[The text below is an edited transcript of a discussion that took place on November 5, 1998 at MIT.]
HOW JOURNALISTS SELECT THEIR TOPICS
John Driscoll: Since there is a tremendous number of possible topics to write about, I'd like to know how you choose your topics? What kinds discussions do you have with your editors and what role do they play in the stories you write and how you write them?
Amy Harmon: It's hard. I am constantly having to juggle because I write for the "Business Section" and the "Circuit Section." Now the national editor wants me to write about the elections in Cyberspace. The story about hackers in Mexico ran in the "Foreign Section." The "Week in Review" wants stuff too. It really is indicative of the fact that technology has become more pervasive in our lives. I have one editor who is supposed to help me decide what the priorities are. News plays a big role. Whatever seems to be most often news at the moment.
Julian Dibbell: I'm in a different position from both of you, not being on a daily and not being hooked up. I've been freelancing for my entire career. Even when I was at the Voice, I was the one bringing whatever story I had to the editors. At the time, they couldn't set the agenda for me because nobody knew about this stuff. Now people have an idea and it is more competitive. So I have to be thinking not just about news, because I am not there at the newspaper on a day-to-day basis. I have to be thinking about stories that aren't news-pegged.
We have this incredible spectrum here, from the anti-hip antichrist on my left to our great generalist here, on my right and myself, and we are all able to find our stories and that is because this story has gotten so big, so protean. I would say this is also partly due to the nature of the technology itself, which a lot of you know about better. The universality of computing technology and the infinite number of applications it has, as well as people's inventiveness and play, all contributes to why this is seeping into all aspects of the culture and why we, as reporters looking for stories, have an embarrassment of riches.
Hiawatha Bray: Mine is going to be a mundane answer. Basically, it depends on what's going on. I have a sort of an interesting position because I write a column and I also write spot news about whatever is going on and that is the way I want it.
Question: Is that a conflict of interest?
Hiawatha Bray: Yes, in fact, that is a good point. There are times when I will not columnize about something because I have been covering it too directly. So I will leave it alone and focus on something else at least until it has had a chance to cool off. We're careful about it, but we don't want to be too religious about it. However, as a general rule, that's just what I do, and I think that was a good point to make. Anyway we have to keep an eye on what's going on.
As always happens on a daily newspaper, since I am the person on the beat, I am expected to come to the editors and say, "Hey you guys, we need to write about this." That's what happened in the case of the Halloween memo, for example. I was doing my usual morning troll through various things and I stumbled on one of my favorite places, "Slash-Dot," a very techie-oriented Web site where Linux people are found in great profusion. It was there that I saw a notice about the Halloween memo so, I ran to the editors to say, "this is what I am doing today." And they said, "go away and do it."
Other days, although I hate to say it, we are always looking to see what The New York Times is writing about and what The Wall Street Journal is writing about because there will always be an editor who says, "Hey, this story is in the New York Times, why don't we have it? Why aren't we going to follow it?" And I always want to say, "No, no it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter!" I try to talk them out of it, but that's generally how it works where I am.
Amy Harmon: I should say also that The New York Times has at least four other reporters covering technology so those aren't my stories he read. I'm in very good company. There are at least four other reporters covering technology for the "Business Section" and three full-time reporters covering technology for the "Circuit Section."
IS THE CYBERBEAT STILL A BEAT?
David Thorburn: Next week one of the people who will speak at part two of this event is the man at The New York Times who helped create the "Circuit Section" and was one of the pioneers in getting the Times to become so much more widely and systematically interested in cyber coverage than it had been before. I think that Amy's point is a crucial one. The fact that The New York Times itself is now so deeply involved in the coverage of cyberspace and has a cyber presence of its own, that is quite powerful, profound and important, in many ways is a signal that what had been a specialist beat is now becoming a universal territory -- just as Amy and Julian have said.
Ron Newman: Do you see a time that is not very far in the future when the Cyber Beat will disappear? Amy is talking about how her stories are appearing in Foreign news, they are appearing in Science and all different parts of the paper that are not the Cyberspace ghetto. If you look in The Boston Globe or The New York Times these days, you don't see very much space devoted to Automobiles, you have maybe one column that is in a very obscure part of the paper and which hardly anyone reads. Do you see a time when the Cyber Beat will get reduced to that?
Hiawatha Bray: I suspect that eventually, yes, it will disappear. Or it won't disappear, it will be like you said, with the Auto coverage or with the TV listings or something. You don't have anything in the newspaper like, "how to set your vertical hold" in the TV listings. And this is just what is going to happen. You remember Arthur C. Clarke's famous line about technology? "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I think he was slightly off. He should have said, "Any really advanced technology will be invisible all together." And that's what's going to happen with all this stuff. It's the way of the world. I still write occasionally about IRQ settings: That's ridiculous! That's going to go away. And you're right, eventually what we're going to be seeing is Cyberspace listings, debates going on on the Internet, political, social, economic, business coverage, but writing about the minutia of the technology is going to go away.
Amy Harmon: That depends on how you are going to define "Cyber." My predecessor on this beat was Peter Lewis who left The New York Times to start a company which didn't work out, so he came back and is now a columnist. He was the first reporter at a big newspaper to cover "Cyberspace" as a beat, while the rest of us were just covering "technology." I think that the grappling of how new technology effects the world, our lives, our culture, is going to go on for an indefinite period of time. And I see myself reporting on that tension and I don't see that ever disappearing. Maybe the people who cover healthcare and retail will incorporate stories about the Internet on their beats, but this sort of ongoing cultural struggle is not going to go away.
Julian Dibbell: I would second that. If you look at the history of what we are calling the Cyber Beat, as we have all documented, it has looked so different at every stage of the last few years. What we know now as the Cyber Beat is already going away, but these stories keep occurring. I'm amazed at digital technology. The stories that keep spinning out are full of dilemmas and the need to adapt and understand, like the Open Source thing that you were talking about. My God! This is an incredible transformation! This is the ultimate melt-down where you have a business story that I can actually get pumped about.
Hiawatha Bray: Well, I agree with you there, I am very pumped about Open Source as well, I think it is fascinating.
Julian Dibbell: You've got 16 year-old kids that are leading this campaign to do a clone of Windows.
Hiawatha Bray: They are not 16 year-old kids.
Julian Dibbell: Well, not for the most part and yet, that's what I'm going to write about.
And then for me on the music beat, the MP3 piracy story. That's just an incredibly transformative thing and all of this is coming right at the point where I was about to say, "Ugh, who needs this stuff anymore?" And this has happened every year.
Hiawatha Bray: Well, I think we are not really disagreeing with other because I'm talking about the beat in terms of the technology which I happen to write a lot about, about the hardware, the software, etcetera. That part is largely going to go away. But you're right. The stuff that you guys are talking about is going to go on indefinitely, just as people still write a lot of cultural criticism about television, theater and all that other stuff. Yeah, that's going to continue.
NEW BANDWIDTH AND ITS IMPACT ON CHAT ROOMS?
Sam Fuchs: Coming back to your analogy about the street, what I find missing is street talk. I don't know how much time you really spend on it, or chase stories about the business side. It is as if you are looking at the construction trucks to see who's bringing the bricks, but I find too little of what's going on. I spend some time on some chat forums and most of them are very boring, but it is fascinating to me what will become of them when the bandwidth allows that interaction to go See-You-See-Me. A lot of this stuff is going on on the sex sites, not because of the sex and smut, but because it is where people are trying to meet in the most open ways that this medium makes possible. So I find too little of that being discussed.
On the other side with the mortar and concrete, I thought you were going to talk about what this means for you as journalists writing for a paper. I look at The New York Times online every morning, so I am still reading the New York Times in a certain way. So I want to hear about that whole issue of paper versus the medium and what that means to you as professionals.
Amy Harmon: In answer to your first question, I wrote a story that The L.A. Times, to my great surprise, ran on the front page with the headline, "Virtual Sex Lies in Cyberspace." It was about the chat room. I don't know if you are specifically talking about what goes on in chat rooms where people meet to flirt or do more than flirt. I think that has been written about in the mainstream press ad infinitum.
But I agree with you that, certainly, one of the fascinating things about this medium is the extent to which it shows that there are an awful lot of lonely people and they are looking for each other. And maybe they are not just lonely. I don't mean to say there is something wrong with them. Our society produces these people who are in search of something and they are looking for it there.
Julian Dibbell:But there is also the problem of what is news. I sympathize with your perspective. I keep wanting, as I said, to come back to the question of what are regular people doing with this and the problem is you got to sell the story to an editor who has got to sell the story to a public. The editor is going to say, "Well, we did sex chat." And you say, "Well, yes, but there this big bandwidth stuff coming down the pike." My feeling is that we are through the phase where "guess what's coming down the pike" is really interesting. That is also distracting from what is actually going on in those rooms.
So it is a very hard story to sell as news. It depends on the outlet. If you are talking about something like Harper's Magazine or a monthly that is more interested in this kind of a story, then you might have an easy sell, but they are also interested in what's news and what isn't. So what you do is look for stories. And in the case of the rape in Cyberspace story -- that was a lucky thing. There had been virtual community stories, but there was this weird and particularly odd and gripping story that had happened in this one part. And I don't know if I could find it again because the search space is so much broader now and the number of competitors out there looking for that story...
Hiawatha Bray: Well, I looked for that story and I couldn't find it so I think you are all right there.
NEW TECHNOLOGY AND ITS IMPACT ON JOURNALISM?
Hiawatha Bray: As for the second half of the question, about what technologies we are using to do our jobs, that is really quite interesting. I think newspapers tend to be extraordinarily behind the curve in terms of the actual deployment and use of technology. The Boston Globe, for example, ought to have a net-based way for all of its reporters all over the world to stay in touch with the front office and we don't have anything of the kind. There is a clunky, old fashioned 3270 terminal type method for dialing into the The Boston Globe mainframe that is totally unsuited to doing journalism nowadays, but that's pretty much what we got. Half the people in the newsroom are still working on dumb terminals, basically the old A-tech system. Little by little, they are deploying PCs and they are rolling them out in these waves so that some people are still working on 16 MHz Pentiums and a bunch of people just this week got 300 MHz Pentium IIs.
It's a very strange place and it gets confusing. What happens in the newsroom is that people like me, who are much more hard-core about using the technology, become the regional experts on the Internet. Of course I get to be the Internet expert for everybody at my end of the newsroom. But thorough deployment of the technology has a long way to go.
Amy Harmon: I thought the question was, will The New York Times survive and in what form? I think that eventually -- and I won't hazard a guess as to when -- there will have to be some device created on which to read the newspaper and it will be a lot different than the PC. It will have to be portable and offer the same convenience as the paper. Eventually the newspaper won't exist. But I think The New York Times as an entity will continue to exist.
Hiawatha Bray: I'm sorry, I regard that as such a distant prospect that I didn't really think that that's what you were talking about. I believe in the words of former Novell CEO, Mr. Frankenburg, who once said in a speech that you will see paperless offices about the same time that you see paperless bathrooms. I don't think paper is going to be replaced any time in the foreseeable future. And I honestly didn't realize that was what you were asking, because that is such a remote possibility that I don't think it is an issue anymore. And there are very few people I know who are expecting to see that. I don't know if you have seen these E-books that are coming out now. The books that are coming out with the $400 devices that substitute for a book, which is all very well, but you are left scratching your head, wondering why not just buy the bleeding book? And having the newspaper on the Web is not going to make the paper version go away. I don't see any sign of that.
Julian Dibbell: I think there are near term changes. I'm not as close to the institutions as these guys, so for me it is more of a question of what it is doing to the sense of timing to have to compete with your own Web site, which can get things out so much faster. Alternatively I wonder on the one hand, whether getting into the new media is enlightening newspapers and magazines about the ubiquity of these things so that they don't have to treat them as exotic realms anymore? On the other hand, is it skewing their coverage towards a certain part of new media that looks more sexy to them because they are invested in it? Everyone knows that email is still the "killer app" of the Internet and mail lists are still this incredibly rich thing that was looked at for a while and then we moved on to be excited by this new media thing with graphics and blah blah blah. Is it not sexy just because it's not sexy to the culture anymore? Or is it not sexy just because the media themselves are sort of getting sucked into the romance of the Web itself? I don't know.
Question: We are talking about the older generation of people who got used to picking up their newspaper at their doorsteps and taking it into the living room and reading it at the breakfast table or reading it on the train. But they were conditioned to do that. It was going on since W.W.I or even before that time. People were looking for the news and they were impatient for it to be delivered, so that they could get it from their front step. But, today, the younger generation is conditioned to the speed of the modem and if I see on my computer that something is not coming up within 10 seconds, I'm thinking that my computer is down. Also the younger generation are not avid news readers, they are not going to go pick up The New York Times. There are still commuters who pick up the traditional newspapers as they travel from the suburbs to the city. But if you can get all the news more quickly while in your office on the Internet, how long do you think the newspapers will stay in business? And how long will people continue to read the paper if they have not been traditionally conditioned to read it?
Amy Harmon: I think that the publisher of The New York Times might respond to that question by saying that the news that you're getting in quick doses from whatever online news source you look at is not the same as the news that you get when you read The New York Times. The challenge for a paper like The New York Times is to continue to add value to the news and to provide the kind of insight and the kind of writing that you can't get on-line.
Hiawatha Bray: Actually this is an old problem. People often restate it as if it were just happening. I mean this started happening when people were getting crystal sets. As soon as radio came along, newspapers had to start dealing with it. But in all fairness it has to be said that newspapers haven't dealt with it. It's a problem that has yet to be really solved by newspapers and it wasn't caused by the Internet. This really started with radio and television. Newspaper readership has been eroding in this country ever since and the Internet is going to have some effect on that. You've seen some evidence of that in the slowing and even, in some cases, the stoppage of circulation of some newspapers.
But I think there are hard-core readers out there who are going to continue to want the thoroughness and consistency and the ease of use that a newspaper provides. Frankly the newspaper is the Macintosh of information handling systems, I mean you can just grab it and stick it under your arm. Why in the world would you want to carry a computer around?!
John Driscoll: Bear in mind that though the circulation may be down, the circulation revenues are up.
ETHICAL DILEMMAS COVERING CYBERSPACE
Dick Anthony: Do you face different ethical dilemmas than your counterparts who aren't covering Cyberspace? I'm thinking of a story that was circulating three or four weeks ago about a hacker program called "Back Orifice" which was supposed to disable Windows machines. You put that story out there and kids who want to disable Windows machines will go looking to download that program. I suspect there are other dilemmas that arise around pornography sites and similar things and I just wonder if you have to look harder at stories just because you're putting out certain kinds of information that could get picked up and used in a way that may be nefarious or, at least, potentially harmful to innocent people or machines.
Amy Harmon: That's something that John Markoff, my colleague, deals with a lot because he often is the first to find out about security flaws. For example, he wrote a couple of stories earlier this year about security flaws in both the Netscape Browser and Internet Explorer. And there was the question, "when is the appropriate time to put this out there? Should we wait until the companies come out with the fix? But we have the news story now. So, what to do?"
Actually for that particular genre of story, that's a question for the whole computer security community. It's been a big debate about which is the better approach. Should we tell people about the flaws or should we keep it private? Companies typically don't want anyone to know that somebody has violated their security, but there is an argument that it is best for the community as a whole for people to know about it. So there is no hard fast rule that we have, but we do grapple with that.
Hiawatha Bray: I caught some flak from AOL one time because of their browser issue. This was back when the Internet Explorer browser had that famous and thoroughly outrageous bug in it that would basically let people plant little commands on their Web pages so that if you clicked on a particular icon, it would tell your computer to wipe out your hard drive. The Internet Explorer browser actually allowed you to do that! Microsoft issued a fix for that, but AOL used the IE browser on their software and they hadn't gotten around to issuing a fix. I said I was going to write about that and some vice president from AOL said, "You can't do that." And, well, yes, we did. Because that was a case where it seemed to me that the readers needed to know that that was a risk and all they had to do was not use the AOL browser to be safe. So, I figured we better tell them.
There were other times when I wrote about something that I don't think you guys covered anywhere near as well as you should have -- there was this guy out on the west coast who broke into a computer on the Internet that had 150,000 credit card numbers in it. He put them on a CD-ROM and tried to sell it to an undercover FBI agent. Unbelievable. This was one of those rare computer crimes where somebody from the outside of an organization could effect that much potential economic damage. And we were very careful about writing about that to avoid giving away the techniques he used to do this. That was an issue where you really thought to yourself, "We want to tell people that this is going on, but we are not going to give anybody out there a clue about how to do it."
THE META AND THE MUNDANE OF CYBERSPACE
David Margolin: I hear sort of a tension at some level between what I will call "pure meta" on one hand -- starting with Julian's quest:" I'm looking for the answer to cultural hegemony and the Web is it" and it's not really even about the Web or people using computers, it's about cultural struggle and with that the whole story of technology superimposed on things: the Internet of healthcare, the Internet legal, the Internet here, there, and everywhere. Then on the other hand, Hiawatha comes in with what he so proudly called the "Mundane" which is "this is just more of the same, it's business as usual, people are interesting and the technology is interesting, but it's not some radical new movement." So, it is not "meta" at all from your perspective.
Hiawatha Bray: Well, that might be an exaggeration, but it sort of applies, yeah. I do think that some of the more revolutionary claims for it have been oversold.
David Margolin: So in the middle there is Amy, sort of oscillating really nicely. You started out kind of mundane with "I can use a modem; therefore I can write about Cyberspace." And then you go into the "Meta" -- cowboys, legal wrangling, right? I mean you are superimposing everywhere. But then she comes back into the pure mundane with Uncle Louie and the story about the confessed murder where only two people would go to the police. From my understanding of the Internet and the way I have studied it at Harvard, it seems to me that what's beautiful about the Internet is the intermingling of the meta and the mundane, that both are always present -- community, communication are always in play when you're talking about the Internet and there isn't this tension. Whereas you people seemed to have set up a tension between the meta and the mundane when what's really fascinating is that both are happening simultaneously. And I was wondering whether you would address that?
Julian Dibbell: I think the fact that I can find an exciting business story in all this stuff and that, Hiawatha nonetheless was obliged to use the word "Cyberspace" once in a column, indicates that yes, that is what's interesting about this phenomenon: That it contains multitudes, and I think also, as Amy very excellently explained it, this moment in the history of the beat is really about that coming together. And if I started from the "Meta," it's because I was talking about where I came from, and the things that motivated me and how I was trying to find a plumb line through all of it. But part of that meta that I'm talking about is also always about bringing us back to the way this stuff gets used in people's lives.
ETHNOCENTRISM AND THE INTERNET
Vanilla: I had hoped the issue of ethnocentrism would have been addressed in this forum. When I was growing up in India, I was used to reading news about the rest of the world through the eyes of western journalists. But now that I have grown up and traveled across the country, it strikes me as very odd that an African looks at India through the eyes of John F. Burns and does not question it. Whereas, if an African reporter was reporting a story about India, the viewpoint and angle would be entirely different. Maybe the most salient image in a story about Calcutta would not be the crowds, the dirt, and disease, but something else. The Web gives a voice to the little nations, so that they can talk about themselves. But by covering Cyberspace as yet another suburbia, you are subverting that opportunity. I would like to hear your reactions on that.
Hiawatha Bray: That's actually a very good question, I'm not sure that it has much to do with Cyberspace, per se. Don't misunderstand me, you are absolutely right, now with the Internet availability, I can read The Times of India, if I really want to read it. Don't get mad at me, but I don't really want to read it, and I think that's the problem. All over the world, you would find the same thing. The mere fact that information is available on the Internet tells you precisely nothing about whether or not people are going to desire that information. And I don't know if that's a technological issue as much as it's a cultural issue.
Amy Harmon: I guess I'm not sure what you mean about covering Cyberspace as another form of suburbia. In a way, I agree with you that that has been done. The point that I was trying to make is that it shouldn't be looked at as another space anymore, it should be looked at as "this is the world; this is part of life."
But that doesn't really address the question. I certainly get sources from all over the world. I think that it does affect what I do. I had a story that ran on Saturday for which I talked to people in Portugal and Mexico City and England about the kind of political activism that they are doing and their use of hacking to advance their various causes. I couldn't have done that without the Internet.
David Thorburn: I'm tempted to make a quick comment: as the director of the Communications Forum, I got some e-mail from some fellow in the midwest after this pair of events about journalism was advertised. He said that because the price of even fancy computers had come down so radically in recent years, he had managed to establish a neighborhood newspaper for his tiny little community in Iowa. I went to his Web site and saw that it talked about the local football game and then if you clicked further it talked about a local sex scandal in the high school and he claimed that he felt that one of the functions of this new technology would be to empower an immense range of neighborhood papers on the Web, because it was so inexpensive to do so. He believed that there was going to be a new network of very neighborhood-oriented forms of discourse. It seems to me that that's something that hasn't come up, but is worth thinking about.
Hiawatha Bray: That's related to the very issue that just came up. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde's famous line about socialism -- it takes up too many evenings. It's all very well to talk about how we are all going to communicate with each other in these wonderful communities of our own creation. But there's a limit to how much communicating we can do. I mean I'm not going to read The Times of India; I've got other things to do here.
David Thorburn: Residents of Ames, Iowa might prefer to read the Ames, Iowa neighborhood newspaper and they would have the opportunity to do so.
Hiawatha Bray: Oh, absolutely!
JOURNALISTS' ACCOUNTABILITY AND ACCESSIBILITY VIA E-MAIL
Question: Hiawatha I thought you had a good point in your original presentation when you mentioned the accountability that comes about as a result of having your email address published in the newspaper. I was wondering why you don't see that with every story in the Globe or New York Times, especially since the Globe has had some problems lately with accountability. That's not a dig, but if Mike Barnicle had had his email address...
Hiawatha Bray: The answer ties in to something I said earlier on, The Boston Globe is actually a technologically backward newspaper. Everybody more or less has an email address, but setting it up, so that everybody's email address is on their byline, would be a little messy because a lot of people don't have good email clients, they don't have computers to run them on and until that happens I don't see the rest of that happening for the reporters there.
Amy Harmon: I think that's part of the reason for The New York Times as well, not everybody uses their email so it would be false advertising to readers to lead them to think that they could actually have contact with people. But The New York Times web-site does provide a list of reporters who do answer email or at least accept email. I put in a special request to the web site people that my e-mail address be added to the end of my stories. Not only does it hold me accountable, but I also get lots of story ideas that way.
Question: But I'm curious if you think it should be more of an institutional thing rather than just voluntary. It's nice that there are a handful of people who want to get e-mail.
Hiawatha Bray: Absolutely. Ultimately we should all be set up to do that and it should become standard practice for every newspaper in the country to have: "Hiawatha Bray, Globe staff, Bray@globe.com"
Amy Harmon: I support that.
David Thorburn: What about the amount of email that you are beginning to get? How much time do you spend responding to email?
Amy Harmon: It is insane. I actually only started putting my email address at the end of my stories on the Web site a month or so ago, because I did not realize that it wasn't already there. Now in response to the Linux story for example, I received hundreds of emails. I try to answer it all with just a "thanks for the note" unless there's a substantive question, but email overload is a problem.
David Thorburn: And not just for journalists of course. Anyone who has been using email knows what happens.
Hiawatha Bray: Actually I don't get that much. I get dozens and dozens every day, I don't get hundreds and hundreds. On a typical day I will get 50 to 60 emails and I get much more than that whenever I write about a highly controversial issue. Whenever I write about Apple, I literally get hundreds of email.
Amy Harmon: Linux is worse!
Hiawatha Bray: No, not really. I get a fair amount of letters about Linux, but not that much. I think it is because when I write about Apple, I have often done it from a fairly critical perspective. I think the company, up until recently, has been very badly-run, and I've said so. On the other hand, when I write about Linux I write as a booster. I love Linux, I think it is so cool even though I don't really understand it, I tinker with it and go "Oh Wow!" And I think they like that and don't bomb me with mail.
Amy Harmon: I think it is a real problem of etiquette that is going to have to evolve, because I think it is great to have readers and reporters interact more. It makes for better journalism, but I need to have time to do my job. I also don't want readers to think that I am ignoring them so there is sort of a disconnect there which I hope will be solved.
Julian Dibbell: One of the things we are starting to realize now is that we are in that phase of "Oh we thought that this was going to be a great leveling medium where writers would be totally accountable to their audience." But there are still all these asymmetries hardwired into it and it is just not possible for you to have this wonderful intimate conversation with your readers.
Hiawatha Bray: Yeah, well, there were certain very silly people early on who were saying, "Everyone can be a journalist now, thanks to the Internet!" And of course that was rubbish. The skills that you need to be a good journalist are exactly the same as they were before. It still takes the same kind of time, it still takes the same kind of research, it still takes the same kind of resources. Just because you have the Internet, the only difference is that the Internet is a good printing press. That's the only part it really substitutes for.
Question: Robert Cutner, whom you know very well, wrote something in The Boston Globe a week or two ago, where he was, basically, addressing this question. He was basically saying that we have the sense that we can multiply the number of relationships we can manage by means of this technology, but it is just not possible. You cannot manage that many relationships.
I think you know that I am active on the Internet, I manage two lists and put out various emailings and so forth. I once mentioned that I picked up a book at a local bookstore and someone from India asked me if I could pick up 6 books for him at that store! Part of me does not want to respond and the other part of me reasons that this guy wanted to know about robotics and Japan and W.W.II and so forth, and that's interesting!. So I get caught up in the interest of it and that is the kind of tension that I feel everyday.
INFORMATION OVERLOAD AND JOURNALISM
Reid Berkowitz: First I would like to offer some support to Hiawatha and say that I have been very sick of reading about the bleeding edge and multimedia, and I think it is time to get back to people and things that sustain and things that have value in everyday lives.
Hiawatha Bray: Well, I don't want to sound like I am knocking all that stuff. I read about it just like everyone else. I just don't want to do it.
Reid Berkowitz: Well, I enjoy it too, but I enjoy it in the way that I enjoy fiction or popular movies, which is that I get a big kick out of it and then I go back to my real life. I think sometimes we tend to focus on that as real life. You know, like being a hacker is what it's all about. Just like when we look back to the sixties we think that everyone was doing drugs and having free sex with each other which isn't exactly the case, I was working in a bank. So, looking back on this time period, you'd think that we were all smuggling data code into the United States.
But I would also like to ask you first as Internet journalists and then as journalists in general: we are living in a time now (since Noam Chomsky has been speaking it is fairly common knowledge) that information is growing and PR and exposure has attained such a value that everybody wants you to know what they are doing. I think there is a certain romantic vision of a reporter ferreting out a story, digging and getting the scoop on something. And now it seems that, here, in the modern world, and especially in Cyberspace where you are dealing with a lot of business and a lot of information -- more information than we ever had to deal with before -- part of a reporter's job is to sort the information and to find out what's valuable and what's not, what your readers want to read and what they don't, and that process just seems to be getting enormous because you can put as much information as you want on the Internet. In a small town somewhere or in New York in the 1800s you had to know someone and there was only a certain access to the information. Now everyone is screaming just as loudly about what they are doing. How do you cope with this on the Internet and how do you cope with this in reporting general? Do you think it's a general trend?
Hiawatha Bray: Man! That is just what it's like. It's unbelievable! We get buried alive with this stuff -- trying to figure out what's important and what's not -- I am not going to stand here and tell you that I am good at it. I don't know sometimes. There are times when I am covering something, and I think to myself, "Is this what I ought to be writing about?" Because, basically, we exist to be manipulated. This is the drawback to covering this stuff. I love it, I am fascinated by it, I love being around computer business people, but all of them are, basically, out to manipulate me, and I am constantly trying to figure out which is the thing that matters to the reader and which is something that this guy is doing because he wants to bump up his stock price? Sometimes I just don't know which way to go.
Julian Dibbell: I would say that I don't know that it's true that everybody gets to yell at the same volume just because there's the Internet there. That goes back to what I was trying to think of as my guiding principle: there are still institutions that allow some people to have louder voices than others. Capital is right up there at the top. And so you are still hearing more loudly from business interests, and from political sectors who are related to those interests and the job for me with my sensibilities, is to filter through those louder voices and try to hear the quieter ones. And it's exciting because now you are able to find them. But again there is also the problem that there are so many people out there in the chat rooms of America and the world, where do you find the stories? But that's where I try to listen.
Amy Harmon: I used to make a point of returning all phone calls that I got even if they were from PR people and I don't do that anymore, nor do I read their email because it is just too much. Part of your question was that everyone wants to tell their story and that is certainly true. Certainly, every Internet business out there wants their story on the front page and you have to have your filter on high.
Hiawatha Bray: You do get the sense of this constant manipulation, this constant effort to impress upon you what they think you ought to think. A classic example is Microsoft which is phenomenal at trying to saturate your brain. I am not saying this in a hostile way. That is what they are supposed to do, and they have one of the best oiled PR machines on the planet. It works and it's wonderful, but you are always sort of edgy about it. You are never completely comfortable.
VIDEO AND THE INTERNET?
Gilberte Hobart: I am a Media Lab alum. I am sorry this is the last question, but I was a little depressed when you said we were at the end of the definition phase and that there were no more stories and nothing exciting was happening. I have been struggling with a business plan, I'm just another one of those people trying to get rich -- by the way, it is very, very hard, especially if your husband is starting a company and everyone is saying, "You're crazy! Why do you need two start-up companies in the family?" So, what I was trying to express in the first part of this business plan was, what about television and broadcast journalism and video?
Here at the Media Lab I worked on interactive video and TV News. If you have ever tried to log into this system, it feels a little bit like the Internet in the early days, but it's all video. One thing I learned about video is that it's about bringing people to the screen and email is about people, so there is a lot to be said about how television is going to move into this medium. Television is a cultural icon in itself. It's a technology, but it's also a cultural phenomenon. And how is that going to transpose to the Web? People already have Webcams on their babies, cameras are getting cheaper, newspaper journalists have cameras, so the big question is, what do you think about it?
I also have a side comment on start-up companies: One thing I observed while I was at the Media Lab is that there are more and more start-ups and for me that is a cultural phenomenon. There are more and more students who are actually taking advantage of the Internet to follow a passion and start a company, because they don't fit into the current businesses. Andy Lippman, conductor of the Media Lab, told us on the first day, "If you find a job when you graduate from the Media Lab, we did not do a good job."
Amy Harmon: I certainly did not mean to say there are no more stories. There are new stories. So the story of the Internet and Cyberspace and what-is-this-new-world from '93 to '97 is over. But there are new stories, and yours sounds interesting.
Gilberte Hobart: The point I was trying to make is that, for me, the next wave (and of course I have a huge bias) is that video within the next five years is going to be a huge phenomenon. And what is this going to be and how is it going to fit with text which is primarily what the Web is about?
Hiawatha Bray: Well, I think we saw the implications for video recently with Clinton's testimony broadcast over the Internet. The real significance of that is, not so much that it was over the Web, but that you actually now have on the Internet the very crude beginnings of something really useful: true video on demand. They indexed it so that you can go now to certain Web sites and get any given chunk of video and you can watch just that part. I think that is a very practical, very useful technology that's been promised by Cable Television for years now and hasn't really been around. The only thing holding it back on the Internet is the bandwidth. There is nowhere near the bandwidth necessary, but the Internet has the underlying computer technology that you need to just take chunks of video data and pick the one chunk you want and broadcast that just to you. I think that is the big area in which the Internet combining with video is going to matter.
Julian Dibbell: I would just reiterate something that Hiawatha alluded to, which is, if you feel frustrated at the moment by the media's unwillingness to address this as a sexy possibility, remember that we got burned badly on this one. Remember the Information SuperHighway? 500 channels? that was the thing that really kicked this off as a media story and we are still waiting. So we are going to be very wary about anything to do with video. High bandwidth is sort of a dam now, behind which a flood of stories is building up, and once those fat pipes get into the homes... don't even hire a PR person!