times on the digital byteways

of the Internet.

On the Net, the level of discourse fluctuates wildly, from the thoughtful discussions on the WELL (an electronic conferencing

service based in Sausalito, California) to the electronic food fights of Usenet. But a common theme is that Old Media's practice of top-down, father-knows-best journalism is tired, clunky and obsolete.

"A tremendous power shift is underway, and it's about our ability to connect with each other in new ways," Internet pioneer and author Howard Rheingold said in a telephone interview. "A personal computer plugged into a telephone creates a new communication medium, with unique properties and powers. The fact that you don't have to own a newspaper or TV station to broadcast what you think to anyone anywhere in the world is a significant political shift.

"The day the New York Times tells us all the news that's fit to print is over. Its era of dominance has passed because the world changed."

What remains uncertain is what this new world heralds. While there have been entire forests of newsprint cleared for articles written about the new technologies, there has been scant attention paid to the question of how the new media are transforming the message.

This may be a good time to draw a deep breath and consider some basic questions:

What will be the role of journalists when anyone with a computer and modem can lay claim to being a reporter, editor and publisher? Will professional journalists be needed in an era when people can get their news "unfiltered"?

What are the ground rules for news in the free-for-all of cyberspace? Do the rituals and conventions of journalism that arose in an era of hot lead and Linotype have any relevance today?

Even more fundamentally, what is our job as journalists? Indeed, what is news in an era of information glut? And whose news is it? Next installment

Culture Clash: When worlds collide "It appears that criticizing a journalist is on a par with killing him in the line of duty." by J.D. Lasica November 1996

JAN GUNNAR FURULY THOUGHT it was business as usual when he filed a story last December detailing how some Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels were used to trade child pornography.

Furuly, a staff reporter for Aftenposten, Norway's leading newspaper, had been writing articles for four years on such subjects as cyberporn, hate groups and Norwegian satanists on the Net. That led to "some really serious waves of flame mails," he reported in an e-mail interview.

But he was unprepared for the fallout from his December 29 piece, which resulted in the University of Oslo shutting down its

IRC server for more than two weeks. "The reaction to my article was nearly unbelievable. Some Net dinosaurs started a campaign to get me sacked from the paper. One of them started a watch-group project on the World Wide Web."

For the next seven months, Furuly's critics operated a home page that was the digital headquarters for Furuly-Watch, a site that kept tabs on every word the journalist wrote.

Erik Naggum, a computer software businessman, says he created the site because the reporter "is notorious for articles devoid of fact but filled with strong opinions about issues he does not understand.

"As far as I know, mine is the only voice of criticism toward journalists that tries to document the specific offenses committed

by them," Naggum said by e-mail. "I got famous instantly in the entire Norwegian press corps for even hinting that a journalist had a bad track record. It appears that criticizing a journalist is on a par with killing him in the line of duty."

As more newspapers set up shop on the Web, such culture clashes between reader and reporter are inevitable. A lot of built-in animosity and skepticism awaits journalists in cyberspace. Consider this sampling of attitudes from ordinary citizens who posted messages in online discussion forums:

Norman Edwards, a semi-retired lawyer/businessman in Newton, Massachusetts, writes: "The Internet is our last hope for a medium that will enable individuals to combat the overpowering influence of the commercial media to shape public opinion, voter attitudes, select candidates, influence legislation, etc."

Scott Finer, a telecommunications consultant in Arlington, Virginia, writes: "On the Net, I want to read the views of the experts themselves who make the news. I am, in fact, often annoyed by the interpretation supplied by the intervening journalist. Too often journalists--particularly broadcast journalists--advertise 'balanced content' yet deliver hidden agendas wrapped in cleverly modulated spin. Their claims of 'balance' make me hoot."

Alan McConnell, who runs a computer consulting services firm in Silver Spring, Maryland, writes: "Journalism, at present, is stuck in its 'paid-for-by-advertisers' mode. It had to be, in the era of chopped wood, 20-foot-high presses, phalanxes of delivery trucks. But, as we all realize, we have new technology now. Every person can indeed be a journalist. There is a great opportunity here for readers to get their news untainted by advertising.... It will be amateurish, annoying, copious, misleading and chaotic, but I find that preferable to slick, annoying, selective, misleading, trendy. And there are MILLIONS of me out there." Next installment Unfiltered News: One approach "The idea of storytelling as a profession that best not be tried in your own home is a sad state of affairs." by J.D. Lasica November 1996

THE OLD JOKE IN NEWSROOMS was that "MTV News" is an oxymoron. But the joke's not so funny anymore now that many young people get their news from nontraditional sources--including MTV--rather than from their local paper or TV newscast.

MTV's secret? It doesn't talk down to the young. It doesn't dismiss their interests as unimportant. It presents information in an eye-catching way. And recently it has begun to let its viewers participate in the news.

Two summers ago MTV ran promos touting its new first-person news program, news told through the lens of a participant in

the story. The network was deluged with 12,000 calls.

Steven Rosenbaum, the creator of "MTV News Unfiltered," says: "Part of what's changing in society is this top-down model where the media decide what's important and spoonfeed it to a docile, accepting public. That's becoming obsolete, and a lot of people in journalism find that threatening. But all that's really happening is we're allowing the audience to participate in the news. That doesn't make us any less important, it just changes our role."

Rosenbaum's staff of story coordinators sorts through viewers' phone calls, about 2,500 a week. They green-light 40 of the most promising subjects, help focus the story with each caller, then send out 40 camcorders so viewers can produce their own stories in the field. From that pool, the producers pick six to eight segments per show to air.

Rosenbaum admits the show's title shouldn't be taken literally. "We have a half hour. Call it what you will--a funnel, a strainer--there is a selection process. But all the segments chosen are important, insightful stories that would never find a place in

the conventional news media."

The show, which runs once a month, is rough and raw but real. It has won critical praise and "fantastic" viewer response, Rosenbaum says.

He recalls one segment in which a teenage girl proposed a story about a friend's suicide. "One of our producers wanted to know why this kid killed himself. Well, that's not what the girl wanted to do. It would have been very easy for us to use our expertise as journalists as a cudgel to say, 'You're not getting the story right, Missy.' Instead, we let her do her own piece, a very moving, strong piece of television about how this teen's suicide affected this group of 14-year-olds.... When we showed it at a screening for a group of broadcast executives, four of them were in tears. If just a few kids in the audience saw the depth of

despair in the piece and learned something from it, then it was worth it."

Rosenbaum has fought a running battle with broadcasters over the notion of news. "Before MTV signed us, I had three offers to do the show elsewhere, including one of the networks. But we turned them down because nobody would call it news. That word was so sacred that no one was willing to say that what the audience had to say was equally important to what we in the profession considered news."

It's a notion that may be changing. National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," for example, has repeatedly dipped into the pool of viewer-based news in recent months. In April it launched a series of first-person "Teenage Diaries," which continues to air every Monday.

Rosenbaum says Old Media had better get used to the idea. "A lot of us have gotten hung up on the rules of balance and objectivity we learned in journalism school. I've been described as the devil incarnate because we run stories where those things

don't come into play. We think the audience is sophisticated enough to tell the difference between an objective and subjective story. To me, the idea of storytelling as a profession that best not be tried in your own home is a dangerous and sad state of affairs."

He has this parting advice: "When all is said and done, 'Unfiltered' is based on the simple act of answering the telephone and interacting with your viewers. With the Internet, the online services and the potential for interactive television, viewers are going to have a channel into newsrooms. They want to talk to us. The question is, are we willing to listen?" Next installment

Goodbye, Gutenberg? "For a growing number of young people especially, we're just not relevant." by J.D. Lasica November 1996

IT SHOULD COME as no surprise that a large number of Net users have manned the virtual ramparts against Big Media's incursion into cyberspace. This is, after all, a medium that was built from the grassroots up. No corporate financing. No silver-maned publishers, broadcasters or cable bigwigs calling the shots.

Journalists cling to the conceit that we're at the center of the media universe. But the harsh reality is that, for many, the press is expendable. Increasingly, citizens are bombarded with news and information from all directions: TV talk shows, talk radio, newsletters. And now the Net.

The digital age is turning middlemen everywhere into endangered species. Already, travel agents, stock brokers, traders, real

estate agents, bank tellers and insurance brokers are polishing up their resumes. Some believe that journalists may be next.

For diehard Netheads who want to play reporter, the Internet is the ultimate news-you-can-use machine. It's a world- wide library (even if all the books are on the floor), filled with tens of thousands of specialty nooks and niches. Experts in the fields of law, the economy, education, politics and the arts are all accessible online.

Even for breaking news, many people turn not to the mainstream media but to the Usenet, Internet Relay Chat and other wired forums for news about events like the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California, and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Art Nauman, ombudsman for the Sacramento Bee, says he has encountered an entirely new class of readers since going online last year--younger, well-educated and avid news junkies. "There are an awful lot of people out there who can do without us very nicely," he says, pointing to declining newspaper readership figures in most of the major markets. "Clearly, it's not just the uninformed who aren't picking us up. For growing numbers of young people especially, we're not relevant."

So is it time to close up shop and ask cousin Charlie about that job opening in PR? Not so fast.

"Newspapers and broadcast media will be with us for a very long time," says Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine. "The Net doesn't obliterate Old Media, it merely redefines it. It will liberate newspapers from some of their stale habits and enable them to try new, more creative approaches to communicating with their readers.

"The real phenomenon of the Net is micro-publishing, micro-audiences, micro-markets. Whatever obsession you have--taboo sites, roadkill sites, the most socially unacceptable things you can imagine--you can find somebody out there who's

doing it.... The Web won't replace Old Media. But it will add greatly to the diversity of viewpoints."

Rheingold agrees. "The Internet changes the media equation, and it's very simple: If you want to publish a newspaper, you need trucks, barrels of ink, big printing machines, capital. If you just want to publish the news, all you need is a computer and a telephone, and you can go online and provide an eyewitness account of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. The Internet puts the masses back in mass media.

"Does that mean that the Hearsts and Murdochs and Turners of the world will wither away and disappear? No way. But they won't have a monopoly on the news either. If you're a writer or playwright or restaurateur, the newspaper of record can make you or break you. That kind of dominance is a scary thing. To my mind, a multiplicity of voices is far, far healthier." Next installment

Ranters, Burrowers and Skimmers "Many people don't want the top-down news force-fed them by the media. But they don't want unfiltered news, either." by J.D. Lasica November 1996

WHEN IT COMES TO THE NET, many mainstream media organizations mistakenly take a one-size-fits-all approach.

As a result, some online users have written off the traditional news media entirely. David Kline, a veteran journalist and coauthor

of "Road Warriors: Dreams and Nightmares Along the Information Highway," says a fringe element is particularly vocal: "Usenet

is full of paranoid psychotics who believe the chairman of General Motors goes over all the copy before it gets printed in the New York Times every day. They see the Net as their license to rant and spew." Enter a Usenet discussion group, identify yourself as a reporter, and watch the flames light up your screen.

A more sizable number of Net users are burrowers or tunnelers. They want journalists to work in the background, pointing to multiple sources and conflicting accounts while providing little or no summary or interpretation. They often have an intense interest in a particular subject, and they like to sift the raw information for themselves, often tunneling through layers of data to draw their own conclusions.

Increasingly, though, the Net is attracting more and more data-skimmers. There casual online users want their news tamed, filtered and summarized, quickly and cleanly. They don't have time to play reporter.

But they do want news organizations to change some of their shopworn habits. "Many people don't want the top-down news force-fed them by the media," says Kelly, the editor of Wired. "But in my experience, when they get an unfiltered variety of news, they don't want that either. If you don't have good editors and writers and institutional trust in place, you get a kind of news that's more noisy and not as trustworthy.

"I think what people want is a directed news that aims higher than the lowest-common-denominator kind of news that some of the mass media cater to."

Richard C. Harwood, president of The Harwood Group, a public issues research and innovations firm in Bethesda, Maryland, says, "The conventional wisdom--that new media users want journalists out of the way--is absolutely false."

Harwood's firm has interviewed hundreds of citizens nationwide in small group settings on the topic of online journalism. "In every study we've done," he says, "people have told us, 'Look, if you're just going to mimic what's already out there on the Net,

save your time and money.' They do not want newspapers to copy the chaotic, free-wheeling, anything-goes cyberspace culture.

"People pick up newspapers because there is a filter at work. They very much want news judgment to come into play. They want us to bring our traditional standards and values to new media."

People don't want news professionals to make fewer judgments, Harwood says. They want better judgments.

"People look to journalists to be their guides, their truth-tellers, to provide context, perspective and meaning," Harwood says. "Instead, they see the media as a megaphone for dissonance. We cover the news in ways that polarize."

If journalism is to succeed on the Net, Harwood says, "journalists need to reach back and bring their core values of accuracy, credibility, judgment and balance into this new world." Next installment

What Journalism Can Bring to the Net "The more time people spend online, the more they appreciate what good old-fashioned journalism can do for them." by J.D. Lasica November 1996

THOUSANDS OF ONLINE mailing list subscribers were startled March 23 by a bulletin from Joe Shea, editor in chief of the online newspaper the American Reporter, in the midst of rising tensions between China and the United States during Taiwan's first democratic elections.

Shea's defense correspondent was reporting, "U.S. forces have been preparing--quietly and out of sight--for the possibility that China might launch a missile attack tomorrow either against Taiwan, or more unlikely (and devastating), against the continental U.S.... Defense Support satellites have been moved into position over the Far East for two purposes, my sources tell

me: to 1. detect instantly an ICBM liftoff from Lop Nor or XiChang Island, and 2. target U.S. missiles that would quickly fly in retaliation."

The bulletin went on to detail Trident submarine movements, Tomahawk cruise missile targets and CIA estimates that "China

has 9 ICBMs capable of reaching the West Coast of the U.S."

There was only one problem: None of the information was intended for publication or dissemination.

Frank Sietzen Jr., former military affairs correspondent for the cyber-publication, had intended his message to remain a private e-mail to his editor until he could verify the reports he'd heard from "stray" sources. "The next thing I know," he said by e-mail, "Shea has published my e-mail as a news bulletin! It never crossed my mind that he would rush in to 'print' something like this."

Sietzen told Shea his follow-up phone calls did not confirm the initial rumors and demanded an immediate retraction. Shea refused. Sietzen quit on the spot. He now calls it "the most painful incident I have ever been a part of."

Shea later apologized for not waiting to hear from Sietzen before sending out the bulletin. But, he says, "it seemed urgent to me that our readers be informed. Rather than put any distance between the writer and the reader, I sent out his note [unedited].... What if we suddenly found ourselves in a nuclear war? For myself, it is a matter of moral obligation that any advance warning of such a catastrophic possibility be made available to people for their own information. What is more important in the end: the privacy of an e-mail message, or the possible deaths of tens of thousands of people?"

What we have here, it seems, is a case of journalism ditching its playbook as it trots onto the field of a new medium.

Journalists in television and radio have long wrestled with the immediacy of their mediums, weighing the harm of broadcasting

unconfirmed reports against the public's right to know. What is different, as we step onto this new turf, is that we are entering a medium that has a set of operating principles already in place.

If cyberspace has a First Commandment, it is this: Information wants to be free. But that mantra, which dovetails nicely with journalists' First Amendment proclivities, also has a downside: It's difficult to separate fact from wild rumor and hearsay.

MTV's Rosenbaum says, "I assume that everything I read on the Net is half true." And that is precisely the problem.

"When you get into cyberspace, you get an awful lot of misinformation," says media scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. " 'Unmediated news' may be harmless when you throw it back and forth across the backyard fence. But when it goes

out into the ether, it takes on a life of its own. At least journalists are quasi-professionals who have some training and a code of ethics and some rules of the road."

Cyberspace has become particularly fertile ground for conspiracy theories. After July's crash of TWA flight 800, the Net lit up with rumors that the airliner was downed by a missile accidently fired by a U.S. Navy warship. By September the rumor--repeated and magnified via endless e-mails and Usenet postings--had taken on such authority that FBI and Navy officials took pains to denounce it as an "outrageous allegation" at a press briefing. Similar rumors of government plots and cover-ups surfaced after White House counsel Vincent Foster's suicide and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Increasingly, online users are looking to journalists to bring their truth-telling tools to cyberspace. Indeed, that is what spurred a group of writers, editors and Net analysts in April to found the Internet Press Guild, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting accuracy in reporting on and about the Internet.

Says online journalist Kline: "We're beginning to see a new theme emerge on the WELL in the last few months. Because of the unreliable, un-factchecked nature of the Net, people are starting to realize they need vetted information. With total information glut, more and more people are asking, 'Which of these sources is true, good and reliable?...'

"The more time people spend online, the more they appreciate what good old-fashioned journalism can do for them."

Online journalists interviewed for this article disagreed about the specific changes journalism must undergo if it is to succeed in cyberspace, but all agreed that journalists need to hold onto such time-honored values as truthfulness, trustworthiness, accountability and credibility. And nearly all agreed that restraint and perspective should be the yardstick by which Net journalism is measured.

"The Net is crawling with people who call themselves journalists," says Stephen Pizzo, an award-winning investigative print reporter who was senior editor of Web Review, a multimedia magazine that folded in May before reopening as an industry news product in September. "There's a guy in Reno who publishes his pieces in a dozen or so newsgroups dedicated to politics and conspiracy theories. His stories have a dateline, and the syntax is what you would expect of a straight news story. He has published a series on the death of Vince Foster, claiming unnamed intelligence sources have told him that Foster and Hillary Clinton were selling nuclear launch codes to the Israelis, and Foster was murdered by Mossad while he was having oral sex performed on him by Dee Dee Myers. I kid you not.

"The fact is, there are plenty of people out there who can be captured by that kind of phony journalism. There's no way to stop it, so we have to educate the reader. Readers will have to become much more discerning news consumers. The Internet is the biggest fact-checking tool in history. It's a poor man's Lexis-Nexis. If you have a question, bore into a subject and find out if

that reporter is telling you the truth. You can't be a lazy reader anymore."

We also need journalists to point out information we didn't know we wanted to know. "Part of the value of newspapers is the serendipity," said James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report and author of "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy," in an e-mail interview.

"The drawback of computer 'search agents' is that they presumably wouldn't be able to find articles that might otherwise surprise us or catch our fancy...," Fallows added. "The historic function of the news includes understanding what your audience cares about and thinks--but also telling them things they may not know are important to them."

Michael Hallinan, a journalist-turned-online editorial administrator at USA Today Information Systems, adds: "The value of online journalists will be seen in their skills in sifting through documents, asking difficult questions and getting the 'who, what, when, why and how' right. Also, there remains a need for skilled reporters to ferret out information that no one wants you to know. As someone pointed out, 'Would Deep Throat have put up a Web site?' Probably not.

"But beyond just-the-facts-ma'am reporting and investigative pieces, the most important thing newspapers can bring to the Net is context to make sense of it all."

The question is, do online newspapers make sense? Next installment

What the Net Can Bring to Journalism Too many newspapers are guided by the maxim, "Bland is beautiful." by J.D. Lasica November 1996

IF JOURNALISM BRINGS great things to the table--fact-checking skills, a certain level of credibility and trust--it also brings a lot of baggage. Newspapers, TV and radio stations are, at bottom, businesses first.

Kline points out: "There's a core conflict of values between the basic nature of the Internet and the demands of large businesses. The Net is free, it's egalitarian, decentralized, open and peer-to-peer, auton