By: Martha L. Stone
Online News Industry Does Some Soul-Searching
A half decade into the online-news revolution, only a precious few news sites are taking full advantage of the Web’s interactive capabilities. Some early online journalism practitioners have thrown up their hands in disgust, many bolting for greener pastures. Others plod along, hoping for changes in direction.
Journalists, professors and media critics who gathered last week at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for New Media Studies discussed solutions for the interactivity black hole at news sites.
“It’s about changing the relationship between the dispensers of information and the consumers of information,” said Jon Katz, keynote speaker and a noted critic of old media. “It’s about changing the power balance.”
A prolific writer for Slashdot.org and HotWired.com, Katz shot one of the first salvos at old media several years ago with a column titled “Why newspaper sites suck.” His views haven’t changed all that much. Katz draws a number of observations about the need for interactivity on online news sites from his own experience writing for these innovative online publications.
“When I first wrote a column for HotWired, it was very exciting,” he recalled. “There were hundreds of responses [to stories] – people taking me apart; really challenging my ideas. If you want to work in this environment, you’re opening yourself up for criticism and praise.”
A lot of journalists apparently aren’t willing to do that. Katz recounted a recent visit to ABCNews.com, where a link beckoned: “Peter Jennings wants to hear from you.” The link takes the reader to an e-mail box, which spits back a form e-mail. “It’s like giving your reader the finger,” Katz said of the unconvincing attempt at interactivity.
Katz also noted that The New York Times late last year refused to add his e-mail address to the end of an op-ed piece that he wrote, even after the discussion went to the highest echelons of decision makers at the paper. Katz said an editor told him that the Times had never added e-mail addresses to editorials before. So, Katz’s e-mail address wasn’t published either.
Two different approaches to content are at odds with each other, Katz reasoned. The Web welcomes interactivity because its genesis was the exchange of academic information. But traditional journalism’s approach is firmly rooted in a culture of talking to the reader, not with the reader.
“Interactive architecture flows from the mechanics of the Internet, with open access,” Katz said. “Journalism is not a free medium. It was always meant to be a propriety medium.”
Why aren’t news sites using the most obvious forms of interactivity, such as e-mail links on bylines? A non-scientific survey conducted by Institute for Media Studies Director Nora Paul provides some clues.
One online journalist who participated said: “I think e-mail is a license for people to be insulting, abusive, insensitive and downright racist and possibly anti-Semitic. I think people use the anonymity of it to say things they could not articulate in person.”
Another concern is the perceived loss of objectivity. Christine Tripunitara, lead online architect for TheTimesOnline of Northwest Indiana, was invited to speak because of her recent experience with adding message boards to her site.
Tripunitara confronted resistance from reporters and editors who feared problems with reporters participating in forums and jeopardizing their objectivity. Others worried that that comments by off-duty Times employees could be perceived as representing the company’s views. After a long debate, Tripunitara hammered out six pages of message board guidelines for hosts, moderators, postings and users.
Best practices, worst practices
Amy Gahran, moderator for the Online Writing listserv, spoke about best practices and worst practices in news site interactivity.
Among the best, according to Gahran, is BBC.com, for its well-organized discussion boards, and its approach to inviting discussion on compelling topics. Another example is SeattleTimes.com, which offers a complete list of editorial staff phone numbers and e-mail addresses to make interaction easy.
It’s not a news site, but Kodak.com gives users the ability to contribute favorite photos to its PhotoQuilt, and add captions. There’s no reason why newspapers can’t create similar features.
At Sunline.com, an innovative, interactive site in Port Charlotte, Fla., users can post pictures of people who have caught fish in the Gulf of Mexico community. Paul added that photo sections can pull significant traffic.
With the U.S. elections right around the corner, a number of sites are encouraging reader participation. Steve Clift, an advocate and consultant for online political forums in Minnesota, presented background on how online news sites can involve readers in political discussions on sites like Web White & Blue. Among the resources to build political discussion groups are mailman.com and egroups.com.
Databases also provide interactive opportunities for users. PBS.org, for example, provides a list of localized political ballots to interact with at The Democracy Project. Scorecard.org also provides reams of data to study on crime, governmental data, etc.
Laurence Bricker, founder of Popular Front, a multimedia agency in Minneapolis, presented several creative interactive Macromedia Flash and Shockwave presentations created for the likes of PBS.org, including award-winning interactive musical composition primers. Some interactive stories include Sound Lounge, Communities in Harmony and World Beat.
“It’s a new way to present content, taking a story (and making it interactive),” Bricker said. “I love the challenge. It’s a very creative process.”
Among the worst examples of interactivity, Gahran said, is Time magazine’s discussion section, which lists board after board without an attempt at organization. Interactivity is only as good as the technology that powers it, she said.
Martha L. Stone (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a new-media author and teacher based in North Barrington, Ill. She writes frequently for E&P Online.
Copright 2000, Editor & Publisher.