Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 6 / October 1, 1994 / Page 7

The Internet for Journalists: The Fourth Estate in Cyberspace

by Gary Gach (

To live in America today is to be confronted by issues, facts, and ramifications of an ongoing information revolution. Journalists are no exception. The Fourth Estate is getting "totally wired." Twenty-five years ago, it was news that copy could be manipulated from keyboard to print many times without re-keying, thanks to a word-processed "text-stream." Today, information streams have become great rivers.

Newswires and databases can now feed directly to a journalist's desk, home, or on-the-road laptop. Reporters in the field can turn in not only text but also color photos--all from a payphone. For the public, many newspapers and magazines host bulletin boards and electronic editions--some are even interactive, right down to the ads. The list of online journalism developments seems as endless as the credits at the end of today's Hollywood movies. The most comprehensive development, however, is the Internet.

By now practically everyone has heard of the Internet, the remarkable, fast-growing network of networks. The current Internet population is about 15 million--and doubling every year. Where does journalism find itself in this daunting electronic frontier? What can the Internet do for journalism, and vice-versa? Plenty.

Electronic mail (email), is the glue of network communications, and the lifeblood of the Internet. Email enables the electronic journalist to communicate with anyone else on or near the Net, instantly. And, as with the rest of the Net, there's no toll charge--once you're online, most Internet services are free. One of its effects in the world at large has been to make internal corporate hierarchies more egalitarian--such as when the rank-and-file speak directly with management or administration by corporate computer network.

Jeff Perlman, of the L.A. Times' Orange County Edition, reports that he has used the Net to get past the lions at various VIP gates in order to get interviews.

"I've had success particularly on CompuServe, where some federal officials hang out," Perlman explains. Other journalistic applications of email include getting story ideas and leads from others on the Net who know you're a journalist; circulating text to advance readers for feedback; and online submission of proposals and sending copy or images to editors.

E-mail not only lets you communicate point-to-point but also point-to-mass, which is where the idea of the mailing list comes in. The list sends a file from any member to all of the others, via email. Through such a cyberspace mailing list, (also known as a reflector, alias, and listserv), a journalist can sign on and hook up with any number of interest groups.

Actually, there are about 30 such lists of particular interest for journalists. CARR (Computer-Assisted Reporting & Research), for example, currently has 373 subscribers in 18 countries. Topics such as women in journalism, dress code, and memorable bloopers in print can continue over a month, as members share experiences and insights from diverse vantages. Other lists deal with college papers, high school journalism, the history of the printed word, copy editing, progressive publications, Photoshop, etc.

Lists can be thought of as a shared space to relay backchat--round robins that are like a radio talk show but where no one is ever put on hold and multiple conversations take place at once. A list can also be a group newsletter, or a custom newspaper. China News Digest, for example, is staffed by 40 volunteers, emailing thousands of words-worth of news briefs and feature articles about China, culled from around the world, to 30,000 subscribers everyday.

Electronic conferences are a variant of mailing lists--potentially larger electronic forums wherein conferees post their views as on a bulletin board, by subject. The primary site for this is Usenet, (where conferences are called "newsgroups"--even if they're about recipes, gardening, or gay parenting). For the electronic journalist, these modes of electronic forum have two big industry-related potentials. One, is to network, hang out, gab, schmooze, and generally exchange information. There are conferences are organized around such interest areas as news media, media and politics, journalism, and music journalism. The other potential is access to news wires, big and small. UPI feeds are not only online, (via ClariNet), but arranged by almost 100 different categories. Reuters too is online, plus a number of specialized news services, such as Interpress, HandsNet, New York Transfer, and PeaceNet News. Thus, the e-journalist can not only make his or her fingernails longer to grasp more of the information that's out there, but can do so quickly and directly.

In addition to email, mailing lists, and conferences, the Internet offers the e-journalist file transfer (FTP) remote log-in, and information resources. File transfer protocol (FTP) gives access to international libraries of sites containing literally gigabytes of public access files.

While the text of the Clinton health plan became a best-selling instant book at $9 a pop five days after it was released, it was readily and easily available at no cost on FTP from day one.

Again, files can be text, (the Maastricht Treaty or White House press releases), or anything else that can be digitized, such as a selection of the Smithsonian image bank, or fonts, utilities, and applications for your computer.

The e-journalist can do more than just access computers that house FTP sites, for download/upload. Distant computers can be operated directly from the e-journalist's computer, through remote log-in. The distant computer which the e-journalist then "drives" can be linked to campus directories, journalism department information, library catalogs, databases, and so forth, available 24 hours a day.

In addition to the above five communication modes, there are new ways of searching out information. These include Gopher, Archie, World-Wide Web, WAIS, and Veronica. For example, inputting a key word or words to Veronica (Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Netwide Index to Computerized Archives), can yield a one- to 20-page directory of files. Remarkably, you then have only to point and click, and Veronica takes you to each entry--whether it's an FTP site, a remote log-in, or a thread from an archived conference.

Now, let's step back a few paces. Up until now, we've considered the Internet as specialists, (i.e., journalists). But journalists must be generalists too. To be a journalist is to have an ear for news, wherever it may be. In addition to specific nooks and crannies, the whole Internet is a gold mine of stories, sources--and even outlets in which to publish them. Thus, the Internet means thousands of research and marketing opportunities for freelancers.

For example, plugging in to mailing lists and conferences are ideal ways to bring you up to speed on most any topic, be it a region, an event, an issue, or a population group. These areas are often a few days ahead of mainstream media, and are also excellent sources for eyewitness accounts and for man-on-the- street quotes. The Middlesex News recently ran two side-by-side Op-Ed pieces on the Israel/PLO accords: one was by a Jewish settler in the West Bank, the other by a Dutch woman living with Palestinians in Gaza; both were found via the Net. Because the Net is volunteristic, journalists have posted a question to a conference and found experts doing valuable research/legwork for them.

There are pitfalls to watch out for, of course. A few journalists have downloaded information offline without fact-checking, as if appearance on a computer screen validated it. Likewise, an e-text can never convey the background and nuances of the human voice or face-to- face interviewing. However, the recent earthquake in Los Angeles was rife with irresistible examples of the Fourth Estate in cyberspace. Within one hour of the initial quake, Texas Tech professor Randy Reddick teleported from one computer with seismic data, in Oklahoma, to another in Berkeley's Office of Emergency Services (OES). He was surprised to find the OES computer rife with preliminary information which was updated throughout the day--proclamations from the governor, Caltrans breakdown on highway status, utilities overview and specifics, aftershock times and magnitudes, Red Cross relief centers, press briefings, media advisories, FEMA involvement, damages, deaths, etc. Later that day, he visited the WELL, and a few "live" conferences where he bumped into a few news agencies "trawling for color," who were, simultaneously, relaying what they had heard.

Still "charged" from surfing the Net through a disaster of such magnitude, he reflected, "Using only the net (and understanding the danger of such), I could have produced at least a page (168" SAU) of fresh, relevant news articles on a breaking story: main story, sidebars, H.I. etc. Aside from the art, these stories would have been just as good as about anything that went out over the wire, and probably as good as 90% of what on-the-scene media produced.

"My point is, the information was there in a timely manner, sources were available for 'interviewing,' and I never left my desk or lifted the phone. It would not have taken much effort to get some 'friends' to snap some pictures, digitize, and post the images. No AP. No UPI. No AFP. No Reuters. No NYTNS. No LATNS."

Of course, while the electronic journalist has any of the above Net options, so does the electronic audience at large. Which is all the more reason for keeping abreast of the game. With not only the media and media workers getting wired, but also the public at large--the very world itself, (about which to report), is thereby being changed transformed. ¤

This article ran in the Feb-April issue of "Media File" the free newsletter of San Francisco's Media Alliance. San Francisco-based Media Alliance is the only California organization that combines media activism with membership services.

Gary Gach writes a weekly column "ArtScene" for AsianWeek. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, from The American Book Review to Zyzzva. His address in cyberspace is (

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