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Hot on the Web

Journalism warms up to the 'Net

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 13, 2005
(Issue 2319, Starting from Scratch)

Journalism has had a love-hate relationship with cyberspace, with the hate being dominant the past few years.

Which is interesting, because it was news outfits that were among the first businesses to see the potential of making money by providing content electronically. Before the Internet was made public, the San Jose Mercury News was offering a subscription dial-up service in the mid-1980s. A purely text-based environment based on the bulletin board system software of the era, this product allowed subscribers to read the newspaper online each day.

It took the arrival of Timothy Berners-Lee's HTML and the resultant World Wide Web to make online newspapers visually attractive enough to be a viable alternative to the print product, but even so, the Mercury News' eager embrace of technology was not, apparently, contagious.

While nearly every newspaper today has an online version, there remains in the newsrooms and the advertising department a significant faction that believes the Web site is undermining the paper's existence.

And to be honest, they may be right – why should someone subscribe when they can get it free online? Online ad sales remain flat, still recovering from the overload of banner ads in the late 1990s – and so few online editions make any real money.

All of which brings up the question of why have a Web site if it's losing money and hurting the print edition? And the short answer is ... The Auto Trader.

Nobody in the newspaper biz saw The Auto Trader coming. But the arrival of The Auto Trader – a specialized publication with nothing but classified ads for used cars – took away the bulk of used-car listings from urban and suburban newspapers' classified ad listings, costing the papers a significant amount of their regular revenue, revenue that they've never recovered.

Thus, newspapers' Web sites are a proactive response to new technology – fueled by the fear that if the papers don't put up a local Web news site, someone else will. (Interesting side note: is now making some serious headway against The Auto Trader, which was slow to provide a top-rank Web version of its print products.)

A warmer attitude

Even more interesting than all of the above has been the response of newspapers (and to a lesser degree, TV news programs) to blogs, or web blogs.

The initial response was hostile – that all of these amateurs were running around pretending to be journalists were going to give reporters a bad name.

Then, during last fall's election, some newspapers began running their own election blogs – and found a ready audience!

So now blogs are being touted as journalism's salvation in some quarters, while others still warn that they will bury us.

On other fronts, though, the attitude of the journalism establishment is decidedly warmer toward the 'Net.

It was just a year or two ago that Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists – the largest organization of reporters and editors, and one devoted to improving the industry – was warning about the dangers of using e-mail as a method of interviewing people.

Now, the March 2005 issue has a cover story on how to properly use e-mail (and for my money, it's mostly right on the mark). While some still worry that you can't tell if someone is lying in an e-mail, I'd point out that very few reporters have the omniscience to tell when someone is lying in person – this whole argument that we can tell from someone's body language or facial expressions how honest they are has about as much scientific validity as phrenology. Journalism schools don't offer psychology classes on conducting an interview – and even if they did, most psychologists will tell you that lie detection is highly inexact, and inaccurate.

So – now e-mail has been officially added to reporters' repertoires, and that can only be a good thing.

Teaching online journalism

With this explosion of online news sites, published by both newspapers and broadcast outlets (and a handful of new online-only operations like the American Reporter, Salon and Slate), more and more journalism programs in colleges and universities are offering online journalism courses.

For instance, I teach a course titled Electronic Journalism at Point Loma Nazarene University. The class covers not only writing, editing and design for an online news operation, but also using databases and spreadsheets in a newsroom.

But what I've not had in the five years I've been teaching the class is a texbook.

Now, that's changing, too. I recently received two different textbooks to review for possible use in class – "Online Journalism: Principles and Practices of News for the Web" by James C. Foust, and "Online Journalism: Reporting, Writing and Editing for New Media" by Richard Craig. Both actually seem quite good (I should point out that Craig is a friend and former colleague and quotes both myself and former ComputorEdge editor Ken Layne in his book). And there is apparently a third text on online journalism from the University of Michigan – but they don't provide preview copies, so I can't comment on it.

Whether I assign one of these books next year or not (and after five years of teaching without, I'm still not sure – I have until July or August to decide), the point is that journalism as an institution is slowly starting to accept the Internet, both as a delivery medium and as a research tool.