Chapter 1: Introduction
1.1 An Introduction to the Digital Landscape
Buckbobbill is a geek of the first order, who each day intrepidly climbs upon his spaceship, jets off to probe the inner workings of the high command at Galactic Central, and writes it up in HTML to file it via e-mail.
They (the journalists) see his [Buckobill's] coming as either the downfall of [the] free press or the heaven-sent salvation of a dying medium.
- Leah Gentry, Los Angeles Times (in Harper 1998, p.48)
Twenty-first century digital journalist Buckbobbill, a cross between Buck Rogers, Bob Woodward, and Bill Gates could simply be just another futuristic image we come across in a Hollywood science fiction film, a comic book, or television series, but the questions and concerns Buckbobbill raises are urgent ones for journalism. The central question of this thesis is not whether there is any truth in the Buckbobbill model, rather this study seeks to go some way towards understanding what impact digital Communication and Information Technologies (principally the Internet) have already had on the newsroom and journalistic work practices and how news organisations can take advantage of what the World Wide Web offers.
Los Angeles Times journalist Leah Gentry rejects the Buckbobbill paradigm and insists that journalists should instead embrace traditional news values. She argues that the myth of the "new media geek, who has no formal print experience and who writes computer code in his sleep, scares off many who would otherwise aggressively pursue an exciting new journalistic forum". She says this fear is unfounded and a study of media evolution will reveal radio and TV journalists took time to discover the strength of their media to tell stories and the WWW faces this similar challenge (ibid).
Roger Fidler (1997, p.23), an internationally recognised electronic publishing visionary and pioneer, supports this view and coined the term 'mediamorphosis' to describe the evolution within the communication media:
Mediamorphosis is not so much a theory as it is a unified way of thinking about the technological evolution of communication media …. By studying the communication system as a whole, we will see that new media do not arise spontaneously and independently - they emerge gradually from the metamorphosis of old media…. Established forms of communication media must change in response to the emergence of a new medium - their only other option is to die.
Today's news publishers are in the early stages of this evolution and are straying away from their traditional role of delivering ink-on-trees news, and are beginning to see themselves as multimedia 'information content providers'. It would have been difficult to imagine the print media carrying the content of broadcasters years ago, but today it is common for newspapers to have an online spin off with audio and/or video features. This media convergence is a key vision articulated by Nicholas Negroponte, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, which accurately depicts the changes we are witnessing in the communications media today. He popularised the idea that diverse technologies and forms of media are coming together as one. Negroponte recognised this in 1979, and predicted that "all communication technologies are suffering a joint metamorphosis, which can only be understood properly if treated as a single subject" (ibid p.25).
The challenge facing newspaper publishers and journalists is by no means entirely new. Online newspapers have existed since 1993 with 4,322 online newspapers available globally today (Editor and Publisher Interactive). We are already witnessing a tremendous growth in this area and a number of studies have examined the impact of the WWW on journalism. Pearson (1999) in his PhD study of new skills used by journalism educators and students, reveals that the WWW has markedly affected journalism in the reportage, practice and journalism education areas. He found journalism was now "too fragmented, multi-dimensional and multi-purposed". To accommodate the "complex mosaic of occupations and practices which emerge from the Internet influence on the journalism domain," Pearson suggests the term "multi-journalism". He adds that multi-journalism is an evolving entity, which could change its form according to the social roles and functions and the shifting conceptions of its practitioners and constituents. Interactivity, individualisation and convergence are three buzzwords, almost synonymous with any discussion related to journalism on the WWW. These terms appear in various forms in a number of studies (Aikat 1998; Harper 1998; Kees 1999 & Singer 1997). Deuze (1999, p.377 - 379) combines these key elements in his analysis of the skills and standards required in an online environment. He describes interactivity as a purely audience-related feature that is an essential element of any news site, and concludes that direct contact with readers can result in more story ideas, correction of factual mistakes and access to sources which otherwise would be too time costly to locate. Individualisation is the ability to organise a web site to cater to the needs of the reader in the form of 'push' and 'pull' content. With 'pull' delivery, the site is grouped by content, hyper-linked to a searchable archive and consumer-related services. 'Push' content on the other hand, gives the reader the ability to customise what they want to read either on a web page (for example my.yahoo) or by delivery to an e-mail account. The third key word convergence is the amalgamation of moving images, text and sound in a single online story. It is slightly different from television journalism, in that the user has the option to decide which aspects of the story to begin with. Deuze's definition of convergence which relates to utilising various media forms online should not be confused with Negroponte's convergence of media industries as explained earlier.
These studies observe the paradigm shift from traditional journalism to online journalism and the changing work practices of journalists. However, on a wider context it is important to note the current industry trend of alliances between telecommunications companies, Internet start-ups, media organisations, and computer industry leaders that could potentially cause an industry shake-up.At the time of writing, America Online and Time Warner announced their merger and their acquiring of EMI, a music giant. Similarly the Seven Network confirmed its marriage to NBC Internet's arm owned by General Electric. San Jose Mercury News' Dan Gillmor commented on the AOL-Time Warner merger, "When the biggest online company controls the biggest traditional media company, you'd be wise to turn to other sources for reliable information" (USA Today 12 Jan 2000)
This venture is not a first but is probably the biggest of such alliances. Prior to this move, media organisations such as America's ABC and NBC had made major investments in Internet companies and blended their offerings into snap.com and go.com portals with the aim of floating these spin-off's on the stock market (Ledbetter 1999). Information providers such as CBS, Sony or News Corporation are merging resources with Internet/telecommunications companies for potential profit. In Australia, the Seven Network-NBC merger is part of a strategy to develop a content base for broadband platforms, including digital television. This move saved the Seven Network more than a $100 million in technological investments (Burke 1999, p.21). Industry analysts fear that such media concentration could undermine freedom of expression and because most users still turn to a few news sources, most websites would not be able to match the power and reach of the single AOL-Time Warner (Powell 2000). To track media ownership and the potential for concentration of power in the hands of a few major media players, the Columbia Journalism Review Online has developed an online resource, "Who owns what", allowing users to verify which corporations are financially linked to which media products and outlets (Moore 2000).
The lines between a traditional print and broadcast journalist are diminishing just as the media landscape is being constantly re-mapped. This phenomena ties in with Fidler's (1997 p.105) survival principle which forewarns the possible outcomes of the digital revolution we are facing. He says that though all forms of media will always evolve and adapt in response to changing conditions, it should not be assumed that individual forms can successfully adapt and evolve forever. Most, like living species, will be subsumed or die out but the process normally takes time and does not occur the instant a new form emerges. The commercial telegraph is an example of a medium that died out in the 1990s after 150 years.
Today's online newspapers are the descendants of a number of experiments in electronic publishing which were not restricted to the personal computer. To emphasise that the technology and online news products we see today are not entirely new, some early experiments are highlighted here.
The first low-cost broadcast technology, teletext, was developed by British Telecom in the 1970s (there is a dispute however with some suggesting that it was developed by engineers from the British Broadcast Corporation engineers). Telext transmitted several hundred frames or "pages" of textual information in a continuous loop, and with a special decoder and numeric keypad, viewers could request specific information. Based on the teletext model, viewdata or videotex was developed British Telecom engineers. It was designed to easily connect subscribers to large central databases via a telephone and special decoder box hooked to a television set. It was targeted as a 'user-friendly' device for the computer illiterate (Fidler 1998, p.140 - 143). In 1981 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pioneered StarText, a electronic news service on the dial-in bulletin board service (BBS). Three years later, in an attempt to defend themselves against the pioneering videotext services launched by media companies, Knight Ridder and Times Mirror launched Viewtron, a news and information service. In 1987, this service was shut down after losses of $50 million (Fidler 1998; Harper 1997). In the early 90s, the WWW saw the birth of Usenet and other such services disseminated news and information and later the first versions of online newspapers were born.
Though not the focus of this study, it is important to acknowledge the technological determinism versus social constructivism foundational debate relevant to the information superhighway. Technological determinists assert that technology is an independent entity and that changes in technology cause social change. Conversely, social constructivists argue that society's needs drive technology development and change (Tapsall 1998; Hearn et al 1998). The author acknowledges that this study is premised on the technological determinist argument, ie. that new technology does cause changes in social practices. It is not the author's intention to be biased towards technology though it may seem inevitably so.
Within the limited scope of a Masters thesis, this study aims to be a "scene-setter" to address selected issues surrounding the impact of technology (WWW specifically) on the newsroom and journalistic work practices. It takes a pragmatic approach in line with the author's journalistic experience, exposure to the online newsroom environment, and strong interest in Internet developments and new media technology.