But Is It Journalism?

The Internet has changed commerce more than it has changed anything else, but it is having its effects on journalism too. At first the predictions of its likely impact on the news business were either mindlessly rosy-limitless information on all subjects for all people at all times-or cumulatively grim. This would be yet another attack on the economic base of newspapers and magazines. It would be another step toward a balkanized, niche-information environment, in which every little group chooses its own custom-tailored news supply. It would accelerate the convergence of the news, enter tainment, gossip, and pornography industries, making it easier for any random nut to inject founded or unfounded accusations into public discourse. It would be another sign, along with the rise of Jerry Springer and Rush Limbaugh, that "news" was whatever someone thought might draw a crowd.

Clearly there are some aspects of the Net news age worth worrying about. For at least three years, print magazines have suffered a decline in newsstand sales. This overall trend is interrupted whenever some celebrity disaster moves publications off the racks (Diana's death in 1997, John Kennedy's death this year), and the rate of decline slows when magazines put Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Melissa Joan Hart, Pamela Anderson Lee, or Britney "No Middle Name" Spears on their cover, torso emphasized. But print magazine sales keep drifting down while traffic at free online sites keeps going up, raising questions about the long-term viability of "real" magazines.

Worse, editors in the mainstream press have sometimes acted as if any fact posted on a Web site were therefore part of the public record, ending all arguments about whether to discuss it in newspapers or on the evening news. Thus, Matt Drudge's early (and accurate) revelations about Monica Lewinsky in 1998 forced the hand of the newspapers and magazines. At other times, editors have acted as if Web sites were like their other unverified tip sources-interesting but not sufficient as news, until the organization has satisfied its own pre-Net standards of plausibility (which is why Drudge's later bogus insistence on Clinton's interracial love child stayed out of the mainstream press).

But I would argue that the developments ushered in by Internet news have been, on balance, positive. Real journalism is being practiced there. Some of it is good, and much of it is bad-just as in the realms of print and broadcast journalism. It is also highly varied and changing rapidly. The main principles revealed by its operation-as of late 1999, some three years into the Internet news era-are these:

Magazines are still magazines. The leading "pure play" Internet magazines-the ones for which the Web is the principal outlet rather than a supplement to the paper version-are Slate and Salon. In every sense except the way they reach the reader, these are classic, "normal" magazines. The same kinds of writers write for them. They publish commentary, news, analysis, and features that might just as easily appear in print. The best of what they put out would do credit to any magazine. (I'm lumping Slate and Salon together rather than ranking one above the other, to work around an obvious conflict of interest I hereby disclose: I've written frequently for Slate, I am a friend of its editors and staff, and even my family members have written for it.) Much like print magazines ranging in scale from The Nation or The Weekly Standard to The Atlantic Monthly or The New York Review of Books, these are niche rather than mass-market products, whose influence lies mainly in reaching journalists, politicians, academics, and other big shots at the upper levels of the opinion-making structure. The major contrast between the Net and non-Net publications in this category involves budget items: no printing or postage costs for the Internet magazines and far lower capital costs to enter the market, but also no revenue from subscribers.

Within their general role as "normal" magazines, Slate and Salon also illustrate two more principles that apply quite broadly in Net journalism. One is that length really matters. Ironclad limits on space are the major maddening fact of life for many traditional news outlets. The nightly TV news shows must cram all their insights into the 21 minutes left after commercials. A newspaper has only so much space on its front page. In my brief career as a newsmagazine editor, I became all too proficient in the central skill of that job: learning how to shrink any given piece of prose by 30 percent. The shorter they get, the more the stories all sound the same; but, hey, at least they fit.

Theoretically, Net publications could laugh at these constraints. Space on servers is cheap. Why go crazy trying to decide which details to cut from an article on cancer research when there's room to publish it all? In one sense, Web publications have made good, creative use of this freedom. They have done so through the ever-increasing supply of links, which refer readers to background material, supplemental details, original documents, and all the other forms of data that made the process of reporting the story instructive for the journalist. Reporters always learn more when working on a story than they can share with readers. Links let readers catch up-if they want.

But in the articles themselves, Net publications have evinced a frugal approach to space similar to that of TV, newspapers, and newsmagazines. Online articles are rarely more than 2,000 words long, about the scale of a medium-sized piece in The New Republic. Any longer than that, it seems, and you're pushing the reader's tolerance for staring at a screen. Most impor tant points can be made within 2,000 words, but not all of them can. This is one of several reasons to suppose that Net journalism will, in the foreseeable future, supplement rather than replace print journalism: it's still easier to read long articles and essays offline than on. The most im por tant trend-changing events in journalism often start with books or long articles in print magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly (or, of course, The American Prospect). Then the rest of the journalistic establishment responds-explaining the message, rebutting or criticizing it, and generally reacting to a shifted idea landscape. Charles Murray (unfortunately) demonstrated this process years ago with Losing Ground and then The Bell Curve. Robert Kaplan, Edmund Morris, Bob Woodward, Daniel Goldhagen, Nicholas Lemann, Susan Faludi, Steve Brill, and many others on many different topics (with many levels of quality) have demonstrated it more recently. Television has not come close to supplanting print in the role of developing new ideas about public life, and neither will the Net. The Net could do so, once technology makes a several-hour stretch of reading at the computer as convenient as it now is with a book or magazine. But by that point, whether readers take in information via paper or screen will be as trivial a question as whether they read a book or listen to a recorded version on tape. The underlying information is what matters, and all indications suggest that the long, serious discussions now confined to print still have a big role.

The other clear lesson of the online magazines is that frequency, not interactivity, is the "killer app." When Net publications first appeared, their great promise was said to lie in their interactive nature. Readers would engage in discussions with other readers. Authors would get involved too. Communities of interest would emerge.

In reality, online interaction is a nightmare. To be more precise, it's just like talk radio. The audience most actively involved includes a minority of thoughtful people interested in real discussion-and a majority of cranks and those with too much time on their hands. Like talk radio, it's interactive in only a limited way: one person mainly broadcasts, and a relative few get to speak up.

Instead, the distinctive value of Net publications proves to be their ever-fresh nature, through more frequent updates than any print publication can manage. Every serious Net site must have new material at least once a day, to get people in the habit of visiting. Several times a day is better. Patterns of Web traffic show that people overwhelmingly visit sites during working hours presumably because their Internet connections are faster at the office than at home. (Or because they're shirkers.) Frequent updates bring readers back every few hours. Slate has put the principle to good use with one feature renewed every day of the year (Today's Papers) and many others (such as Breakfast Table and Chatterbox) that may change several times a day during the working week.

ith Net-like terseness, let's consider several other mainly positive aspects of online journalism beyond the Slate/Salon world. For one, the joys of accidental discovery are still there. Many Net sites tout the ability to produce personalized news pages. At myCNN.com, for instance, you enter your zip code and your various interests, and from then on you see a news page featuring your local weather, your stock picks, your local teams' scores. The Create Your Own Newspaper site offers an even more comprehensive ability to tailor a page to your exact tastes. In theory, tools like this might deny readers the rich, unplanned discovery that can come from leafing through a newspaper. And it is probably true that no online experience can match a well-designed print magazine for helping readers discover things they didn't know they were looking for. Any curious person's instinct, with any good-looking magazine, is to take at least a look at every single page. That's hardly the instinctive reaction to even the most attractive Web site, where it's a chore to click up and down the hierarchy structure.

But in reality, even in the print world, people already limit the amount of unplanned discovery they'll expose themselves to. They select the magazines they want; they read local papers from their own city, not someplace else. And whatever narrowing effect the Net may have can be offset by several techniques that, like a newspaper at its best, surprise readers with information they never would have deliberately sought.

On a modest tactical level, MSNBC achieves this with its "fly-out menus." When you hover with your cursor over a certain subject heading-Technology, say, or Sports-a list of 15 or 20 related stories appears, without your having to click your way through the subject hierarchy. (AOL is the opposite extreme in convenience, forcing you to click through four or five layers of advertising-dense padding to get to one of the stories advertised on its opening page.) Hovering on a topic is comparable to opening a new page of a newspaper, except that the fly-out menu offers a wider variety of stories than would fit on one printed page.

A more dramatic illustration of the power of surprise comes from the Arts and Letters Daily Web site. This amazing production, created by a professor in New Zealand, is the equivalent of standing in front of a particularly interesting newsstand-and having X-ray vision. It offers the first paragraph or two of magazine and newspaper stories from around the world, with links to the original source. Every visit produces an item that I, at least, hadn't known I'd be interested in.

The hard-news Net sites, like MSNBC's, illustrate another principle: the Net, like CNN, lives for big, breaking stories. Traffic soars at the MSNBC Web site just when it does for CNN on TV: during a war, a natural disaster, a celebrity death, or some other event evoking wall-to-wall coverage. But the Net's response to these stories is more constructive than TV's. Stories are added-but normal coverage does not have to be displaced the way it is on TV when networks decide to run O.J., Diana, or John Kennedy stories around the clock. And the Net does not have the same structural need to fill airtime with empty punditry that often proves so embarrassing for TV.

Perhaps the most hopeful of all Web developments to date is the evidence that barriers to entry really are low. For the reader, it's clear that the Net has removed one kind of barrier. Your local paper may not carry information about Malaysia, central Africa, or any other place not actively engulfed by riots or earthquakes and therefore not qualifying as worthwhile foreign news. But on the Net you can follow the daily developments through the local papers around the world. Just as important as the low barrier to access for readers is the low barrier to entry for entrepreneurs. The young journalists who have created the beautifully designed www.blueear.com could presumably never have raised the capital to get a "real" magazine carrying foreign dispatches onto newsstands, but it's up on the Web. (The same is true of a still-developing site for first-hand accounts of international events, www.orato.com.

Indeed, this miracle of free access raises the real source of worry about the Net's impact on journalism: how long the current model can last. Everyone understands the fundamental, Ponzi-land bizarreness of the Net-IPO stock boom. The more money a site loses, the more "valuable" it theoretically becomes. This won't last forever, but many people have grown very rich by its lasting long enough. The Net's news model won't last forever either. The current "business model" is for hard-working organizations to spend good money providing insights, analyses, news flashes, occasional enlightenment-and then give it all away for free. They all pretend that the "advertising model" or the "transactions model" will save them eventually. This will be more convincing when it actually occurs. For now, it makes sense to spend only a little time worrying about the journalistic damage the Net might do, and enjoy the current free lunch of information while it's there.



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