December 1994

Beyond the Hype: Notes on the Future of Cyberjournalism

My project will investigate how hypertext can be developed in online jounalism to create a truly "new" medium on the net. I plan to analyze HotWired and TimeInc as well as college newspaper servers to study how online publications differ from their paper counterparts and then discuss how writers developing hypertext narratives already can inform jounalists venturing online. Or something like that.
Why newspapers?
Who is interacting?
What's the "hype"?
Interacting how?
What is the message?
Why the hype?
"The missing link"
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Mass Net Media?

They call it "interactive hypermedia" a loaded pair of words that connotes everything from Al Gore's invocation of the classroom of tomorrow to the addictive powers of CD-ROM games like Myst. Scientists predict collaborations that will transcend continents, while physicians anticipate making diagnosis in rural clinics via real-time video. For journalism, some argue the Internet will rescue American reporting from the straight and superficial coverage of newsprint and the 5 o'clock news, replacing grainy black-and-white photographs with the "Way-New Journalism," a melee of information neatly packaged into interlocking bundles of information.

Harbingers of the cyberjournalistic future see the Internet and attendant on-line technologies as the cure for an increasingly insipid media. Writing in Wired magazine, pundit and author Michael Crichton predicts the future of internet media as a infotopia:

And once Al Gore gets the fiber optic highways in place, and the information capacity of the country is where it ought to be, I will be able, for example, to view any public meeting of Congress over the Net. And I will have artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page, or a nightly news show, that addresses my interests. I'll have the twelve top stories that I want, I'll have short summaries available, and Iill be able to double-click for more detail. How will Peter Jennings or MacNeil-Lehrer or a newspaper compete with that?

Titling his diatribe on existing mass communication "Mediasaurus," Crichton appears wildly confident that the information technologies of tomorrow will blow conventional journalism out of the water. Bringing Crichton's hypermedia paradise down to earth starts with understanding what this new medium can do well. A quick wandering of the web offers a number of answers: For one, the Internet can get lots of information across lots of miles very quickly. Space and time, costly for newsprint and nearly prohibitive over the airwaves, is virtually free and instantly transcendable in cyberspace. Thus the rigors of distribution and the need to cut a story to fit advertising constraints disintegrates, as information can be published literally "as it happens" and consumed anywhere in the world. At the same time, hypermedia offer the chance to meld the worlds of radio, television and newsprint into an audio/video/text adventure, conjuring images of the journalist of tomorrow armed with camcorder and notepad, creating a story that the viewer can "relive" from the comfort of her living room.

Cyberjournalism, as envisioned by many, will also let readers choose information a la carte, exploring a story in as little or as much depth as they choose. The time-honored "inverted pyramid" employed by reporters rested on a similar idea: assuming that the reader doesn't make it to the end of the story, she will have already read the most important information. But using the dynamic links of hypertext, cyberjournalism goes a step further. Readers will have the opportunity to read a condensed narrative and then extend into greater depth where ever they see fit. Rather than rely on a reporter's or editor's world view of "most important information," in cyberjournalism, readers will make the choice. "Think of it like this: reading today's newspaper or watching today's news broadcast is like riding a passenger train," writes Katherine Fulton (1993). "The news of the future will be like driving a car."

Crichton's promise of the post-Jurassic age also invokes the idea of intelligent agents, computer-programmed creatures that would roam the Internet, fetching interesting tidbits for their human master to peruse at the end of the day. For a price, in Crichton's infotopia, you could read stories on your area of interest, gleaning only the most interesting information without having to plow through needless piles of newsprint.

Though Crichton characterizes most journalists as lumbering triceratops, soon to be fossilized in the post-Jurassic future, some are looking forward to his infotopia, contemplating how they can adapt to this new medium to link their readers to vast stores of information. But as journalists begin to explore this new electronic universe, they must not only wonder what "interactive hypermedia "is they must ask who is doing the interacting, and how? What does the "hype" in hypermedia actually stand for? And finally, what message, exactly, is this medium conveying? For ultimately, notwithstanding Mashall McLuhan, the medium will live or die as a forum for journalists based on what messages, if any, travel through the millions of miles of fiber optic cable and satellite beams that criss-cross the planet.

Why newspapers?

What newspapers should be doing on the Net starts with what newspapers should be doing on paper. So-called "objective" American journalism was born in the 19th century when the first steam-driven printing presses offered the opportunity to mass produce information quickly and efficiently. Coupled with telegraph wires and funded by the dollars of new mass-market industrial advertisers, major newspapers linked communities with the rest of the world, providing a steady stream of information about everything from the Civil War to local births, marriages and funerals. Newspapers were considered central to democracy, providing the electorate with information free from influence by government control or, at least in theory, the political leanings of private patrons. With advertising revenue to fund the bulk of journalist's salaries as well as printing and distribution costs, newspaper started out and remain relatively cheap sources of information-even today, $0.75 buys a New York Times. As jealous guardians of the public's "right to know", and seekers of greater advertising revenue, newspapers spread their message to as many people as possible, creating a truly "mass medium" for conveying information.

Nevertheless, while the editorial pages of newspapers attempted to provide a forum for public discussion, including guest columns and letters to the editor, in the broader scheme of things, newspapers set the agenda, reported the news, and told it like they saw it. Writes Jon Katz in Wired:

With the possible exception of network-TV newscasts, papers are now our least hip medium, relentlessly one-way, non-interactive, and smug. We all know the formula: Plopped on the doorstep once a day. Breaking national and international news up front, local news next, stories broken up and jumping inside. Grainy, mostly black-and-white photos. Culture, features, TV, listings, recipes, and advice columns in the back. Stentorian voices on the editorial page. Take it or leave it, and if you don't like it, write us a letter. (Wired 2.09)

Boring or otherwise, until the rise of electronic media, newspapers enjoyed a monopoly on information provision within their own communities, or at least, filled a fairly unique and uncontested niche. Regardless, they cast their role as part of a broad mission: give people the information they needed to know in order to act. This vision for what newspapers should be "information providers for communities" sets parameters for the questions journalists must ask as they explore interactive hypermedia.

Who is interacting?

If journalists' roles include providing access to information as the basis of a democracy, then everyone should be able to access their community netpaper at a price close to that of current newspapers and magazines. Able to draw mass audiences because of the wealth of information they provide, the netpaper should successfully attract advertising revenue to fund low-cost access for a broad range of users. Just as newspapers link communities to the outside world by printing Associated Press stories and policy analyses, local netpapers should be the gateway to the internet, offering the dial-up services and software to launch subscribers onto the net.

What's the "hype"?

As gatherers and purveyors of information people need to know, netpapers will need to create relevant but comprehensive links, providing a road map for the information superhighway, to kill an already overused metaphor. Just as the newspaper provides news coverage and information about community opportunities and resources, I believe the successful local netpaper will become the home page for a geographical community, offering a wealth information as well as pointers to the world outside--a kind of electronic "Travel" section that will allow readers to explore the broader net world.

Interacting how?

But the potential of interactive media is not just about building in links for readers to follow--a truly interactive netpaper will offer readers the chance to post messages, participate in discussion groups, chat with editors and reporters and ultimately shape the face of the netpaper. Such interactivity is not a given for public access to the world of the internet, and journalists committed to their role as guardians of free and open public debate will need to ensure that the netpaper of the future is not a glorified form of channel surfing.

What is the message?

If journalists are information providers, essentially story-tellers gathering facts together for publication, their job will not change, except that they will need to gather the video clips and the internet links to bring the story to life in ways far more elaborate than the current newspaper account. The critical decisions, however, will remain the same. Good reporting will be good reporting, electronic or otherwise, and editors will need to work with their writers to produce a product that is comprehensible and useful to a broad range of users. Faced with the challenges of an entirely new medium, the netpaper will require an entirely new approach to writing--but at the core, the ability to write well and compose ideas clearly--the ability to tell a good story--will as essential to the post-print journalist as it was to the poets who retold The Iliad and The Odyssey three millennia ago.


Stewart Brand offers a cogent paradox when he describes information in the modern world: "Information wants to be free," he writes. "Information wants to be expensive." Collecting tangled tidbits of information and transforming them into coherent strands of thought is the essence of a journalist's profession. I know what I love most about reporting is the exhilaration of tracking down chunks of fact and opinion and weaving it into a story thousands of people can read and understand the next day. Clearly, the dawn of cyberjournalism has not changed the need for that kind of reporting, but it does endanger one central element: for the mass-media newspaper, a central tenant of collecting this information lay in "the public's right to know." Newspapers, like public education, were a central part of the democratic process. Wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1787:

The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. (Koch 411)

What happens when information becomes a commodity on a massive computer network, rather than one doled out in newsprint packages and dumped on a doorstep every morning? A completely on-line information universe could easily choose to sell information by the byte. For the Michael Crichtons of the world, Jurassic Park and Rising Sun royalties in hand, buying knowledge is no problem. But what is a journalist doing if he or she is selling public information on a pay-to-know basis?

Clearly, journalists "sell" their information now, but the mass media effectively subsidize narrow interest reporting that attracts a relatively small chunk of the audience by relying on the big draw of major stories to sell papers and thus lure advertisers. If on-line journalism moves to a pay-to-know system where writers rack up a few cents for every time their page is accessed, who will research and write about town council meetings and water quality laws that, though often important to the life of the community, do not appeal to the lowest common denominator? Arguably, journalists have already begun to abandon such territory for sexier stories, but if a journalist's livelihood depends on his or her ability to sell each story to a pay-per-view audience, reporters will have to become mere entertainers to be financially successful. And for those who do want good reporting, who will be able to afford the really high-quality information? Even if Al Gore's Universal Service dream comes true, it is unlikely that The New York Times will ever offer access to its archives for free. The result could easily be an augmentation of the information elite and an increasingly uninformed public relying on the slice of news that trickles down to public-access services or newsprint editions, second-class information sources that do little to contribute to the public understanding Jefferson deemed essential to a successful democracy.

If journalists want to continue their role as guardians of democracy and shapers of a "fourth branch of government," they will need to ensure that good journalism, netwide, is available to a mass audience. Writes Nancy Hanger in a HotWired post:

Those who cannot afford to buy an Internet connection are losing out on both social and business ties to the community. We are, in fact, creating a Third World culture within our own class structure. Freenets are rare-to-unavailable on the East Coast, by and large: do we just sit back and watch an underprivileged class be created--a class that doesn't lack for intelligence or education or drive but simply is information-poor because of a lack of Net-connectivity? (Nancy C. Hanger on Thu, 3 Nov 94 08:52 PST)

Journalists concerned about the media as key element of democracy will need to fight for public access on several levels: first, access to net services needs to reach every citizen, whether via public library clusters or publically subsidized in-home modems. Second, I would argue, journalists must fight for publications to be funded by low access fees and advertising, rather than pay-to-know service. While pay-to-know services will no doubt continue to grow for some forms of information, if newspapers cease to provide a wide range of basic information at a flat fee, they will price themselves out of the general market into an information elite, undermining their role in a democracy.

Why the hype?

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