E-mail Is Widespread in Newsrooms, but Big Metros Still Lag

By: Steve Outing

When I left my last newspaper job at the San Francisco Chronicle nearly three years ago, I was one of only a handful of editorial employees with an Internet e-mail address. The industry has come a long way since then, with significant numbers of print reporters and editors now using e-mail and the World Wide Web.

I just conducted a brief, unscientific survey of U.S. newsrooms and found that e-mail usage and access to the Web is spreading rapidly among those newspapers that are operating cyberspace ventures. But it's gained most rapidly at smaller newspapers that are not tied down by aging and expensive proprietary editing systems. Some large daily metros are still holding on to their Atex and SII systems, leaving many reporters far from the leading edge.

The Chronicle is in a common predicament among large metros. It relies on an aging editing system by SII (Systems Integrators of Sacramento, California), with most reporters and editors using Coyotes, which are expensive "dumb" terminals connected to Tandem mainframe computers. (I worked on a Coyote for years, and I still long for its editing capabilities; I've yet to see any PC-based word processor that's half as good as the Coyote. Of course, editing is all it's good for.)

The paper is in the midst of a change-over, with Coyote terminals being replaced gradually by PCs which contain a Coyote emulation board. Users can toggle the PCs between pretending to be a Coyote and interacting with the paper's central editing system, and being a standard PC with the capabilities of any other PC -- including the ability to access the Internet for e-mail and using the World Wide Web.

The process of phasing out the Coyotes takes time. The Chronicle's business section is the first to be fully converted to the PC-Coyotes, with all reporters and editors having the PCs on their desks by the end of the summer. The rest of the newsroom will take a while longer. (When I left the Chronicle in December 1993, Coyote-PCs were just being introduced to selected departments.)

Business editor Pimm Fox says that particularly for his reporters, using the Internet is essential. Several reporters use Internet e-mail to file stories from home, including stocks columnist Herb Greenberg, a heavy Internet user. "And when people come to the office to show me things," Fox says, "the next conversation with them is by e-mail."

Just do it

At Phoenix Newspapers, publishers of the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette, not all reporters have e-mail access yet, but the goal is to deliver it shortly. "It's a significant amount of money, but we're going to do it," says senior editor for information technology Howard Finberg. The Phoenix papers also rely on an SII system and are slowly phasing out their Coyote terminals, to be replaced with PCs that can double as Coyotes.

Finberg says he's starting to see some examples of how Phoenix journalists are using e-mail and the Web in their reporting, including a number of writers using e-mail to do interviews and solicit reactions to news events. "It (the Internet) is a lot better than cruising the sports bars" looking for public reactions to Olympics stories, one reporter told Finberg recently.

At the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the newspaper staff uses Atex terminals, which are slowly being replaced by PCs capable of Atex or PC modes. Robert Schafer, publisher of Star Tribune Online, says the Atex terminals "are hard to kill off," but are slowly being replaced. About 30-40% of the Star Tribune staff currently use the Atex-capable PCs and thus have an Internet connection for e-mail and the Web. For non-equipped reporters, there are a couple PCs planted around the newsroom that offer Web access. Schafer says that reporters who want e-mail access are generally accommodated. He estimates that one-third of the newspaper staff currently has e-mail addresses.

A major metro newspaper that's led the way in providing consumer online services also is ahead of the curve in providing Internet services to its staff. The San Jose Mercury News in California gives all staffers e-mail and Web access. The Mercury is one of the few papers that has replaced all its Coyotes with PCs (equipped with RoadRunner boards to emulate a Coyote). About a month ago, the paper standardized on using Microsoft Mail, and all employees have a standard e-mail address (first-initial-lastname@sjmercury.com).

No dinosaurs to deal with

Smaller newspapers have had an easier time of hooking all their employees up to the Internet; they typically don't have multi-million-dollar editing systems that they're loathe to scrap. In January, New Times Inc. of Phoenix gave all employees at its seven U.S. alternative newsweeklies access to the Internet and e-mail addresses. All the papers have a direct connection over leased lines to the central operation in Phoenix, so they all share New Times' T-1 line. Director of electronic publishing Braxton Jarratt says this system of connecting far-flung publications is much preferable over and more efficient than requiring everyone to use dial-up connections.

Jarratt says that the Internet is fast becoming vital to the print staff. And he's noted that letters to the editor are coming in at close to the rate of traditional postal-delivered missives. Some weeks, editors at those New Times papers with operational Web sites (Phoenix and Denver, at this point) receive more e-mail than postal letters to the editor.

At the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, the full staff was given Internet access about six months ago. Associate publisher Nora Contini reports that all reporters have e-mail addresses, though they're not standardized. Employees use the office PC network and either use America Online for e-mail and Web access, or an Internet service provider (ISP). The paper's San Francisco office has a shared ISDN line to allow faster access.

And at the Denver Business Journal, a regional weekly owned by American City Business Journals, editor Henry Dubroff says all his writers and editors have Internet access on their Macintosh workstations -- either America Online or through Earthlink, an ISP. Dubroff prefers AOL, signing off his column with an aol.com e-mail address for reader feedback; some of his younger staffers prefer using Earthlink. He estimates that for 6-8 hours of a typical day, someone in his office is using the Internet for research and reporting.

Where e-mail is still a novelty

The newspapers in my sampling above all operate online ventures, so the fact that their reporters use e-mail and the Web should come as no surprise. Yet even in this leading-edge group, not every print reporter has access to the Internet. The major hold-up in giving e-mail addresses to everyone on staff is, for larger papers, that they haven't yet switched to entirely PC-based editing systems. Smaller publishers are ahead of their metro-daily cousins simply because there are fewer barriers to switching to an Internet-capable editing system.

And to be sure, there are many newspapers that still provide no Internet e-mail service to their employees, just as many papers have yet to dip their toes into cyberspace with online ventures. Yet e-mail is fast becoming a staple of the journalist's toolbox. Should I rewrite this column in two years, e-mail for reporters will be as ubiquitous as the telephone in covering the news.

Do all of your reporters have e-mail accounts yet?

A nostaligic trip through Newspaperland

While in this column we discuss the "leading edge" of the newspaper business as it explores cyberspace business opportunities, the industry has a long and glamorous history. At the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a 1940s comi c book tour of the newspaper was found in some old files recently, and recreated on the World Wide Web.

Says the Star Tribune's Steve Yelvington, "It brings back to life an era in which 'journalism' really meant 'newspapering' and 'newspapering' meant rewritemen, lead type, Speed Graphic cameras, Teletype machines, and a device about the size of a PC that recorded directly onto paper. I think it was called a typewriter."

So many conferences, so little time ...

This may be the definitive listing of interactive communications conferences on the Web. CMP Media Inc. has created the TechCalendar site, which includes an exhaustive compilation of upcoming events in multiple technology fields. For events of interest to the interactive publishing industry, look under "Vertical Markets": "Publishing" and "Media and Communications."

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