How does the Internet affect journalism? The Internet will not replace journalism and the media but provide a new channel of communication in parallel to the more traditional print forms. Multi-dimensional online newspapers will give journalists the opportunity to write to diverse audiences without concerns for space and length of text. This diversity will parallel an overall increase in diversity in the media. These developments may indeed lead to new kinds of communities emerging, where journalists act as facilitators, enlivening discussion on given topic for different groups in a given community.
The small newspaper in the Italian part of Switzerland which gave me my first opportunity in journalism was one of the last dailies in the country to set their type in lead.
Electronics were an unfamiliar sight in the editorial room. We typed on old electric typewriters. Wire dispatches crackled on the teleprinter and we would take turns in tearing off the rolls of paper to work them over, which turned the table into a confusing stack of papers in disarray, being sorted out, in various stages of annotation by the editorial staff -- the whole process having more to do with being clever with scissors, tape, and glue sticks than to the art of writing.
The fax machine which took up most of the space in my office as a regional correspondent looked more like a radiator than an information dispatcher - and I say this with regard to both its appearance and its impact on the temperature of the room. The linotypists' office was next to the correctors', where they leaned over our copy in an effort to reduce it to the exact number of lines allocated for the steel form. Deadline was usually late afternoon. And only accounting and subscriptions were handled by the first computers purchased by the publisher.
This was twelve years ago.
I have now spent the last twenty months conceiving, developing, and finally managing the editorial part of the first Swiss online newspaper: Webdo, which you can find at www.webdo.ch
The name is a pun between the news magazine from which Webdo is issued, L'Hebdo, and the Web. I purposely bring this up as a reminder that the Web is not a child of Silicon Valley but was invented in Geneva, Switzerland.
José Rossi, the other half of our team, a Macintosh virtuoso and myself, have learnt a great deal in our attempt to create an electronic service from a newspaper - a concept that I use to describe a capital of information, know-how, and relationships rather than a mere print product. Nevertheless, we are all but sure to have found the right answers to the many questions publishers and journalists are asking themselves since they have been confronted with the challenge of the Internet and multimedia.
We knew on the onset that an online information service would have to be based on a different concept than the traditional printed one, that simply repackaging editorial content would not do.
It was obvious to us also that in order to respond to this challenge, the only way would be to take full advantage of what characterizes this new medium - interactivity, hypertext, and multimedia capability. With this in mind as a starting point, everything was to be created. A logic of production, consumption, and commercialization. A language, a rhythm, a new kind of connection with our readership.
Here are some of the things I have learnt in these twenty months of trials and errors - luckily punctuated with some successes.
I do not consider the Internet - and generally the online medium - as a substitute to other media, but as a complement, a new channel of communication which takes its place alongside the others. I am going to position myself here as a journalist and an editor. Because it's my original profession. Because it's also the profession I am trying to re-invent (or more accurately, to learn again from scratch) since I have been doing it online. And mostly, because I firmly believe that journalists have an essential role to play in tomorrow's interactive society and that they are quite wrong in fearing to become obsolete with the advance of the new media.
I will tackle three concepts which I believe outline the contours of this new journalism: diversity, community, and movement.
The most important is diversity. When we write for a printed paper, a daily or a magazine, we are always confronted with the same problem: space. We either have too much or too little of it. Since the sheer existence of the press depends on a delicate balance between editorial content, advertising, formats, postal rates, and several other constraints, journalism is basically the set of skills that helps to condense a story - according to rules of truth, fairness, clarity, and balance - in so many inextensible lines.
These lines are always the result of a compromise between these rules and the supposed public interest that the journalist will try to satisfy in the best possible way.
The problem is that we do not have a single public - and thus our choices cannot possibly satisfy all of our readers. It's more the opposite which is true. We have many different publics who may read the same paper but are in no way homogeneous. Briefly, the equation each of us has to solve when writing is the following: how to present in so many lines enough information to satisfy those of our readers who are really interested or skilled in a specific subject, without losing or boring those who are less interested.
As George Gilder wrote, by establishing the existence of a mass audience, therefore necessarily a homogeneous one, the media in fact negate the individuality of their readers, their generous diversity, the real scope of their interests and passions, their multiple lifestyles and ambitions. In a way, the papers we publish today are contradictory to human nature.
By allowing the creation of multi-dimensional newspapers, the online media can help solve this problem. By taking advantage of the unlimited virtual space we call cyberspace, it would be possible - and in a sense it is already - to satisfy the interests and the level of knowledge of each and every single reader. Of each audience of one, to put it into a trendy expression. To simplify in the extreme, a specialist could dwelve into the tree of knowledge in order to get more detailed information, whereas others could be satisfied by just skimming the surface.
Hypertext is clearly the means to this diversification. The possibility to create a genuine web of information which can take into account the different approaches, sources, and media, all hyper-linked together, changes the journalists' perspective as well as their readers'.
We have always considered language as the ultimate form of communication, dominating all others. But photography, graphics, virtual spaces, and 3-D all have their own logic which appeal as strongly to our emotions, to our power of reasoning, and to our intelligence.
The fact that all of these media are now one unique medium, a series of zeroes and ones aligned in sequences, brings forth to the journalist a diversification of points of view, an increased pressure on mastering technique and above all - because the capacity of the medium is virtually without limits - a complete reversal in journalistic judgment. Those who excel at coming to the point of a story will have to learn to stretch the story, to develop it in the most imaginative and complete possible way, using all of these different new possibilities which appeal to all of our senses.
There are also many other ramifications that the new journalist will have to take into consideration while handling information and exploiting the different tools.
First, the behavior of online information seekers is very different than the traditional readers: some surf, some search. The first group is satisfied which just seeing what's there - they seek pleasure and surprise. The second group is looking for specific information - their priorities are easy and rapid access, and accuracy.
Second, geography is no longer an issue. Because of the Internet global reach, geographical audiences and ethnic audiences can overlap (for instance, Swiss readers living in the United States access our magazine online) as well as thematic audiences (say, worldwide car racing fans hooking up to an Indianapolis newspaper).
Thirdly, the development of the many different types of intelligent agents will double the human public in all of its diversity by becoming an artificial public. We will have to think of a way to present our information so that it reaches both people and robots: software which behaves according to their owners' desires.
Forth, we will have to handle many different types of information that previously were not taken into consideration and which do not necessarily respond to the traditional definition of news: weather forecasts, traffic updates, sport results, real estate markets, transcripts of school board meetings, unedited documents, etc.
Fifth, we will have to face new competitors coming from outside the field of publishing, using different approaches and different techniques. The first name that comes to mind is, of course, Microsoft, a software company which has recently rolled out a magazine (Slate), launched a TV/Web station (MSNBC), and started projects for local Web guides (Sidewalk). But there are thousands more doing the same, becoming news publishers all the while being car manufacturers or phone companies.
Finally, and it's an essential point, we are going to witness an explosion in the media diversity. It would be incredibly naive to envision the future looking only at what we can see today - the computer as a plastic box with a screen and a keyboard. The digital revolution is giving birth to multiple new forms of devices bringing together the quality of television images, the communication power of telephones, the memory and speed of computers, the selection and ease of use of newspapers. They are spreading out in different shapes and forms and locations: cellular phones with e-mail capability, network computers, videotext, electronic paper, digital wallets, voice recognition, audiotex, pagers, beep-watches, and so on. The future will allow us to access worldwide information, in many different forms, adapted to needs and places.
As Katherine Fulton put it in the Columbia Journalism Review,
journalists used to work in one medium and spent their lives mastering its nuances. In the future, when print, sound, and pictures are all simply digital bits, they may find themselves asking which tools are right for what stories.
To take into account all of these elements, the wild diversity of the public, the different cultures, the different media tools, and to make something coherent all the while abiding by the social and political role of information, will be our single tremendous challenge of the next ten years.
I am not completely sure that journalists and publishing institutions are in the best position or the most qualified to meet this challenge. New players, from different wakes of life, unrelated to journalism are already in the game.
The second concept I would like to bring up is community. Though there is much said about interactivity it is my feeling that it's not fully understood by the press and everyone in the publishing field yet. The concept of interactivity is not about the user clicking on an icon to unlatch a reaction from his computer: it is above all about connecting people.
Since we have launched our site on the Web, I receive as many as 70 messages a day. From the onset I decided I would answer each and everyone of them and over the last few months, I have come to realize that this is not a common practice.
More often than not, readers who send an e-mail receive an automated response in reply.
Hello. We thank you for your recent message. We are overwhelmed but be assured we'll note your comments. Most of you will also receive a personal answer. Thanks again for visiting our site.
I didn't make this up, it's actually a message I received a few months ago.
Others wait weeks before they receive a response. In other words, they are treated no differently than in the traditional printed press: the reader is way out there somewhere and the journalist is right here, at the top, writing what he has learnt about and deciding on his own what is important and what is not.
This is forgetting that the electronic environment flattens out all forms of hierarchy and allows the same power of communication to each and everyone. The journalist's role as an expert, as the one most entitled to formulate information is declining. One of the most remarkable aspects of the interactive digital environment is the progressive vanishing of the lines dividing the producer and the consumer of information. On the Internet, everyone is at once a potential writer and journalist, editor and reader, seller, and buyer. The users are your best teachers, listen to them, someone said, and how right he was.
The relationship between us and our readers becomes less clear in its definition yet stronger by its need. Answering your readers' e-mail as well as opening forums for debates or chat rooms on Web sites are the first steps in developing what I call a community: a group of people who identify with a certain newspaper not only because it provides news but because it allows connections, a space for sharing ideas and developing solutions. As Katherine Fulton writes, Content is people as well as information, and I fully agree.
With this in mind, facts and information can circulate without interference and without the journalist acting as a filter. He will have to give up part of the power he used to have - based on his competence as well as on his position. The role of the journalist is changing into a more central figure, a mediator. He directs traffic, explores, becomes a facilitator of discussions. His new power will depend on his ability to animate a group of people, to develop methods and means to enliven the community, to organize information-gathering and use with the participation of the members of the community.
A journalist with little online experience tends to think in terms of stories, news value, public service, and things that are good to read, points out Melinda McAdams in her excellent account of the making of the Washington Post online venture. But a person with a lot of online experience thinks more about connections, organization, movement within and among sets of information, and communication among different people.
The newspaper is no longer a product. It becomes a place. A place where people from the community stop by, make contacts and come back again to build a common future.
My third and final point centers around the notion of movement, or more accurately, flux.
We are used to write in a progressively organized and linear way, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Online this structure is broken. As an image, the front page (the homepage) represents the top of an arborescence and its content, like the branches on a tree, allow the reader to determine what he will read and in which order. On the lower levels of the tree, smaller pathways allow passages from one subject to another, from one level of knowledge to another, in order to meet every person's degree of specific interest. It's a web of information.
This non-linear construction is a major challenge for the journalist accustomed to plain paper. We navigate in an environment similar to a collage, where one moves ahead by fragmented pieces (le texte brisé conceptualized by Roland Barthes), fragments which are not necessarily text but have a relation to it in order to satisfy the desires, interests, needs and intuitions of the reader.
By redefining the way we think and write, this new structure redefines all of our culture. I agree with New York sociologist Neil Postman that
New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.
They also alter our relationship to time. As an insider we know the newspaper as a succession of deadlines: lead time for articles, editing, printing, distribution. If one of these deadlines is not met, the paper will lose most of its value if not all of it. Consequently, information must fit into this schedule and it grows old with the paper it is printed on (today's breaking news, tomorrow's fish wrap).
Online content on the other hand is fluid, moving. It doesn't know deadlines - actually, every moment is a potential deadline. There is no set chronological order, you can change original content, update it, correct it, complete it and re-use it, anytime. An article becomes a story in progress, enriched by other stories thanks to hypertext, and allowing for constant re-composition.
It is important to understand that, just because this never-ending restructuring is possible, it becomes necessary. Melinda McAdams remarked that Information in the online service must be looked after, not merely put there and forgotten. The fluid media cannot stand immobility.
This brings me to my conclusion. Diversity, community, and movement seem to me to be three concepts around which we could develop a theory and a practice for online journalism in the months and years ahead.
What I just have described is based on my personal experience and of a colleague, José Rossi, but it's mostly theoretical. The state of the market and the techniques and tools available today are of course not exactly this way - and even on our own Web site, we have not been able to implement all of these ideas yet.
The Internet today is relatively new. It's success is in inverse ratio to the state of some of its applications. And the information floating around is not always worth the investment (in time or money).
I think we are in a similar stage than in the early television days, when radio people where put in front of a camera, and the result was catastrophic. It took many years to develop a TV style, aesthetics, language, and market scheme.
But television was having an impact long before it reached a wide (mass) audience - and this is very similar to what is happening with the Internet today.
There is no doubt that the road to the info highways goes through the Internet. We can argue when this will happen: three years from now, six, ten. But the writing is on the wall. Journalists and publishers have a crucial role to play in this environment. Clearly, what they will write about this subject is important, but so will their involvement be, in contributing to this news construction, bringing forth their unique expertise and ability to organize and convey information, through their experience and with their ethics.
Yet the first and most urgent mission for journalists is to define the appropriate terminology for the information society. At the moment we are borrowing words right and left. Every day we apply existing concepts like journal, magazine, site, page, reader, user, navigate, surf, connect, teleshopping, distant learning to the new reality. I have done the same in this article and all of these words are imperfect. We force their etymology but we end up misusing them.
So as a journalist what I believe our first and most urgent task ahead is to create the appropriate language to describe - thus to understand - the digital revolution. Recognizing that it is not only about microprocessors and fiber optic cable, but above all about brains connecting to other brains, about collective intelligence. A human, political and cultural endeavor.
Award-winning journalist Bruno Giussani, 33, is a columnist for the New York Times on the Web and contributes to other Swiss and international newspapers. Between 1994 and February 1997, he was responsible for multimedia and interactive technologies for the weekly magazine "L'Hebdo", published in Lausanne (Switzerland).
Along with José Rossi, he developed and launched on September 14, 1995 "Webdo", the first Swiss online news site which was awarded in October 1996 the Grand Prix MMD for the "best website developed by a Swiss publisher". He also instigated and launched "The Green Window", a neutral reporting ground on the issues surrounding the Swiss Internet and Telecommunications.
For more than two years, he wrote and published articles and a weekly column in "L'Hebdo" on the new digital and information technologies for which he was awarded the Swiss Prize for Journalism in 1995, granted by Bedag AG, Bern and the Institute of Journalism of the University of Fribourg. He has given numerous conferences and classes on the subject and has recently published a booklet for journalists titled "Internet, Le Nouvel Outil" (or "Internet, the New Tool").
He is one of the founders of Tinet SA, the main Internet services company in the Italian part of Switzerland and a co-founder of the Club Internet of Lausanne-Ecublens. He has participated in several juries and expert committees and is a member of the Forum Programme Committee of the Forum@Telecom Interactive 97 to be held in Geneva.
Bruno Giussani started out in journalism as a reporter and political columnist at "Giornale del Popolo", then at "L'Eco di Locarno" in the Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland. Multilingual, he then became editor of the national and international political section of Hebdo. During his tenure at "L'Hebdo," Giussani also served as the United States correspondent, based in New York. He is co-author of three books on Swiss politics.
Personal home page: http://www.giussani.com
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