[The text below is an edited transcript of a discussion that took place on November 12, 1998 at MIT.]
HOW WILL JOURNALISM ON THE INTERNET LOOK?
Julian Dibbell Rob, you brought up the point that the old model of the news article, the vertical model is not going to work in these environments. I am just wondering, is there a model emerging for how a story will work or if we will even call it a story anymore? What is the shape of the text other than the obvious things you can do like simulations and things like that. What does a story look like now?
Rob Fixmer: Oh I think you can have a straight news story, I did not mean to imply that you couldn't. When I was sent over there I was asked to find out what we had to do to use this medium. A television station can put up video, a radio station can put up audio; the Web really is all things to all people, but what I was talking about was what do you need to do to use this medium in its own unique way to provide information in a way that you couldn't do before.
Julian Dibbell: And the question is, is there a unique kind of story that the Web calls for?
Rob Fixmer: Well maybe you don't call it a story anymore, I don't know.
David Thorburn: Well, I remember one story in the Cyber Times worth mentioning here. It was a photo essay. They had a series of very powerful photographs by an eminent photographer. The text was very minimal, but the photographs were eloquent. This was a year or so ago and it struck me as an interesting, modest way of using this visual medium to do things a printed newspaper couldn't do.
One other example occurs to me: the "Book Section" of the New York Times online is an important aspect of our literary culture now. The site gives you access to reviews going back to 1990, to first chapters of new publications, to audio recordings of novelists and poets reading their work. The site allow you to listen to Vladimir Nabokov reading from Lolita and Pale Fire.
Rob Fixmer: Yes, unfortunately you can also order a book from Barnes and Noble at the bottom of the page, which is, I think, one of the dangers. Reid was talking before about the marketplace and how Classifieds were what everyone is worried about. Classifieds are the reason we are on the Web. That was what sold our board of directors. And I think that we have gone too far. That is my personal opinion and I have never kept it a secret. I think we went too far in the contract with Barnes and Noble. I don't think that we should have taken a percentage of the books sold not because I think there is any chance that a reviewer would mold a review to sell more books. First of all, most of our reviewers are hired to review books because they are experts in the field. They are not associated with the newspaper and they don't care if we make a lot of money or not. But just the appearance of a conflict of interest is enough to damage our credibility over time. Now in fairness, that is a very small part of that contract, but it is there. It is very controversial and I think it is another one of the dangers that we face in this medium, I think that too often editorial and business intersect. I am sure that a publisher would have a different view.
Ingrid Volkmer: Actually I would rephrase your question, I would not ask, "How should a text look," I would ask, "How should a story or topic be covered?" A very good model of international journalism in that respect is CNN's report. That is the program where broadcasters from around the world sometimes cover the same topics from different world angles. You can then understand how a certain topic which is discussed here is understood in other world regions. And I think that the Internet could contribute to this kind of understanding and to a global relativism of topics. Since we heard about how one should provide a context for a story, I would also suggest that there be some links to the same topic covered in another country or in another medium in that country.
Question: Have you seen anything like different global perspectives on the same stories in Internet clearing houses?
Ingrid Volkmer: Not in this research. It is difficult to find. I am a user of CNN's Website and they sometimes link to other world regions, but even they don't link to an article published in an online version of a Russian or African or Asian newspaper and I think that would really contribute to a real global understanding and to the Internet as a global forum.
Reid Ashe: The question is are there stories that lend themselves to this kind of treatment and I will throw out a couple of ideas. One thing that the media have never been as good at as we should be is helping people who disagree with each other to understand each other's positions better. That is partly because of the traditional mindset with which journalists approach conflict; we tend to see it as a win/lose situation and we handle it as scorekeepers. We prize conflict over resolution. We've got a medium here in which we can help people see each other as humans and perhaps interrogate each other, understand each other better, and people can participate if we do it right. I can't give you any good examples of this, but we might have some opportunities there.
Another example of what this is good for is sports. I have a theory that my entire sports staff disagrees with vehemently and that is there is only one reason we are interested in sports and that is it is a tribal urge. I never gave a flip about the Buccaneers until I moved to Tampa and now I do. Why? Because the people around me care. This has become my favorite working definition of news. News is whatever is of concern to the people around me. It's a tribal thing. We know that only a minority of the people who read any newspaper have any interest in sports whatsoever, yet we devote an inordinate amount of money and effort to cover it because the people who are interested in it are interested in it with real intensity. If you look at the bulletin boards on my newspaper's Website, there is one that overwhelms all others and that is the one devoted to the Buccaneers. So sports is one of these tribal kinds of functions that the new medium lends itself too.
WILL TEXT PREVAIL?
Mike Ketross Despite David Thorburn's discussion of the audio and visual enhancements that can be obtained this way, just about everything that has been referred to with respect to content involves the ability to read. Is that realistic? I think that we are finding fewer and fewer people willing to take the time to really learn to read dense text.
Rob Fixmer: I don't know. I watch my children --maybe they are not a good gauge, but my kids, because of computers, were typing at 6 and 7 years of age. They now read at a level, and have a measure of understanding about world events, that I would never have dreamed of as a child. I see this happening in other places too, when I go to talk to high school classes. I am always amazed at how in tune they are. I didn't really care about anything in the world until the Vietnam War came along. I'm finding now that those places we would have considered disconnected parts of the world are very important to them and they are reading a lot more about world events than I remember doing in my generation. That is just anecdotal.
Reid Ashe: It's hard for me to answer because obviously I come to this from the print medium. Newspaper reading has sort of settled in as a habit of the educated well-off in society and the challenge that I face is to push the frontier outward to reach more people. The Internet today is primarily a textual medium and it overlaps the newspaper's natural audience to a large degree. In the next few years you will probably see a lot more than text.
WILL PAPER PREVAIL?
Holly Gates: I work for an electronic book company and my question is related to how newspapers will transition as more people gain access to low cost electronic dipslays and devices which can carry information content like newspapers. It seems that now newspapers have only marginally invested in online representations of their works. They seems to supplement the print version but we haven't seen a reduction in the amount of print that comes out of newspaper companies. My question is how much are the newspaper companies tied to the business of selling paper to people? Is the reason why we don't see full versions of newspapers online and a reduction in the amount of paper coming out of trucks and being stuck on the street because penetration of electronic access is still only one out of four or five? And if that ratio becomes four out of five will newspapers be glad to stop selling paper and more than happy to continue to provide quality reporting and news online?
Reid Ashe: I think you are going to see such a change on the geographic fringes first. Remember the economics of the newspaper business are such that we have a very large manufacturing and delivery expense that is not at all covererd by the price that the reader pays. So the only way we have a viable proposition is for the advertisers to be willing to subsidize this process very heavily. Advertisers have become more sophisticated in recent years. They tend to develop a much more precise idea of the geographic targets they want to reach and so therefore the geography in which the economic formula of newpapers work has become more constrained. When you get into the electronic realm you bypass all of that big manufacturing and delivery expense and you can reach out farther.
At my newpaper -- and I don't think we are atypical -- we have been pulling our distribution in more tightly and we are delighted when folks from Tampa, who go up to the North Carolinian mountains for the summer, still read our newspaper without our having to manufacture and ship one up there for them.
MARKETING BOTH REAL TIME DATA AND THE PAST ON THE INTERNET
Jock Gill: I think that John Savokla, formerly from the Harvard Business School, has come up with a really interesting analysis that sums up the problem of the press: the press is stuck in the time zone of the intermediate. Because of the mechanical requirements for production you are never very timely.
What the Internet is all about is the time zone of the immediate present. I want to see the scores of the game I just went to, I want to see the news as it is happening right now. There is something else that the current media is no good at but the Interent is excellent at, which is the time of the indefinite and infinite past. In his terms you could "extract rent" if you collect data from the past and can package it in context and with value. For example, if you wanted to watch a key sporting event from the fifties you couldn't because no one saved the tape. But if the tape had been saved, someone could charge a lot for you to see it.
The current press is not thinking in terms of the time zones of the immediate present and the time zones of the indefinite past and how to extract rents from those two times zones which the mechanical and paper-based press can't deal with very well.
You never know information is going to turn out to be amazingly valuable. You never know which little league player is the next Sosa and if you could come back and capture his little league victories you'd have an immensely valuable asset for which you could charge rent.
Rob Fixmer: Yes, but that's why we give away our paper every day online and charge for our archives. We are very aware of what you are talking about. Our newpaper online is basically a loss leader for our real revenue generator which is our archives.
SIMULATION IN THE PRESS
Curtiss Priest: I'm intrigued by the use of simulation in the press. I believe it's a very good way of having people learn. Here at MIT we would use simulation to help, for example, the Dept. of Labor to decide how to protect a worker from lead in battery plants. We'd simulate that for the Dept. of Labor and we'd come up with certain savings of lives and so forth. That project here at MIT costs the Dept. of Labor around $100,000 it was a good simulation model, it involved two or three people working a good number of months. I'd be curious to know the level of resources it takes to do the level of simulation you've done. Is it a big loss leader? Do you foresee doing many more?
Rob Fixmer: My budget for the HIV simulation was $3,000 and I came in under budget on it, so it was a relatively simple model and not particularly expensive. But I have to say that you are focusing on one kind advantage this new media has. Before this began today, Ingrid was telling me about some things that she has done with students from around the world. In terms of understanding the past and the present, those sorts of things are very inexpensive to do and they go to the heart of a lot of what you are asking here, which is how can we enhance the human condition or make ourselves not just better informed, but better people? I think that is the assumption here. Models are one way to do it, but just communication, just bringing people together, which the Internet does better than anything else that I have ever experienced, is probably the most pswerful part not just of the medium itself, but of what we can do with it as journalists.
Ron Newman: Something about the segregation simulator is very seductive, but I am concerned about the potential for something like that to mislead an audience either because there is a programming error which is hidden from the user or because some other organization, not as scrupulous as the New York Times, could put out something which fails to describe judiciously that which it is supposed to describe. When you put out something like that, unless you put out the source code that goes with it, you are asking the users to make a very great leap of faith that is not malicious, but erroneous. I am wondering if organizations that put out these kinds of simulations have a responsibility to make the source code behind them available to the public so that the assumptions can be checked.
Rob Fixmer: I share your nervousness in that regard. All I can say is that you're right the best way is to share the code. We have done that. We began doing that with the HIV calculator. If you go to the tutorial you can get the code. We do that with simulations because we know that we are being read by people who can challenge what we are doing. We are not programmers, we are journalists. I want people to critique it. We have not had anyone claim that any of our stuff was mis-programmed. We try to be very careful obviously, but... I just read today that Microsoft is short 5,000 programmers. Can you imagine how hard it is, with the money they pay, for us to hire programmers? Especially programmers who aren't interested in journalism? So we publish all of our code and we invite people to play with it. In the case of compiled code, we invite them to recompile it; in the case of Java we invite them to play with the scripting and the code.
JOURNALISM AND FORUMS; WILL JOURNALISTS BE
THE FUTURE TALK SHOW HOSTS OF THE INTERNET?
Steve Brown: My question relates to the roles of validation, certification, moderation issues development. We've all taken part in discussions at a meeting where a topic is discussed and then you are put in small rooms to discuss it further. You have a telback and you go through iterations. Are you aware of any Websites where journalism approaches that? Is anyone attempting to do this in an iterative process where the role of the media is to moderate and focus and validate and connect?
James Carey: I don't know of anything as such. I do know that the Bergen County Record makes available its facilities for the formation of forums on public issues. That is, it encourages what it calls self-publishing by its readers by providing them the opportunity to form themselves into interactive communities online. It says it does this for editorial reasons, but it also sells advertising on it and therefore it is not simply a loss. It isn't moderated in quite the way that you speak of it, nor is it validated in any sense, but it is the constitution of the community as a political forum around a range of topics. Now the Times does this, does it not?
Rob Fixmer: Yes, it does, but it is not something that I am very enthusiastic about. I think that we've had some good expereinces bringing in outsiders. I think that we all feel very uncomfortable in that function as journalists. For example, Bernie Gortsman, who was a colleague of mine at the Website, and was a former foreign editor, and before that he covered the State Dept. through all of the Kissinger years. He moderated the forum on Bosnia that was probably our liveliest forum -- our sports forums are OK -- but the Bosnia forum was almost too dynamic. There was a lot of vitriol. Bernie stepped in to moderate it at times just because everyone was attacking everyone else and it became very, very difficult. He soon decided that we should hire outside moderators to moderate these things. It is just not the role that any of us want to play. We want to maintain at least the illusion of as much objectivity as we can.
Steve Brown: Let's say I went to your Website, we already used the example of the HIV simulator, let's say I wanted to respond with a question about the code. The moderator could then direct me to folks also interested in that subject. Another person might be intersted in the medical aspects, etcetera. So the media's role would be to take the incoming data, allocate it into issues, then at some point when they see an opportunity to pull it together to give an overall insight, they intervene. It would be an active management of keeping people apart until there is something of value. So you get the issue of validation and certification.
Rob Fixmer: That is actually a very interesting concept, but I don't know of any place that is doing that.
Reid Ashe: I don't either, but it makes a lot of sense.
James Carey: one might say, in fact, that the future of journalism is in argument and discussion and not in information which we can get in all sorts of places. So that's what it's going to be as facilitator and validator. I've been trying to get data all week out of Minnesota, because the Minneapolis Star and Tribune has now had about ten years of organizing discussions throughout the state -- it facilitates the formation of political groups on and off the Web. It got the highest voter turn-out in the country. The national average was 35, it got 60 and it wasn't just Jesse Ventura. In fact, there was a terrific story there about the formation of independent political movements outside of the normal channels of politics.
Ingrid Volkmer: I wanted to make almost the same point. The question is what can cyberjournalism really contribute to this communication culture? Is it really just a means to gain popularity by bringing together people who care about the same issues into news groups or chat rooms, or is its role to establish a kind of authority to guide people through this huge world of information where it is becoming more and more difficult to find the information you really want or to find reliable sources? Actually I'm a little reluctant to say that journalism should just become a kind of moderator of issues. And we haven't spoken about the new providers like America Online. How do they change things, what kind of channels do they provide? Are they narrowing the information world? I have the feeling that more and more Internet providers are becoming programmers of the Internet. And I feel that about the organization of journalism on the Internet as well.
POLITICS and JOURNALISM
Joel Rosenberg: Democracy is potentially one of the big uses of the Internet in the future. I am wondering what you guys are doing to popularize politics and bring it to the people? What are you doing to organize the tons of information that is now starting to appear? You have an AIDS simulator, do you have political simulators or something like that to show how, if everyone voted, it would change all of our lives? Are you doing something like that to get people more involved in the process?
Reid Ashe: I could suggest that the online bulletin board is a kind of very crude democracy simulator. It gets people into a safe place where they can interact with each other on the level of ideas.
Did you see on November 1st in the New York Times Magazine, Nicolas Lehman wrote a piece called, "The New American Consensus Government Of, By, and For the Comfortable." The operative passage in there said that since the great depression and through World War II, America evolved into a mode in which we expected the central government to solve our problems. And that consensus is being set aside now in favor of a new kind of consensus that says the role of government is not to solve our problems, but to give us the tools to solve those problems ourselves.
I think that makes a lot of sense and that creates a real challenge for journalists both of the traditional and of the online variety because it means that we can no longer cover our town from city hall. We have to get out into the neighborhoods and find the people who are using those tools that they've been enabled with and write about them. Finding them in the first place is no simple task, but my hunch is that the new media are going to be terrific tools for us as we attempt to cover the new kind of society in which we live.
Rob Fixmer: Well, I don't think anything or anybody could get more people interested in politics than Monica Lewinsky has. I think that the voter turn-out was unexpected this year. I think that politics is in itself interesting at times and at other times it is just plain boring. I don't think that becoming an online civics class is necessarily the role that we should play if that's what you're suggesting.
Jock Gill: I think that your comment about Miss Lewinsky is a sad reflection on the general misconception in America that politics is really about personality and celebrity and entertainment. I would argue that the popularity of politics is related to the quality of the ideas being discussed. I would suggest that there is a dearth of interesting and valid ideas in our political culture today.
Rob Fixmer: my point wasn't that politics was personalities. My point was that this was an issue, a very profound issue for a lot of Americans, and that is the issue of privacy.
PRIVACY, INTEGRITY, AND A MORE CIVIL SOCIETY IN CYBERSPACE?
James Carey: Let me make a comment and then ask a question, and I am going to do this argumentatively. It was interesting this fall that the dominant media did concentrate on the Clinton / Lewinsky story and that this was the lowest mid-term election turn-out we have ever had. The lowest. Only one percentage point lower than the last time around, but it continued going down. I get a sense that to some degree the political system has swung free of journalism, has swung free of the media, maybe even of Internet journalism. So here is my question: In some sense, you can say that the kinds of values that seem to be embodied potentially in the Internet are: privacy, -- that's what "neticents" as they are called, are interested in -- interactivity, point of view, candor, and creation of a civil society. On my good days that is what I like to think about. Are those values held any longer by the established institutions of journalism ? Do they respect privacy? Do they have an articulately displayed point of view? Do they encourage dialogue and interactivity with their audience? Do they really care about a civil society?
Rob Fixmer: Oh yes.
James Carey: It is an honest question You lost the American people on the Lewinsky story when you threw out every conceivable concern for privacy, just invaded it enmasse, as if we don't care about it anymore, and indeed freely violated the law at the Times as if you were immune to it. That doesn't strike me as a particularly democratic set of actions. I told you I wanted an argument about this. Does the Times care about these things? Does the Tampa Tribune?
Rob Fixmer: Yes we do. You have a very difficult situation with Lewinsky. You have an agent of the government invading the privacy of another agent of the government. There is no way we cannot report this.
James Carey: But you over-reported it. You endlessly reported it. And you did not report the structural failure that allowed one agent to invade the privacy of another.
Rob Fixmer: Let's not be naive about leaks. Leaks are part of our government process. They may be technically breaking the law; there is no way I'm going to condone that, but the fact is, if you've got an officer of the federal government giving out information selectively to various reporters, competition being what it is, you know very well that that stuff is going to make the papers.
Question: Why didn't the New York Times report the violation of the law by Starr?
Rob Fixmer: We did. We reported the accusation.
James Carey: You reported the accusation, you never reported the source.
Rob Fixmer: Yes, but that's a tradition that is not going to die We are not going to
James Carey: But my argument is that that is the reason that credibility, trust and confidence in the press is down -- whether its name plate is on "Hard Copy" or on the Internet. That why the people that I talk to say, "You can't trust them anymore. They are playing games with us. They do not value freedom, privacy, or integrity, they always blame it on the competition. They don't act with their own standards and purpose anymore."
Rob Fixmer: Oh I think that is a valid criticism. I don't think it is even overblown. I think we try to have as much integrity as we can. We do not think of ourselves as being in line with the tabloids and invading privacy for no reason except celebrity reasons. On the other hand there is more at stake when we invade privacy so it is in some ways worse.
James Carey: I think that the final test of journalism in cyberspace is going to be centrally around questions like this, of freedom, privacy, democracy, point of view, integrity and that everything else is not terribly important in the long run in terms of the success of these enterprises.
Rob Fixmer: But are you really suggesting that on the Internet journalists are going to say, "yes, so-and-so in Ken Starr's office leaked this to me and I am telling you, my readers."
James Carey: No. We are gong to create our own newspapers on the Internet so that we can swing free of those kinds of norms of press performance. You are going to do it with us or for us or we are going to do it ourselves. I think that that's the real challenge to the established press.