[The text below is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]
Amy Harmon: Over the last year, I also have been thinking about where the Internet story goes from here. The biggest change has been the extent to which it touches the lives of a broad number of people. We all know the statistics, but those numbers don't get to the qualitative change that has occurred in the way people think about technology, and also the way they don't think about technology, which is where I think the story goes. People aremore sophisticated about using the technology, but not at understanding the political and social consequences of it. We as journalists have an evolving role to play in helping people think about it in new ways.
A brief history of the cyberbeat may show why I think this particular transition is happening in this particular corner of media. I am going to skip over the ancient history, which is 10 whole years ago, and fast forward to 1993, which is when I got my first job at the Los Angeles Times. I got my job there because I knew how to use a modem. This was considered a great skill in 1993. This was during
what I consider to be the first phase of the cyberbeat, which was the definitional phase. It was characterized by a lot of stories that proclaimed, "hey, the Internet exists, look!" It was also characterized by many column inches of explanation in every story defining the Internet, which became even a bigger nightmare when Mosaic came out, and we had to refer to "the World Wide Web, the multimedia portion of the Internet, a global network of computer networks initially started by DARPA, the Department of Defense's Research Arm..." That phase was about us being on the outside, looking in and saying, "wow, this is a new thing!"
We got over the definitional phase relatively quickly and moved on to the frontier stage, which has made up the bulk of my time on the beat. This was really about being on the inside looking out. There were a lot of good stories during this period. Virtual community and hacker stories were very popular. Julian's story about a rape in cyberspace was obviously a critical story of this era. However, looking back, all of the stories had this undertone that said "cyberspace is this dark mysterious place that only members of the technical elite can hope to penetrate." That may have been somewhat true at that point. This frontier phase was characterized by a lot of cowboy and wild west imagery.
The first time that the term "cyberspace" appeared in the Los Angles Times was a story of mine that ran in March 19, 1993, on the front page. I was very proud of getting the word cyberspace out there on
the front page. But the following imagery, which I am not particularly proud of, was in the middle of that story about a libel case that had emerged from a Prodigy bulletin board:
"Indeed, just as the sheriff lagged behind the cowboys and
criminals that settled the American west, modern law has failed to keep
up with the rapid spread of communications technology. As a result the
high tech community has left to wrangle over which conventional mode
of communication most closely resemble the new ones."
During the frontier phase, stories tended to be either utopic or dystopic. Either we were writing about how great it was that kids were getting connected in schools, or we were writing about pornography and
cult recruiters on the Internet. However, we've moved out of this phase now. About a month after I got to the New York Times (about a year and a half ago), Wired came out with a story with the title "What Have They Been Smoking?" in which they referred to the New York Times. The subhead was, "Since the New York Times woke up to the Internet as a news story, the gray lady has been doing her damnedest to blame cyberspace for the evils who roam the earth." The story cited a reporter who wrote a story about how people were using the Internet to buy drugs. Another story that Wired cited was by an education writer who had written a story about how students were selling term papers on the Internet. I think internally, there was some realization that Wired had a point. While those were legitimate stories, any given story that might take place in regular space might take place in cyberspace was not necessarily news anymore. I think that brought home the reality that the cyberbeat had entered its main stream phase.
I have to admit that I wondered how much longer I would be interested in the stories. However, there have been stories over the course of this year that have revived and refocused my interest. They convinced me that journalists still have an important role to play. One key story was about a guy who was on a listserve that was a support group for problem drinkers, and he confessed to having murdered his daughter by setting fire to a house, although it was deemed an accident. I think what distressed me and a lot of other people who read the story was that of the 300 people on the listserve, none of them did anything immediately, and after a lot of discussion, 2 out of the 300 went to the authorities. In reporting the story, I had to use both my cyberpsace skills as I had to go onto the Internet to find the original archives of the listserve. Then I also had to go North Dakota where the story took place.
I think that this story epitomized where the cyberbeat is going, and some of the questions that need to be asked by reporters and others as it goes forward. The way I had to report the story brought together "cyberspace" and "real life", while the content of the story also brought together some of the issues people grapple with in virtual communities because they aren't just virtual when they have impacts in everyday life. There has been this sort of meta quality to the cyberbeat. If you cover cyberspace, you cover health care, retailing and all the rest in the same beat. This was because we conceptualized cyberspace as this other world. You could transpose almost any activity in the "real world" into the cyber world and talk about how it was different. What is going on now is a fusion of those two worlds. As that happens, I think it is sort of a very interesting process to be observing and reporting about.