Francis Rizzo
Journalism and Mass Media Studies Department -- School of Communication
Journalism 150 -- Independent Study
Advisor: Steven Knowlton

The discipline of print journalism has taken many hits lately. The level of readership of newspapers has been steadily decreasing in recent years. Paper costs have been steadily increasing. There seemed to be a big enough threat to the welfare on the dailies that a multi-million dollar advertising effort for newspaper awareness appears on that one-time nemesis television, across the country, utilizing celebrities to extol the virtues of the printed page.

And as print journalism weathers the storm from the problems of passing time and cultural shifts, a new enemy looms at the horizon. A strong foe, this new warrior in the journalism arena poses a hefty challenge for the venerable ink-stained armor of newspapers. This opponent is quicker, has a better reach, and worst of all, costs less. This dreadful creature? The Internet. And with each day, it flexes its muscles a little more, taunting the print world. At last count more than 3,600 news websites were available on the Internet. But at each turn, a new chink in the electronic armor of the World Wide Web shows itself, and more questions are raised against it. Will the Internet be as destructive to newspapers as television was supposed to be, or do we just have a different version of USA Today to look forward to?

SHOULD PRINT JOURNALISM FEAR THE INTERNET?


The Internet, that valuable source of rumor, innuendo, and cyber-porn, has established itself as a major player in the world of consumer journalism. Merrill Brown, MSNBC's editor-in-chief, claims his site, a cooperative venture from NBC and Microsoft, is visited by 800,000 to 900,000 users each day. "This would make us the fifth-biggest newspaper in the country, were we in that business," he said.

But if they aren't in the newspaper business, what business are they in? As an archive the Internet is unlike any other. It can store multitudes in a compact area, and easily recall its enclosed information when asked. For this purpose, known as "shovelware" in the industry, it is unmatched. No other medium has offered as much information to as many people at one time, and it should be lauded as such an innovation.

But what about its position as a competitor to the daily papers? Does it stand on its on? For most people, no. There are very few mediums as compact, portable and easy to use as a newspaper, and in this battle the Internet loses dramatically. A computer requires electricity, hardware, software, an Internet connection, and a source to present the news to you. A newspaper requires a pair of eyes and a paper. User-friendly indeed.

In the long run, the Internet may be more cost-efficient to read than your daily 50 cent New York Times, but the start-up cost is prohibitive for most Americans. An Internet-ready computer is the norm in middle-class America, but what about the rest of the United States, the majority of our society? According to recent surveys there is a large gap between the haves and the have-nots of the cyber-world. If reading a newspaper came down to owning a computer or not, it is a good bet that the majority of readers would soon own the prefix ex- for their descriptions. That doesn't even include changes in technology that may occur.

These arguments are of course based in the idea that there isn't a level playing field between print journalism and on-line journalism. To help this examination, let's say that everyone has access to the Internet. Now which is going to succeed? To decide this debate, one must examine what has made newspapers an American institution. Timeliness, trust, content, and other criteria should be examined before handing newspaper's crown to the Internet.

BEATING THE CLOCK


The most obvious difference between the print and on-line mediums is timeliness. On-line news sources can be updated constantly with breaking news or additions to stories, instantaneously giving the reader the most up-to-date information. Once a newspaper has gone to press and is in the reader's hands, it is a closed book. There will be a 24-hour period before the next update. The news could be completely out-of-date before it reaches the reader. In a business in which whoever is first is the winner, the Internet wins hands down. There is no way to compete in timeliness with a product that has no boundaries of time.

Unfortunately, the Internet's major advantage has also shown itself to be a major weakness. In its rush to get information ready for the next 'scheduled news program," a term used to describe updates, simple steps are sometimes missed, giving proof to the old saying 'Haste makes waste." Waste is this case takes the form of missed facts, poor copyediting or, in some cases, out-and-out libel.
For more information on Internet "scoops" read J.D. Lasica's article "Get It Right, Get It Fast"

On February 4, 1998, the Wall Street Journal posted a story on their website alleging a White House steward was a witness to a private meeting of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Shortly after the on-line publication of the story, the Journal recanted its story, saying that its source backed out. By that time a number of papers across the country had picked up the story for their print editions.

A similar situation occurred with The Dallas Morning Times, where a story about Lewinsky was posted on their website, and then removed a few hours later. This story received a much larger amount of coverage in the print media creating an embarrassing scene for the Dallas Morning Times.

Many critics blame the Monica Lewinsky story and, in particular Internet personality Matt Drudge, with fueling the rush to get any kind of information out to the public without any checks. A rush of false reporting hurt the reputation of several papers and caused a backlash among readers. Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC's 'Nightline", said it succinctly, 'If you succumb to competitive pressures and you're willing to sacrifice quality and context and completeness, I think that's going to rear up a bite us in the ass."

The San Jose Mercury Center, one of the first news sites with dedicated reporters, watched the Lewinsky story play out and analyzed the "first come, first win" scenario. Managing Editor Bruce Koon said, "In TV, you're dead if all your competitors have the story and you're holding back. On the Web, readers can find lots of sites reporting speculation and rumor. But then they say, 'OK, now I want to know what really happened.' They want information that has been vetted through all the usual checks and balances and that only happens with a little bit of time."

With the continued push by news 'channels" on the Internet, the pressure to get that big story out first will become an increasingly difficult voice to ignore. Competition will increase the value of scoops and breaking news to news sites and may cause the reporting of half-stories and unsubstantiated stories because of a fear of coming out last. It is up to the new media to utilize the ethics that have served print journalism well for so long.

AND NOW FOR A MESSAGE FROM OUR SPONSOR...


If the results of timeliness has affected the public's trust, how would the commercial aspects of the Internet affect it? One of the biggest questions surrounding Internet news operations is how does one make money with a website? So far, the answers have been inconclusive. The selling of subscriptions has been avoided for the most part due to the competitive nature of news and the free nature of the 'Net. Almost all items and information on-line are free for use. In fact, according to surveys conducted by Georgia Tech, very few people actually buy anything on the Internet.

A grim notice for the future of Internet profitability was served in March 1998 when the New Century Network, a venture formed by the publishers of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and several other respected papers to put newspapers on the Internet, folded its tent, citing economic problems. If the biggest newspapers in America couldn't draw sponsorship money, how are smaller companies going to be able to make money?

Some don't care if they make money. Some newspapers have developed websites to help augment their paper, placing longer versions of printed stories on the Internet, or developing sections solely for special reporting. The Chicago Tribune has an on-line news staff that covers more local stories and in-depth pieces that may not be practical for the print version of the paper, but finds a home on the limitless space of a website.

But for other papers, websites are a part of the widespread push for Internet profits. According to Fred Mann, General Manager for Philadelphia On-Line, many sites are created more out of a fear of being left behind, because no one knows if there is truly any money to be made on the Internet. In fact, it is possible that the websites could lead to greater losses as they may draw away customers from news in print form. CNN provided substance to these fears when they canceled their subscriptions to print newspapers in February 1998, asking their staffers to read the news on the Internet, saving the company $500,000 a year.

To combat economic difficulties, websites have been seeking advertisers to sponsor areas relevant to their products, hoping to entice ad dollars that can help pay for the site. These advertisements have raised questions about the ethics of on-line journalism in relation to the money-making end of operations.

For almost the entire history of journalism, one of the hard and fast rules of journalistic ethics has been the separation of the business and editorial departments of a newspaper. The biggest fear behind this separation was the possibility that business matters would interfere with fair and unbiased reporting. By not allowing either side to come into contact with the other, an invisible wall was placed between the two that helped to avoid potentially unethical situations to arise.

The 'wall" has begun to erode in the world of on-line journalism. Many on-line papers have sponsors for sections, for example, Barnes & Noble bookstores sponsoring the book review section of the website through commission deals on their on-line sales. This brings about questions that make editors cringe. Doesn't it look like the reviews may be influenced by the financial dealings of the site? Will these deals in a tight advertising market give the sponsors an increased leverage to affect coverage?

Some say no. Hotwired's Brooke Shelby Biggs says that on-line journalism isn't that same animal as its print sibling. 'You can't apply the ethics from the old media to the kinds of information and editorial content you'll find on the Web," she said. Tim McGuire, editor and senior vice president for new media at Minneapolis' Star Tribune sees how the deals could be problematic for papers but gives a simple solution for preventing difficulties: 'What exists in newspapers and what we've got to translate into on-line is that we are independent and not for sale. That means advertising cannot ad will not affect coverage. It also means that you must not fool readers about what is advertising and what is news and information." McGuire advocates simple statements acknowledging the advertising preventing any confusion.

University of Illinois journalism professor Eric Meyer disagrees with this mixing of news and business and blames the 'new ethics" of on-line journalism on the scarcity of money on the 'Net. In a post to an on-line news forum he wrote, 'On-line we call it intelligent marketing... Why? Because it's money, and money is in particularly short supply on-line." His argument is centered on the appearance of news becoming commercials. He continued that news organizations 'have an active financial stake" in the topics they cover. 'Any way you cut it, however many rationalizations you try to make, coverage becomes an unethical shill for a product."

The future of on-line journalism is very much dependent upon there being a present for the medium, and without money that will not happen for long. Sponsorship deals seem to carry the risk of potential kickback in the form of preferential treatment in the press, a weighty coin in which to deal.

The answer to the conundrum surrounding advertising may be in the passing of time. In the magazine industry, advertising is hard to come by for newborn magazines. Advertisers tend to place their bets with the tried-and-true, where they are sure to be seen by an established audience. As the Internet establishes itself as a real medium through which people will receive their news, the advertising initiative may switch, forcing the advertiser to chase the content providers, instead of the current situation that raises the questions of ethics.

CREDIBILITY?


As the questions swirl around on-line journalism's ethics and advertising practices another question is growing in momentum. Is on-line journalism real 'hard news" made to inform and educate or is it another form of 'info-tainment" created to grab ratings and advertising dollars? The answer to this question lays in the laps of 'net-izens" for the most part. The users of the Internet will decide what speaks to them most, whether rumor or fact is more appealing and the victor will be decided in how many user sessions are recorded by each site.

While being a drawing presence, the technology involved in building websites may be one of the largest stumbling blocks to credibility. The bells and whistles that are woven into the Web are designed to be attractive to a generation that grew up on television. A generation that may grow bored with static text, will be drawn to video clips, audio feeds, and chat rooms. A sensitive balance between news and content will be necessary to maintain an image of authority to keep the trust of newshounds, while providing a cutting-edge image as well to entice Internet users with a casual interest in news. As Fred Mann wrote in The American Editor magazine, 'Can you be both authoritative and cool? (You're parents couldn't.)"

While the users' trends will influence the future of news sites, the creators of the myriad of websites available will also hold the fate of Internet news in their hands. According to Network Wizards, an Internet analysis firm, there were 16,000,000 Internet hosts in the world in January of 1997. According to their numbers, the amount of Internet hosts will reach 100,000,000 by January 2000. Of these sites, Editor and Publisher magazine has found 7,000 newspaper sites. The proliferation of news sites has been blamed, in part, on the so-called "Gutenburg effect." This idea says that because anyone with access to a computer can post information or opinion to the Internet, the word 'publisher" is meaningless. In effect, everyone is a publisher.

In the past, the right to publish was somewhat protected against abuse by the sheer cost of the process. Publishing was not a business every man could be involved in, preventing the spread of callous and libelous words by a person on a whim. Today, a person like Matt Drudge can post a rumor on his website and by 6:30 p.m. the story is leading the evening news, only to be corrected sheepishly the next day. The harm will already have been done though, to the victim of the rumor and to the reputation of journalism.

So how could the town criers of the 'Net, one of the biggest threats to on-line credibility, be controlled by the news sites. An attempt was made to regulate news on the 'Net through a seal that would be used by approved sites to signify that they were trustworthy. This idea just raised more questions, including the one that has been asked forever: 'Who decides what is news?" The group that would oversee the ratings project handed out and denied the approval on their own guidelines, creating controversy and invoking the dreaded first amendment argument. Time Inc., one of the main groups involved in fighting the ratings, said in their press release, 'We believe that the First Amendment would be endangered by any effort to apply ratings to the suitability of news."

This, and other, arguments over on-line ethics have tempered the enthusiasm over the Internet as the new news. As much of the Internet is new to journalism and has opened doors and raised questioned never asked by the printed page, the Pandora's box that was opened when on-line news began will continue to haunt the cyber-newsroom, waiting for the Internet version of The New York Times v. Sullivan to help define the boundaries of the on-line news sandbox.

Yet, ultimately, credibility may not be an ethics or quality question. The economics of the situation, a factor that seems to weigh heavily on all parts of Internet journalism, may force on-line news to redefine itself. In April 1998, the Australian Olympics committee announced a policy that slashed Internet coverage of the 2000 Summer Games to the bare bones essentials. The reason behind this move was the effect of the coverage of the 1998 Winter Games.

The Internet coverage of the games in Nagano, Japan set new records for Internet usage, while television coverage set new lows in viewership. Determined to help the medium that pays hundreds of millions of dollars for rights, the Olympic Committee came down hard on the multimedia presentation of the game on the 'Net. Video coverage on the Internet is completely banned from the 2000 games, while on-site reports will be limited to pool coverage. Just as newspapers saw the threat of television on its kingdom, television is now learning that the Internet is a potential adversary.

There is one more option for on-line journalism's credibility. Because of the open flow of information that characterizes the Internet, there has been discussion that the very idea of news will change, rendering the credibility issue moot. Michael Riley, head of the political website allpolitics.com, said, 'There is a possibility in this media to do some very good things if we don't let our fear destroy the potential."

The idea of a new form of information, one moderated by people, is championed by Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet and founder of 3Com. This 'community content" would carry the power of a conversation between neighbors, a fitting metaphor among talk of a global community. The words of your fellow man may fall upon ears that block the media, and become acceptable as fact. The push toward further interactivity on the Internet through chat rooms and bulletin boards may be the first step toward a society in which news is passed by word of mouth instead of through the Fourth Estate.

The chances of this happening are slim though, if the current status of society is taken into account. With a decreasing rate of literacy and an increasing dependence upon the mass media for information it isn't likely that the 'unwashed masses" will rise up and throw off their info-shackles. More likely, the Internet will take the place of town meetings and newsletters, effectively passing word along through communities, while news will be received from authoritative sources, returning to the question of who are the authoritative sources on the 'Net?

TELL ME ABOUT ME


There is a trend on the Internet by many news providers to offer personalized 'news-casts", in which only the topics that the user has interests in will be covered. This idea fits in well with a very individual, have-it-your-way society like America. By offering to trim away the 'unimportant", a news site can grab that person who doesn't have the time to hear about a story that might affect them. It also offers an attractive audience to advertisers, with ready-made demographic groups to aim at, with no advertising dollars wasted.

This new trend is coupled with a new Internet development known as 'push technology." With push technology, a news site can send their content directly to the consumer, without them having to 'surf" for it. This eliminates time wasted by the user, creating brand loyalty in the user towards the helpful news site that graciously places its information onto the hard drive. It also avoids the chance that while surfing through a search engine for news, that the user will come across another site that may attract their attention.

The idea may sound new but it has direct parallels to the print world. As Steve Harmon, senior investment analyst for Mecklermedia, the leading Internet trade show firm, noted, 'Any magazine editor knows you'd rather have readers fill out a subscription card rather than go to a newsstand with 500 titles, which is what you now have with the Web's hunting and gathering tools."

Yet many critics have reservations about the use of push technology. The services that provide the use of push technology are sometimes called the 'Daily Me," a description that explains the problem seen in push technology. The main feature of the software is the ability to chose to be told only the news you are interested in. A person who only wants to know the latest football scores, what's on television tonight, and their horoscope can set their Web browser to tell them those items and remain blissfully ignorant of the rest of the world, thus, the controversy.

Allegra Young, marketing manager for USA Today Information Network, pointed out the obvious conflict push technology has with journalism when she said, 'There's a lot of unpredictability about what news makes a difference in your world. To be a well-read citizen, you need to know more than what you woke up thinking you needed to know." If a person hasn't chosen an area of interest they won't find out about it unless they utilize another news source in addition to the Internet. As Vin Crosbie, a new media consultant in Massachusetts, puts it, 'Push won't replace the morning newspaper that you read over your morning coffee, at least in the foreseeable future, but it's a valuable personalized supplement to your news diet." In allowing this 'narrow-casting", the people behind push technology are then providing the opportunity to create a 'quasi-informed" society. To combat criticism of their focused news delivery some of the 'webcasters" have set policies for 'news flashes," news stories that do not fit into a user's profile, that the webcasters have decided are important enough for everyone to know about. Of course, this just sets up the question of 'How do you decide what everyone should know?" Or as Leah Gentry, managing editor of Excite, a search engine and information service, puts it, 'At what point do you stop respecting the wishes of the user and start feeding them what you think is important?"

A responsible journalist gets all the facts for a story but can they force a person to listen to all the facts they find? Push technology may make the customization of news possible, but the experts point to a different future for pushing information. Push will be especially valuable for highly focused, specialized information that would take hours for a person to compile on their own. Some uses for it may also be found in watching the real estate market, stocks, or in looking or a car. A prospective buyer could be alerted when the item they are looking for becomes available.

The potential of push technology is high with its chance to keep news watchers informed like at no other time in history. But if the technology continues to be used with extreme customizability its power will be wasted. The overseers of push technology should take a second look at their products and decide if their ethics will allow them to help the continued growth of a segmented population based on information.

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER


The current hierarchy of news grows from local papers, radio and television to the network newscasts that cover the big news. The range of coverage within each level is relatively set, with little competition between the levels.

The separation is maintained by the fact that a person in New York cannot get the local newscast in Redwoods, California while a Seattle resident isn't able to get a West Palm Beach, Florida newspaper. There are limitations on time and space and broadcasting rights that prevent such a widely-spread level of information distribution.

But on the Internet the difference between continents is minuscule, so the separation between the coasts is minimal. A person can find out what is going on all across the country just by accessing the local newspaper or television station's website.

The information will be as complete as it is anywhere due to the proximity.

Which raises the question... if local news sources cover local stories in a more in-depth manner, why should network or national news exist? With the world getting smaller, information that one would only be able to get from a national news source is now available right from the local newspaper that has been covering the story for weeks. And unlike a national source, the local will have more follow-up stories and may have covered the story on a few different angles, giving a more complete understanding of the event.

E.W. Scripps Company put this idea to the test in Florida when it banded its several newspapers with its television station to present a news Web for Florida. Stories from each local source were placed together, with in-depth reporting from their beat writers. The site has had success with this formula resulting in increasing traffic at their site.

The idea was put into work on a much grander scale in Canada. The Canadian On-Line Explorer, or Canoe, banded together the major newspapers of each province and created the definitive "national" Canadian website. Smaller stories are covered by the local paper for the site, while stories of a larger scope, like the attempted secession of Quebec, are covered by all of the papers, each providing a local viewpoint on the story.

In theory, this seems like the perfect antidote for national news, removing the small 'big picture" story and replacing it with a series of stories profiling the entire scenario. When the camera pulls back from the one-story example though, the problems begin.

There are 50 states in America, each with hundreds of papers. Each has their 'big" stories and each deserves to be considered in the scope of national news. But how does the average, casual news watcher decide what to read with a myriad of choices before them? The national news sources handle this duty for us currently and do a decent job at duplicating our decisions.

The national news takes on the role of a clearinghouse for us, applying a different set of news values to the country's news, and providing us with 'the best of the best." Stories that affect the largest amount of people, or have serious consequences or provide helpful information will make the cut before an unusual story out of Tennessee. We will miss out on a lot of important stories, that will hopefully find their way to our papers, but overall we will be better informed by having more time to read, with less time spent searching.

HAVE WE SEEN THE FUTURE?


The Internet has been shown to have many benefits to the world of journalism. Its ease in distributing information, its ability to update constantly and its lack of constraints in page space are all attractive features to print journalists, at least those who don't fit the mold of the grizzled reporter who longs for his manual typewriter.

Yet it is obvious that there are also many problems with on-line journalism, starting with a problem that has been called 'code first, ask questions later." The lack of an ethics guidebook for this new medium has created an atmosphere of renegade reporting, in which the old rules of journalism have been disregarded. An industry-wide standard must be put into place to maintain the integrity and respectability that journalism has fought for all these years. If not, the words of a journalist will carry no more weight than those of a gossip columnist.

If all of the factors surrounding on-line journalism are considered it seems that the funeral for print journalism will have to be delayed once again. The two mediums should not be adversaries though. If properly coordinated, the new media and the old media could combine to create the most informed society in the history of the planet. A noble goal, and a reasonable one as well.