|Columbia Journalism Review
July/August 1997 |
The Future of Online Journalism
A guide to who's doing what.
by John V.Pavlik
Pavlik is executive director of The Center for New Media at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He is a senior fellow at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, one of four such centers funded by the National Science Foundation.
URL des Original-Beitrags: http://www.cjr.org/year/97/4/online.asp
If you build it they will come -- at least some of them. Imagine a library that carries the equivalent of 1,600 daily newspapers from all over the globe. Now stop imagining. It's here: the Internet provides more news content than that every day, most of it free. So it's not surprising that increasing numbers of the world's forty million to fifty million Internet users are going online for their news.
The wild Internet provides a lot of information of dubious value, of course, which is part of what makes going online an adventure. But the digitally up-to-date also know that the quality of much of the news online is as high as that of leading newspapers or newsmagazines or TV or radio outlets, because much of it comes from those media.
Yet that fact leads to a question: If online journalism is little more than another delivery system for "old" media -- even if it's a potentially better delivery system -- what's all the fuss about? In terms of journalism, what's the point?
For many of us in this field, the point is to engage the unengaged. Some of us envision a kind of news that, as it upholds the highest journalistic standards, will allow news consumers to understand the meaning of the day's events in a personalized context that makes better sense to them than traditional media do now.
images, moving images, and sound; since it can build new communities based on shared interests and concerns; and since it has the almost unlimited space to offer levels of reportorial depth, texture, and context that are impossible in any other medium -- new media can transform journalism.
An example from MSNBC on the Internet (www.msnbc.com) nicely illustrates the potential. On February 21, NBC's Dateline ran a piece about dangerous roads in America, zeroing in on three particularly treacherous thoroughfares. The program invited viewers to log onto the MSNBC site to learn about roads in their community. Those who did so could enter their zip code and, within seconds, based on federal data, find out how many fatal accidents had occurred in that community between 1992 and 1995 and on which roads. Within twelve hours MSNBC logged 68,000 visitors to that feature.
Money magazine's Money Online -- which won the 1997 National Magazine Award for new media, the first time such an online award has been given -- provides another example. (www.money.com) Back when Steve Forbes was pushing the flat-tax concept in his presidential campaign, a Money Online feature allowed people to key in their earnings profile and see how the proposed tax would affect them.
Yes, the potential to customize content also means readers may select only what appeals to their narrowest interests. This "You News" kind of journalism could thus become a force for atomization, for further civic decay.
But the optimists, and I am one of them, don't believe it. Research for half a century indicates that people use media, new or old, to connect to society, not separate. People go online primarily to connect with the news of their community, whether a geographical community or one formed around some other common bond. They use customization features to supplement their general news appetites, following their particular interests in finance, travel, education, the environment, or any number of things. So, rather than fracturing society, new media -- with online journalism at its core -- can help to keep us connected.
Must publishers participate? Will readers and/or advertisers ever pay for it? For one skeptical view on that, see Denise Caruso's article in this issue. My own sense is that if we make the journalism engaging enough, it will gain financial support. Already, we can see glimmers of a transformed journalism in some of the good online work that is out there now.
NEWS ONLINE: A 1997 BAEDEKER
Think of the online news world as a vast virtual newspaper divided into sections -- national, regional, business, technology, politics/culture/opinion, and sports. (There is an international section -- a variety of notable online journalism offerings from outside the U.S., such as the Spanish-language La Nacion Online of Costa Rica or The Jerusalem Post Daily Internet Edition -- but I'll focus on domestic news here.)
Within these sections, who is doing the job well? Which sites are beginning to produce a new kind of journalism? Here are some of them.
The best national news sites are those that, along with repackaging or "repurposing" their regular print content, offer original material designed specifically for the Web. The CyberTimes section of The New York Times on the Web, for example, provides extensive original coverage of new media. (www.nytimes.com) The Times online version also publishes photojournalism, such as a photo essay by Sebastiao Salgado documenting the plight of Brazil's "Landless Workers' Movement" -- forty-two images, accompanied by audio captions from Salgado, news reports, a map, and various archival materials.
Many national sites also cover breaking news, and the better ones use their reservoirs of space to add depth and texture. The Washington Post's website, for instance, offered thorough online coverage of the surprising recent Iranian presidential election, adding news that did not appear in the printed Post, reference material, and other resources. (www.washingtonpost.com) The site showed the capability to do some original reporting recently by supplementing a special Post report -- titled "D.C. schools: a system in crisis" -- about that education system's collapsing infrastructure, bloated bureaucracy, and failing special-education programs. The website's report added a comparison of 1996 SAT scores between D.C. and suburban schools, profiled the Board of Trustees, and invited online reader discussions.
Time Online (www.time.com) impressively covered the Heaven's Gate tragedy -- offering detailed reporting from the magazine's online staff as well as the print side, extensive photo coverage, and even an electronic link to Heaven's Gate 's own website, which allowed visitors to learn about the cult from its members' words. Time's site became an important historical record, with layers of content that the printed magazine couldn't accommodate.
Similarly, CNN Interactive -- which is one of the world's busiest news websites with some 3.5 million "page views" a day -- features extensive original coverage of the environment and ecological issues. (www.cnn.com) And CNN Interactive goes into considerable depth on all kinds of stories that get only a minute or two on TV.
Mercury Center, website of the San Jose Mercury News, is known recently for increasing the impact of the paper's widely debated "Dark Alliance" series, partly by spreading the series way beyond the paper's circulation area and partly by adding original documents (court transcripts, search warrant documents, and so forth), along with photos and even sounds (including a section of a wiretap of a drug dealer), to the basic story. But the site is famous for such use of layered publishing on many stories. (www.mercurycenter.com)
Mercury Center features simple and easy-to-use navigational tools that allow the reader access to every section and service in the site. The top of the page offers an index of sections, from Asia Report to Talent Scout, and services, from the Mercury Mall to the Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages gives readers access to Zip2, an electronic directory of more than 16 million businesses nationwide, fully searchable, all for free -- a capability no print outlet can match.
The site also offers Good Morning Silicon Valley, special online coverage of the high-tech industry. Another feature is the digital News Library, where readers can call up more than a million articles, including all stories in the Merc published since 1985 plus the archives of nineteen other Knight-Ridder papers. Readers can run free searches that return a list of headlines and the first graf of every story. Beyond that, only subscribers can get full stories, paying a minimum of twenty-five cents apiece.
As an example of how journalists can employ the near limitless space of the Web to add depth and context, consider how the Chicago Tribune used its website to memorialize Mike Royko after he died April 29. (www.chicago.tribune.com) The interactive tribute includes fourteen news stories about Royko, an electronic message board where some 700 readers had posted messages by the end of May, and an archive of dozens of Royko's best columns.
Tribune Company is a partner in an interactive feature called Digital City, which offers entertainment, lifestyle, and community information at the local websites of newspapers in its chain, such as The Orlando Sentinel. Digital City (www.orlandosentinel.com) is a direct competitor with Microsoft's online city-based service, Sidewalk, which gives readers similar community information, including movie and restaurant reviews, and theater guides.
Boston.com (www.boston.com) has set the standard for convergence -- the coming together of once separate media, print and electronic, in a digital, networked environment. The site provides not only an electronic window into Boston's arts, weather, and commerce, but also gives you access to the online content of eighteen local media, including The Boston Globe, Banker & Tradesman (Massachusetts business news), and WGBH, Boston's celebrated public broadcaster.
For quality original o nline news content, The Nando Times -- the technologically innovative website affiliated with The Raleigh News & Observer, a McClatchy paper -- has helped set the standard.(www.nando.net) One of the site's hallmarks is its interactive Nando News Watcher, which uses "push" Internet broadcasting technology to broadcast, or "push," content to the user. The News Watcher continuously feeds customized local, regional, national, and international news to your computer screen, where it retreats to a small window when you are using another application.
Among small-city papers distinguishing themselves in the online arena is the flood-battling Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota (see page 14). The 38,000-circulation daily has used its Northscape website to serve its beleaguered community. A number of news websites include access to The Wire (wire.ap.org), the site introduced in 1996 by The Associated Press that provides continuously updated breaking news. New Jersey Online and The Dallas Morning News were the first to run The Wire, but they've been followed by many others.
BUSINESS AND FINANCIAL
The best offer a combination of straight reporting and analysis, plus features not possible in print or broadcast media. Bloomberg Personal, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, and CNNfn all provide near-real-time stock quotes updated regularly, as well as financial research tools, such as company profiles. CNNfn (www.cnnfn.com) also offers an interactive mortgage calculator for people trying to figure how much house they can pay for. Rich Zahradnik, vice-president of CNNfn Interactive, says "page views" -- a more conservative and accurate count than "hits" -- at the site have increased from about five million a month in 1996 to some thirty-six million a month. And Lou Dobbs, anchor of CNNfn and executive vice-president of CNN, contends that the interactive capabilities keep people lingering at the site, a challenge for new media publishers, who find the Net-surfer attention span is short.
Business Week Online, a finalist for the National Magazine Award for new media this year, also has services and material to hold the user's interest. (www.businessweek.com) Bob Arnold, its editor, notes that Business Week Online includes every word printed by the magazine and its international sisters, as well as a daily briefing culled from Standard & Poor's and from news items filed by the Business Week staff around the world -- primarily reporting that might not find its way into the magazine because of space or timing. The site also offers a searchable electronic archive of Business Week dating to 1991 and expanded coverage of one of its franchises, the ranking and evaluation of business schools. Since technology is an important subject in the magazine, Business Week Online offers "Maven," a computer buying guide produced in conjunction with National Software Testing Laboratories, another McGraw-Hill property. The site has been host to more than 300 online conference and chat sessions on America Online.
The most popular online news is about information technology. CNET: The Computer Network, is a combination of websites, and it publishes perhaps the premier website on computer developments for the general consumer audience at its News.com site. (www.News.com)
Ziff Davis's ZDNet publishes infotech news and product reviews geared for professionals. A recent special report, for example, reviews CD-ROM drives of every speed and type. Readers can customize the report, requesting a graphical display of the drives, say, from best to worst in terms of a variety of characteristics such as speed, performance, or ease of installation. The site also offers downloads of more than 1,000 software packages. And it provides news, which readers can customize for six subjects, issues, or companies. All free.
CULTURE, OPINION, AND POLITICS
The Web has produced a set of chic and well-traveled destinations for the digital literati, the best of which engage readers in discussions and push the storytelling envelope. Some are connected to print publications. One of the most visited sites is HotWired, the online cousin of Wired magazine, which features commentary on new media issues. (www.hotwired.com)
The recently renamed Atlantic Unbound, the online offering since 1993 of The Atlantic Monthly, has offered readers an electronic window into politics, society, the arts, and culture. (www.theatlantic.com) In addition to content from its print sister, Atlantic Unbound offers a variety of interactive features, including "Post & Riposte," where readers discuss political and cultural issues raised in the magazine, as well as online-only articles.
Among those innovative Web publications unconnected to a paper parent is The Netly News, a Pathfinder creation of leading cyber-journalist Josh Quittner. (www.netlynews.com) Besides writing provocatively and critically about the evolution of the Internet, Quittner offers a Digital Sandbox, where visitors are invited to play with new technologies and gain first-hand experience.
Salon (www.salon1999.com) offers all the traditional intellectual fare of an opinion magazine, plus a meeting place for compelling online discussion as well. Called Table Talk, the discussion zone was inspired by a model developed at "The Well," where the first significant online community was born in the spring of 1985. Salon, as much as any online publication, tries to give its readers that elusive sense of belonging.
One of the most discussed sites is Slate, the Microso ft start-up edited by Michael Kinsley. (www.slate.com) Heavily promoted, Slate offers a rich set of articles and commentary on culture and politics, such as David Plotz's assessment of "Ralph Reed's Creed," or "Selling Seals of Approval," John Merline's investigation of how companies get charities to endorse their products. But Slate doesn't offer many digital bells and whistles, and critics say it does not fully exploit its online capabilities. It is also one the most parodied online literary offerings. One send-up, called Stale, (www.stale.com) recently traced the "surprising parallels" between changes in wind patterns and Clinton's electoral popularity.
These sites on the Web may not necessarily raise the journalistic yardstick, but they are compelling because they so effectively exploit the Web's capabilities.
The best overall sports reporting online is at ESPN SportsZone and CBS SportsLine. Both provide immediate coverage of games, after-games-analysis, and much more, from live-game statistics to interactive reader polls to video and audio highlights. Most of this content is free, although more specialized coverage is available for small monthly fees.
The Sports Network runs a distant second to these premier general interest sports services, and adheres to a more traditional approach to sports reporting with fewer interactive online features. Sports Illustrated's SI Online provides mostly repackaged content from the magazine, though it had plans to increase its original content as part of a partnership with CNN starting July 1.
THE ONLINE FUTURE
News content on the Internet has been evolving through three stages. In stage one, which still dominates most news sites, online journalists mostly repurpose content from their mother ship. In stage two, which gained momentum last year and characterizes most of the better news sites, the journalists create original content and augment it with such additives as hyperlinks (with which a reader can instantly access anothe r website); interactive features such as search engines, which seek out material on specific topics; and a degree of customization -- the ability to choose what categories of news and information you receive.
Stage three is just beginning to emerge at only a handful of sites. It is characterized by original news content designed specifically for the Web as a new medium of communication. Stage three will be characterized by a willingness to rethink the nature of a "community" online and, most important, a willingness to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Often this is "immersive" storytelling, which allows you to enter and navigate through a news report in ways different from just reading it. Sometimes this might be done through new technology. Just one example: Rob Fixmer, editor of CyberTimes, says that The New York Times is experimenting with omni-directional imaging, which would permit you to explore a 360-degree field of vision. Such technology will allow viewers the experience of "entering " a live or recorded news event, or to see a still or moving photo in three dimensions.
But the promise of new media is not merely about dazzling technology. Most serious news organizations know that young people are turning to online media.
News organizations know too that audiences for online news in the future will be drawn by a site's unique content and perspective, and by its quality. New media represent the future. For editors and for publishers, a commitment to quality online news today is the best way to ensure that your news organization will be there when the online business matures a decade or more from now.