As we approach the end of the twentieth century, two powerful forces have emerged to change the mass communication model. The first is the use of computers as a means of processing, analyzing, and disseminating information. The second is the constantly accelerating capacity of that technology to enhance communication so it is almost unbounded by time and space. Because older communication technology required a huge investment of capital, a one-to-many model dominated, with those owning the broadcasting equipment or newspaper presses disseminating information to the masses. Current technology, specifically the digital transmission of text, audio, and video, has altered the traditional one-to-many communication model; instead, audiences are becoming producers as well as consumers of information, and a new many-to-many communication model has emerged. Today anyone with a modem, personal computer, and a telephone line can become a publisher, as we now know the term. But it is a mistake to eliminate totally the old model in favor of the new. By juxtaposing the best of the new model -- computerized access, delivery, and packaging of information -- with the best of the old model -- insightful reporting in a well written story -- a better hybrid model that combines the best of both is created.
"Writing is in a way the most drastic of the three technologies (speech, writing, computers.) It initiated what print and computers only continue, the reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation of the word from the living present, where alone spoken words can exist." (82)As the appropriate next step on an evolutionary continuum, CMC can return to language (the word) the immediacy lost in writing and give it a real-time presence. In fact, this is the very reason that the most popular form of CMC is electronic mail, fondly referred to as e-mail. People around the world have embraced CMC and instinctively formed "virtual communities" of like-minded individuals. Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan anticipated this warm response to the technological changes in communication more than 30 years ago. He predicted the formation of a "global village," which in many ways is coming true in the form of the Internet. The network has experienced astronomical growth -- 475 percent over the last year and 31,155 percent over the last three years (Rutkowski 7).
"A tremendous power shift is underway, and despite the obscure or phony terminology used to describe it, this power shift is about people, and our ability to connect with each other in new ways much more than it is about fiber optic cable and multimedia appliances. The revolution triggered by the printing press was about literacy, and what literate populations are capable of doing (eg: governing themselves), long after it had anything to do with the mechanics of moveable type. The technology enabled the power shift, but the power shift was created by the people who used the tool to educate themselves." (127)As Rheingold aptly states, this new communication revolution is shifting power to the people. This power shift seriously threatens the dominance of traditional mass media forms, specifically television, radio stations, magazines, and newspapers, which were built from the one-to-many communication model. Newspapers, which currently print and then deliver information on paper, are particularly vulnerable. Astute editors and publishers have recognized the threat digital delivery poses to the nation's estimable "Fourth Estate," and in an effort to reach today's "wired" audiences, they are creating new, electronic publications. But so far, creating a successful, futuristic model has eluded most publishers. Many outlets have opted simply to put the content of the "paper" product online, only to discover that the online world has its own, often mysterious ethos. Writing in Wired Magazine, Jon Katz, a media critic and former executive producer of the CBS Evening News, succinctly summarizes the dilemma facing newspaper publishers:
"So far, at least, online papers don't work commercially or conceptually. With few exceptions, they seem to be just what they are, expensive hedges against on rushing technology with little rationale of their own. They take away what's best about reading a paper and don't offer what's best about being online. That's the point of a newspaper. . .to filter the worthwhile information, then print it. . . . The newspaper needs to reinvent itself. . . . The object is not to replace, or put into a different format, but to gain a toehold in cyberspace and even absorb some of its values."
"The challenge for you will be perhaps your greatest ever. As a producer of newspapers, what you must do first is determine how you conceive yourself. Are you an organization that supplies newspapers or are you an organization that supplies information? Remington and Underwood saw themselves as being in the typewriter business. IBM saw itself as being in the word-processing business. The rest is history." (49)This self-analysis is being conducted in turbulent times when conflicting forces threaten to pull the industry apart. Reading a daily newspaper is a habit of millions of middle-age and older Americans. However, today's young people often prefer more sophisticated media to the daily ritual of the morning newspaper. We are also experiencing what some call an information explosion that threatens to bury even the most avid reader and intellectual. Ironically, it is the glut of information that holds the key to the survival of the newspaper industry. The digitizing of information has created a vast expansion in the amount of information that is readily available to audiences. Books and manuscripts that previously consumed libraries and other physical spaces are now contained in digital bytes that can move with great speed over vast distances. Quite simply, more information is available to more people more quickly then ever before.
Mass media evolved because people from all walks of life needed help to understand the world around them. Throughout history, newspapers have excelled at collecting, recording, and distributing information at many different levels and geographic locales. As they evolve in light of technological change, newspapers need to embrace that mission anew. In fact, defining what is news is now more critical than ever. And it is their ability to do this within the context of new technology that is the key to newspapers' survival. Writing in a recent New York Times Magazine column, veteran journalist Max Frankel prognosticates:
"The newspapers that prosper in the next century will be the ones that offer the best journalism, that master the subjects about which they write and acquire the talent and expertise to appraise and explain an infinite variety of events. . . . Newspapers can trust the fermenting computer industry to perfect the technologies that will gradually replace their presses and delivery trucks. It's talent that they will need to survive in the digital age -- gifted editors, reporters, and image artists who can find meaning in the approaching information glut." (38)
In today's more competitive information delivery environment, better research, better reporting, and better analysis are critical. Of the three, research is the priority. Speaking at a Neiman Foundation conference, J.T. Johnson explained the importance of the pre-reporting process:
"The quality of the information out can only be as good as the data flowing in. . . . Hence because of this shift in the data environment, educators and journalists must immediately turn more attention to the left side of the equation, the research, reporting, and analysis aspects if we are to improve the quality of the data in analysis components." (21)The value of research and analysis in creating the newspaper of the future may best be illustrated by one of the industry's leaders, the News and Observer (N&O) in Raleigh, North Carolina. While the paper has attracted attention for its World Wide Web site, Nando Land electronic service for children, and multimedia forays, the newspaper's real muscle comes from its research prowess. Nora Paul of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank, claims that Raleigh's research operations are unparalleled. Writing in the American Journalism Review, Philip Moeller identified the N&O's real strengths:
". . . what sets Raleigh apart is the fact that digitized information skills -- for using computers, databases, online services -- are becoming standard for nearly everyone in the newsroom." (43)He outlines what sets Raleigh's operation apart from the norm in the industry: a 21-person research department with a network of databases; staffers who write software to create research pathways to access databases; the creation of a database to track state legislation that was turned into an online service; and three generations of hypertext software that enable writers to search their own notes. These developments were the precursors of other innovative ventures, such as a multimedia series in collaboration with a local television station, and an electronic version of the newspaper.
"Writers have always been society's visionaries. We now have too much information to rationally deal with on a daily basis, and we need skilled professional help to turn that information into the currency of the next millennium -- knowledge." (1)Along with its muckraking and investigative roots, there is a long history of the newspaper reporter as a writer of literature. In fact, the first newspapers in this country were partisan reports of events. It was the organization of the Associated Press in 1848 that introduced the requirement of objectivity in reporting, and reporters have been walking a tightrope ever since trying to be both observer and participant.
The insightful reporter interpreting reality ultimately has the same goals as McLuhan's highly intuitive "artist," who is capable of understanding the present and as well as the future.
"The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness. . . . The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs." (65)
"The computer is a perfect complement to the newspaper. . . . [It] enables the existing news industry to deliver its product in real time. It hugely increases the quantity of information that can be made available, including archives, maps, charts and other supporting material. It opens the way to upgrading the news with full screen photography and videos, while hugely enhancing the richness and timeliness of the news. The computer empowers readers to use the "paper" in the same way they do today -- to browse and select stories and advertisements at their own time and place." (10)By using computer technology to produce and deliver a new product, newspapers have welded both the old (literacy-print) with the new (computers-digital delivery) and created a better model. McLuhan explains this process as the creation of a hybrid which blends the old and the new to create a superior medium.
"The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snaps us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses." (55)
One of the many newspapers embarking on an electronic future is the Arizona Daily Star. The Star is working on a new service called StarNet that offers a comprehensive mix of features and services. Some of those features include Internet access, news from the paper edition, local discussion groups, and access to the paper's archives. The Star is attempting to become an electronic home base for its readers and will give nonprofit organizations (with a budget of less than $1 million dollars) space on their service to publish local newsletters. While this service may be too ambitious for some publishers just beginning to venture into cyberspace, the concept of the newspaper as the community's electronic publishing hub is a critical component of the newspaper of the future.
While many are searching for the yet elusive answer, the only certainty now is that there is no one right way to do things: each newspaper must discover its niche and provide insightful and innovative content in a format its readers want. And that format may range from a hand-held tablet to a personalized newspaper created by an intelligent agent searching the Internet for customized news. Living the many-to-many model means that the flow of information is fluid with readers responding to and creating information and ideas. In addition to providing access to information, the newspaper publisher is now a facilitator of public discussion. By building community discussion, what is reported in the news takes on new meaning, and people come to better understand not only the world around them, but themselves as well.
Chris Lapham, Chief Correspondent for CMC Magazine, is an online content consultant and freelance writer and reporter who lives in the Capital Region of New York. She recently received a Master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
Copyright © 1995 by Chris Lapham. All Rights Reserved.
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