5. How New Technologies Are Changing the News

Interactivity: Citizens As Journalists

The old media deliver the old politics: the insider’s game, presented on high, from the elite to the masses. The new technologies break the journalist’s monopoly, making some of the new news an unmediated collaboration between the sources and the audience.

As we have seen, citizens can program their computers to retrieve their own “news,” assembled easily from original sources far more diverse than the journalist’s official Rolodex. Newly empowered, they also can second-guess what professional journalists produce. According to technology marketing analyst Nicholas Donatiello, people are eager to control which communications come into their homes and when. They also want to be “more selective about what segments they want to watch of the news.” (71)

If the news isn’t compelling enough, they will find alternatives. Montreal’s six-year-old Videoway system, considered the first commercially successful interactive television system, found that subscribers spent about four hours a week, or half of their time on the system, playing video games. They reduced the amount of time they spent watching regular television by six hours a week, or about 20 percent.

“You might be seeing the interactive news and think: I’m tired of the war in Bosnia. Let’s see a different story. You feel your TV is a TV and a Nintendo and a computer. You watch in a different way,” one customer told The New York Times.(72)

These patterns, analysts believe, are not due just to the fact that people like to be entertained; people also aren’t being offered enough compelling programming on the proliferating new channels. So far, the digital revolution seems to have brought us endless reruns of “I Dream of Jeannie” and a tidal wave of copycat tabloid entertainments.(73) Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus, designer of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, and creator of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, worries that he will wake up one day to find that he has 500 channels of television “and they all are showing the Hair Club for Men.”(74)

Interactivity experts believe that a small group of users will take the time to create their own news formulas from day to day but that most interactive media consumers won’t be browsing around or creating a serendipitous “communal” experience. They won’t even want a multitude of choices.

They will want a quick, efficient way to obtain precisely what they are looking for, whether it’s a trustworthy overview of the world’s events, a copy of Julia Child’s lemon mousse recipe, or a conversation with a fellow basset hound breeder. As media analyst Denise Caruso explains it, “The message of this new medium is ‘I want what I want and nothing more.’”(75)

In the M.I.T. Media Lab’s version of the future, people will customize their computer news “guide” once, and then the day-to-day work will be done automatically. This robot will go out and get the news—not the news that a professional journalist would choose, but the specific kinds of topics that the consumer says she wants.

Journalists, if they’re smart, will offer continual information guidance that obviates the need for such robots. To do this, they may not have to be as entertaining or as ideological as Rush’s reports, but they will have to be more accurate, more relevant, and more attuned to their audiences than most are today.

The new technologies offer journalists not only the potential perils of competition and scrutiny but also the potential benefits of an expanded role: connecting citizens to information and to each other. To succeed, journalists cannot connect simply for the sake of connecting; they will have to deliver something of additional value to the customer.

Time Is Infinite

Interactivity is only one of the dramatic technologies now changing the news. Journalism, already instant and global, can be released by digital technology from many time and space constraints, offering unlimited opportunities for both consumers and providers.(76)

The wired consumer can get his customized news all day, at any time of day, updated regularly by his provider. He no longer will watch, hear, or read video, audio, or text “by appointment,” when the news purveyor decides to send it out. It will be stored, in digital form, for the customer to call up when and how he wants.

Surveys indicate that this time-shifting and indexing, always available to some degree with print and now available for television and radio, is attractive to consumers. It also is a great boon to journalists because it opens up a new market for recycling material that currently appears once and then vanishes into the air. Stories in the new digital media are archived so they can be accessed when consumers actually want to learn about these subjects; material omitted from the original story also can be packaged and sold.

Major news archives have been available for years in library clip files, on microfilm, and in databases like LEXIS/NEXIS. But now they will be easy and inexpensive for the public to access from their homes, at a moment’s notice, especially if journalists package and resell them to accompany current news. The incentive is to reuse everything because the news hole has expanded beyond the current news staff’s capacity to fill it.

Thus, time, which is now one of the journalist’s greatest foes, will lose its power to define the news story. If deadlines are fixed as they are now by arbitrary distribution deadlines, they can force a rush to judgment that erodes the trustworthiness of the news product. But if deadlines are constant, one can devote to an enterprise news story (77) the time it really takes. A news organization that is determined to establish its “brand” in the multichannel marketplace will not rush stories to publication but will allot what Washington Post editor Bob Woodward calls more “time against the problem” to improve the product.

More significantly, the hot “scoop” loses its commercial value in this environment. Scoops are prized by reporters, who rate each other on who gets the news first. However, the value of the time-sensitive scoop is lost in the constant news marketplace, except in financial and some other specialty markets. Even though more and more news stations “burn their brand” into each video frame to mark their scoops, the news consumer rarely remembers who had a news item first as she surfs through scores of channels. Furthermore, if the news truly is a major breakthrough, it will be picked up in nanoseconds and carried by hundreds of other news sources.

Instant scoops on Los Angeles local television stations about evidence that was being developed for the O.J. Simpson trial generally backfired; there were too many, too often to identify with a particular purveyor, and they usually were incorrect. In the multichannel environment, why would a customer deliberately look for a newscast that rushed to judgment and proved incorrect?

On the other hand, a news organization will need something exclusive to offer if it is to occupy a distinct niche in the multichannel environment. A news channel with a trusted anchor will have an advantage in the new marketplace, and a different kind of exclusive scoop—a research or analysis piece that has been developed by the news organization alone—will sharpen the purveyor’s competitive edge.

Space is Endless

In the digital world, journalism is liberated not just from time but from space constraints. The reporter’s dream has come true: now there is a bottomless news hole, thanks to new technologies and the Internet. Online news customers become archaeologists; they can start at the surface with the headline, digest, or summary of the news, and then click on words or pictures to enter layer upon layer of longer stories, related features, analysis pieces, and sound and video clips. Finally, they will reach original documents and discussion groups on an issue.(78)

This changes the way that people browse through the news, reducing the serendipity factor of an unanticipated story or advertising encounter. It alters story formulas from linear narratives to headlines and summaries, followed by increasing layers of substance, with related entertainment and ads. Unless journalists guard against it, the new online advertising will be more closely linked to the content, with travel agencies sponsoring travel news, for example.(79)

Place is Local

Thanks to satellites and the Internet, the communications media can defy not only space and time but place. Cable viewers in Washington, D.C., now can see the latest newscasts from Moscow, New York, and Tokyo, in addition to other traditional American media, including CNN.

Previous communications technologies made the news more global. Now the new media also make it more local. Improved access to the rest of the world’s news raises the value of local journalism sent directly from the original location where the news occurs. It can sell itself to new markets because it has a unique product that no one else can produce. Remember when all 64 channels were carrying O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco live as it sped along the Los Angeles Freeway? Most networks were carrying pictures provided by the same few local television stations in Los Angeles.

The foreign correspondents and international “parachute journalists” who go from crisis to crisis for CBS and The Washington Post are less valuable in this new media marketplace. Unless they offer a framework and context that add value to the raw footage, more foreign bureaus will close as customers seek to get their news live and fresh from the locals on the scene, the wire services, and international specialists like CNN and the BBC.

Customized news also becomes local in a different way—rooted locally to a new geography of “virtual,” rather than physical communities. Ironically, as we reach everyone in the world at once through CNN and the Internet, we respond by retreating to small virtual communities of specific interest. We turn inward to smaller groups because, as political writer E.J. Dionne observes, the global community is “too big to put [our] arms around.”(80)

The Playing Field Is Even

All programming appears to be equally legitimate when it is just a click away on the same big screen. The major broadcast networks still occupy the dominant low-number channel positions, but that no longer matters the way it used to. A high-cost, high-quality program can be substituted instantly for a low-budget, offbeat cable access program; a rerun of “Dobie Gillis” is interchangeable with Bill Clinton’s latest speech, which can in turn be clicked off for the latest ruby ring offer on a home shopping channel.

Thus, the expensive, high-powered network news loses its aura as something special; instead, it sits on the bench, next to local news, CNN, Fox News, entertainment news, sports news, and weather news. How will a consumer decide which to pick? A channel surfer will probably land on the news with the hottest production values or the most dazzling story of that millisecond. Or viewers may stop for a while because they see the story being delivered by someone they like and trust.

But quality news cannot be designed to win the channel surfing contest. It must expect instead to be selected, as a special niche that loyal viewers visit for good reason. Some channels choose all-news formats so that they become the logical place to go for news.(81) As the surf gets crowded, consumers will want to know where they can go for real news. They won’t want to waste time getting there.

High-Quality News Is Easier to Produce—And to Invent

Never has high-quality journalism been easier to produce. Instant access to endless archives, government documents, and other databases enables reporters to bring facts and context together as never before. Computers help reporters sort out patterns in housing discrimination, crime, and toxic waste dumping. Political contributions can be lined up instantly with votes on critical issues. Computer-assisted research, known to journalists as CAR, is transforming the depth and quality of coverage, particularly in print.

As Howard Kurtz reports in Media Circus, computer skills enabled Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele to identify companies that were seeking special tax loopholes from Congress. One company included in the tax bill was characterized only by the amounts of three of its loans and the years they were due. By feeding these numbers into the Dow Jones database, the reporters were able to learn that the company was FMC Corporation of Chicago. The process took just a few minutes.(82)

At WFAA-TV in Dallas, Producer Walt Zwirko used Microsoft’s CD-ROM encyclopedia, Encarta, for background material on Haiti as the U.S. military prepared to land there. Highly compressed CD-ROM archives enable reporters to find phone numbers, street maps and other intimate data for the nation and the world.(83)

Yet as real facts are easier to assemble and analyze, so are phony pictures, documents, and audiotape easier to create at home with the inexpensive, easily accessed new technologies. Journalists, who have a hard enough time confirming facts as it is, will have to be far more concerned in the future about establishing the authenticity of their evidence. Citizens will want to know where to find sources they trust, not just random “video vigilantes” who chase ambulances and sell their film to the highest tabloid bidder.