Ideas

December 1994

Beyond the Hype: Notes on the Future of Cyberjournalism--Part IV

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And too often, there isn't much worth seeing at the destination. Obviously, most pages are still in embryonic form, and the few commercial providers that exist are still negotiating what to put out on the web, much less how to track down persistent bugs. But as publications rev up to grab a spot on the net, cyberjournalists need to remember that the commodity they offer is ultimately information. And no matter how neat the graphics, no one will frequent a web site that doesn't provide access to useful, accurate and timely facts that are relevant to daily life.

Most on-line services so far have done so much linking that they've forgotten to link to anything. Says Daniels, "Most places don't have much content. Our focus at Nando has been on developing deeper and deeper content." Among non-journalism links, the vast majority of elegant home pages feature web sites that link to dead-ends and apologetic messages that "this site is under construction." While you have to start somewhere, I wonder who will eventually take the time to fill in all the loose ends and provide all the useful services. As Daniels points out, following miscellaneous links is fun for a while, but ultimately, the net will be nothing but hype if there isn't useful information organized out there somewhere.

That's certainly the view of Bryan Allison, who posts in HotWired

I don't know about the rest of you, but I find spending three or four hours a day weaving through the Web or Usenet to be a pretty inefficient way to become informed. It is enjoyable and it acts as an excellent supplement to the mainstream and not-so-mainstream media available through old channels, but I still want someone to distill the stuff and deliver it with some kind of dependency.

I'm not interested in getting my news from every moron wielding a videocam. I'm interested in having pieces of that added to a well-produced, well-delivered piece (either on the net or through my TV or through a PDA or whatever). And then I want to be able to have thousands of other media available to double-check what I've just been told.
Bryan Allison (bryang) on Wed, 2 Nov 94 20:48 PST

Allison's post effectively synthesizes various visions of cyberjournalism into a mutualistic system for the future. Allow the "mass media" to construct mass home pages, jumping off points for delving deeper into the net. At the same time, rely on the low cost of information storage and transfer in cyberspace to cultivate niche media and alternative viewpoints, breaking the monopoly mass media currently hold on "the truth." Such a vision accommodates conventional journalists as information gatherers and interpreters, while democratizing the net to include anyone who wants to put his or her ideas out there for public debate and discussion.

Mass Net Media?

Early experiments are encouraging. HotWired, as this paper illustrates, has fostered lively discussion about internet-related issues while drawing thousands of surfers to its pages, as has Pathfinder, the Time Inc. service that opening in late October. Both magazines have developed an interactive interface that allows readers to post in HTML, a feature that means the publications can develop almost organically, tapping the ideas of readers and permitting them to shape the environment as they explore it. Time Inc., especially, approximates the ideal of the netpaper as home page of the future, with "Time Universe" providing links to research materials, exciting internet sites and Time's own archives. On a more local scale, Nando is fast beoming the homepage for the Triangle, offering local information, restaurant and hotel listings and an entertainment server along with excerpts from the daily paper. The advertising isn't up yet, but Bruce Siceloff, on-line editor for the newspaper, said they ultimately expect the web site to be funded entirely by ads. The News and Observer's approach provides a further model for the future of the netpaper because the publisher is selling internet access to the Triangle, collecting monthly access fees while increasing the "circulation" of the netpaper.

The News and Observer's strategy is a good one for local newspapers preparing to establish a face on the net. While the computer screen has its limitations, enterprising netpapers can offer myriad resources to their communities and make money doing it. Making money should be fairly easy once netpapers gather a large enough audience to attract area advertisers, a task which will be challenging, but will likely become exponentially easier as local netpapers pop up around the country. In such a scenario, the "newspaper" will survive, in the sense that Thomas Jefferson intended it, informing the electorate and bringing together a community. But the local-netpaper-as-community-home-page vision is not a given; any number of forces could instead create a net dominated by entertainment providers but for scattered public access channels too numerous and too amateurish to draw viewers away from one endless movie-on-demand. To prevent the emergence of what Kapor and Berman call a "superhighway through a wasteland," journalists must prepare to shape the future of the netpaper, playing an active role as their editors and publishers contemplate on-line ventures. Cyberjournalism is not about another outlet for advertising; it is a fundamental reshaping of how reporters fulfill their role in a democracy. Journalists must insist that the netpaper provide inexpensive access to information in order to continue informing a broad population on issues that affect them. They must fight for software that creates dynamic links and transforms rigid text into an evolving, nearly-alive organism. They must resist the set-top box, instead encouraging netpapers to provide computer-based, truly interactive web access to readers. Finally, they must engage the resources of the Internet in order to provide their readers with "all the news that's fit to link."

Speaking to Il Congress de Mitjans de Comunicacio in Valncia, Spain, in October, Southam Infolab director Wayne MacPhail lays out such a vision:

Done properly, on-line systems—whether standalone products or home pages on the Internet-can put newspapers at the centre of a growing, connected electronic community. That community can share knowledge and experience and look to the newspaper for and its journalists for explanation, background and filtering.
(McPhail 1994)

Someday, the netpaper will probably replace print newspapers , as more and more members of communities begin to move on-line for the information they need to know in order to act. Yet the demise of newsprint does not mean the demise of journalists - in fact, the shift will make good reporters even more crucial as intelligent guides to the overwhelming world of available information. But to become cyberspace guides, journalists will first need to be pioneers and explorers, learning what information needs to be filtered and where to find it. For ultimately, as McPhail puts it, "In an world where everyone has access to information, wisdom will become the differentiating commodity."


Works Cited:

Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think." The Atlantic 176.1 (July 1945): 101-108. http://www.isg.sfu.ca/~duchier/misc/vbush/

Crichton, Michael. "Mediasaurus." Wired 1.4 (September/October '93): http://www.hotwire d .com/Lib/Wired/1.4/features/mediasaurus.html

Fulton, Katherine. "Future Tense: The Anxious Journary of a Technophobe." Columbia Journalism Review, Nov./Dec. 1993: 29-33.

Gruber, Michael. "Neurobotics." Wired 2.10 (October 1994): http://www.hotwire d.com/Lib/Wired/2.10/features/neurobotics.html

Heylighen, Francis. "Design of a hypermedia interface translating between associative and formal representations." International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 35(4), 491-515, 1991.

HotWired posts: Intelligent agent.http://www.hotwired.com/cgi-b in/interact/threads?i-agnt

Kapor, Mitchell and Jerry Berman. "A Superhighway Through the Wasteland?" New York Times Op-Ed, Nov. 24, 1993. http://icg.stwing.upenn.edu/cis590/re a ding.043.txt

Katz, Jon. "Online or not, newspapers suck." Wired 2.09 (September 1993): http://w ww.hotwired.com/Lib/Wired/2.09/departments/electrosphere/news.suck

Koch, Adreinne & William Peden, eds. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: The Modern Library, 1944.

McPhail, Wayne. "Connection, Content and Community." Compuserve file name: SOUTH.AM.

Meyrowitz, Norman. "The Missing Link: Why We're All Doing Hypertext Wrong." The Society of Text: Hypertext, Hypermedia, and the Social Construction of Information. Edward Barrett, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989. 107-114.

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