Ideas

May 4, 1995

What's changed since the Philadelphia Inquirer published "America: What Went Wrong?"

By Alison Stuebe
A slide presentation delivered as part of a case study at the Nieman conference: "Public Journalism: Winner or Loser in the Online Era?"

I had never used email when "America: What went wrong?" ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer three and a half years ago. This spring, I helped launch The Chronicle, Duke's daily newspaper, onto the Internet.

The digital revolution that I have participated in during my college career overturns four basic assumptions of print and broadcast media. First, digital information is cheap to store and can take any form.

Contrast the information resources available online with a typical newspaper or broadcast. On the Internet, Time-Warner's Pathfinder offers "O.J. Central," a comprehensive guide to the people, places and trial transcripts of this ongoing debacle.

These new media are about putting overwhelming quantities information in a usable context, the way Time's Campaign '96 resource brings together profiles, current events and a discussion group on presidential hopefuls.

Pathfinder's services are examples of hypertext, a 50-year-old idea that few people in this room had probably heard of when "America: What went wrong?" was published. Now, hypertext's "point and click" access to more information is quite familiar, shown here in "Panning for business models in a Digital Gold Rush" from HotWired's Intelligent Agent." Users can click on graphics for more information, like this link on content, and even explore other resources on the Internet, making a story a kind of guidebook to what's out there rather than a self contained resource.

HotWired also takes advantage of six-month-old technology that links its stories to "Threads," a set of bulletin board discussions that allow users to join an ongoing conversation about issues raised in the main story.

In other cases, the digital technology of cyberspace allow journalists to distribute quantities of information editors cannot afford to publish or broadcast.

On Compuserve, U.S. News and World Report offers print content but also provides downloadable libraries of information, including transcripts of Newt Gingrich's lectures at the University of Georgia.

And ESPNet's Sportszone lets the nation's all-sports network provide box scores and in-depth stories that could never hold an audience on the television screen.

ESPN's online offerings illustrate the birth of multimedia, a critical consequence of digital technologies. Online, networks like ABC can offer point-and-click links to deeper background information, while print media can include video clips in their online editions.

That merging of technologies allowed the News and Observer to incorporate video clips into stories like "Pathway to Freedom" part of a project that required reporters to think like broadcasters as well as print journalists.

Across the country, journalists are getting a crash course in multimedia. For example, at The Chicago Tribune, reporters are appearing on ChicagoLand TV's cable newscasts. In Philadelphia, Knight-Ridder has launched a nightly news broadcast linked to The Inquirer's morning edition.

In some cases, the shift to multimedia is even more dramatic. Using digital technology, Reuters news service has created "What on Earth?," an educational service that packages news events for schools. Students can choose among six lead stories, access background information, like this photograph of Joseph Pulitzer and participate in "educational challenge" activities linked to news events, like picture perfect, an exercise on a prize-winning photograph.

The Reuters experiment is a dramatic illustration of what digital technology is doing to mass media. I've been talking about "users" for these online offerings, rather than readers or viewers. These new technologies mean that instead of manufacturing a discrete product, journalists are providing an ongoing service.

This brings us to the second major change wrought by digital technology: rather than a static page or a standard broadcast, digital information is dynamic.

That means ongoing updates like San Jose's Mercury Center, on America Online and the Internet, which revises its breaking news headlines almost hourly.

Time magazine now offers a daily news service on America Online and the Internet, linking today's headlines to key-word services of the magazine's archives.

Time-Warner is also expanding the purview of local TV news with New York One, a 24-hour-a-day local news channel. This service is possible because the station relies on "lone wolf" reporters who cover stories on their own, carrying 40 pounds worth of video equipment in the trunks of their cars--a video technology rapidly dropping in price.

Newspapers and broadcasters are finding that they can also transcend geographical boundaries to reach new audiences online.

Raleigh's Nando sports server has become a world-wide resource on professional and college sports, transforming a regional newspaper into an international reference.

Also on the Internet, The New York Times' Times Fax web site has become a distribution point for the newspaper's summary fax edition, taking advantage of electronic networks to reach far-off places.

And it isn't just text that is reaching new audiences on the Internet. Using the new Real Audio," those with direct Internet access can listen to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" any time, any where.

This ability to provide information-on-demand is part of the third major change of the digital revolution. Once produced for a mass audience, information can now be tailored to suit personal interests.

San Jose's Mercury Center offers subscriptions to NewsHound, an inexpensive service that uses subscriber profiles to scan news services. NewsHound then sends selected stories to subscribers' email accounts.

Dow Jones Personal Journal takes the same concept a step further, offering a "personal" edition of the Wall Street Journal highlighting industries of your choice.

Television is also exploring individualized news services like the News Exchange, or TNX, where Time-Warner lets users view highlights from an "anchor" and then select what news they want to see, when they want to see it.

These experiments are the first commercial incarnations of the MIT Media Lab's most famous idea: The Daily Me, a personalized newspaper currently available for MIT undergraduates in a prototype called "Fishwrap."

Tailored information also means access to "news you can use," local information that newspapers and broadcasters can provide online on a need-to-know basis.

For example, Prodigy's Newsday Direct has assembled a series on resources for newly-arrived immigrants as part of an online resource called the "New New Yorkers."

But good online services provide much more than repackaged reporting from the print edition.

The Washington Post's new Digital Ink, now debuting on AT&T's interchange, offers a restaurant guide searchable by price and cuisine.

On Prodigy, Timeslink, the Los Angeles Time's online service, lets readers take practice driver's tests. I couldn't resist taking the test, and I found out I couldn't get a license in the State of California.

In another example, Raleigh's Nando offers a service where parents can look up Wake County school assignments. Parents type in a street name to access assignments for the coming year. Along with school statistics, they can see a digital map of area schools.

These interactive services rely on the fourth and perhaps most revolutionary component of digital media: information can travel in both directions, creating the opportunity for journalism organizations to host conversations online.

And users are talking back. When Time magazine darkened O.J. Simpson's face for a cover photo last summer, editors found themselves answering to angry readers in cyberspace.

Editors and reporters aren't the only ones answering questions online. On ESPNet, users can forward questions to sports celebrities. And through "@Times" on America Online, they can join in "chat" sessions with public figures like Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Users can also talk with each other. LA's Timeslink offers online surveys, like this one on California Casinos, to get a public pulse on a current issue.

For more in-depth discussions, readers wrestle with issues on community bulletin boards. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune Online let users go from online opinion pieces to discussion groups where they can vent their views on current issues like the Oklahoma bombing.

Bulletin Boards also let users publicize meetings and protests--like this announcement on Chicago Online early last month.

The technology to provide bulletin boards and individualized information existed three and a half years ago, but the interface was ugly and confusing. Text-based bulletin board programs like this one have been replaced by user-friendly icons, doing for the online world what the Macintosh did for the personal computer in the last decade.

Using these new technologies, successful regional newspapers and broadcasters are reinventing themselves to become their community's primary resource online. For example, Chicago Tribune's America Online service calls itself "Chicago Online," not "Tribune Online," because its goal is to put a city, not a newspaper, into cyberspace.

Technology is not the only thing that has changed in the past three and a half years. Interest in news is fluctuating, as illustrated by Times-Mirror polls, with television news, shown here in red, slightly ahead of print, in yellow. Overall subscription and ratings trends have led journalists to question whether the news we report really engages readers and viewers, particularly younger ones.

Faced with such concerns, WFAA, the CBS affiliate in Dallas, began a comprehensive community journalism effort called Family First in January 1994. Generally recognized as one of the nation's best local stations, the station used television's powerful ability to get close to its audiences to hold 20 town meetings. At some, residents filled out questionnaires like this one. The station brought in experts to field questions and lead discussions. As many as 600 people have attended these sessions--far more than attend city council meetings -- providing stunning evidence of the media's power to bring people together to solve their own problems.

The station's effort is distinguished by the investigative journalism that followed. At the end of the year, WFAA aired an hour-long documentary on child protective services through a cooperative effort with caseworkers. The Poynter Institute's Valerie Hyman sees the WFAA project as part of a new trend away from sensational, consultant-driven television coverage.

WFAA's effort parallels experiments in "public" or "civic" journalism in Wisconsin and around the country. Proponents like Jay Rosen argue that public journalists must "strengthen a community's capacity to understand itself, converse well, and make choices." It's a vision that has its share of critics, many of whom oppose this new genre of journalism on the same grounds that an earlier generation fought the innovations of literary writing or "new journalism" a quarter-century ago.

The Charlotte Observer is in the midst of one of the nation's most successful civic journalism projects. Teamed with the local ABC affiliate and two radio stations, the paper is profiling 10 neighborhoods beset by violence with stories like "We want a place where our kids are safe." The Observer polled citizens to identify neighborhood problems and solutions, published a "needs list" for each area, and focused on people and programs that are working.

The result? In December, the Observer published "Teamwork to the rescue," recapping the outpouring of response to its first four neighborhoods. With a bank donation of $50,000 for a new recreation center and more than 500 new volunteers, crack houses were closed and hundreds of other neighborhood needs have been met.

The Tallahassee Democrat and the local CBS affiliate have embarked on their "Public Agenda" project, a three-year effort to invite citizens to talk about "Choices we must make." The project was launched with four front page stories last fall.

Similar projects in Boston and San Francisco have used citizen-focused coverage of election issues to raise the level of candidate debate. As these next slides show, The Virginian Pilot in Norfolk has begun to integrate conversations with citizens into its daily reports, using roundtable discussions and daily sidebars on democracy and citizenship in an effort to move meaningfully beyond the old "person on the street" formula.

All of these projects illustrate a growing belief that journalism must reinvent itself, a challenge the Minneapolis Star Tribune is beginning to address online. The Star-Tribune has made this "Talk" page a centerpiece of its service, encouraging users to discuss issues like the status of the environmental movement on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. Moreover, the service plans to provide a platform for nonprofits to distribute information and exchange ideas in this new digital community.

At a time when new paradigms for journalism are converging with digital technology, one thing is clear: as this new technology become cheaper and easier to use, it will continue to move very quickly.

Just look at CD-ROM sales, which have jumped from 340,000 in 1990 to 18.5 million in 1994.

Online, projects like HotWired are on the threshold of a new medium. The question is whether mainstream journalism will be revitalized, or merely repackaged, as it enters the online world.

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