Online Aftermath of a Newspaper 'Enterprise' Feature

By: Steve Outing Last week, the Washington Post ran a wonderfully written series of articles called "Peace Church: An American Journey," about a Post photographer who was in Vietnam with U.S. Marines while they were being assaulted by North Vietnamese soldiers and holed up inside a church. The photographer, Frank Johnston, snapped a poignant photo of Marine Richard Sutter, who died not long after. The expression on Sutter's face and the nightmarish scene of wounded Marines inside the church became a well known icon of the Vietnam War.

The series, written by Post reporter Phil McCombs, traces Sutter's tour of duty in Vietnam, and continues to follow surviving brother Robert Sutter's journey along with Johnston and McCombs to Vietnam 20 years later, to find the remains of that church in the Vietnamese countryside.

While the series is a remarkable and emotionally moving work of journalism, it's what happened after the series was published in the newspaper and on the Web site that's interesting from a new media perspective. This is one story that didn't end with it being published, thanks to the Internet.

Let's chat

On July 21, when the third installment of the "Peace Church" series ran in the newspaper, a one-hour live online chat was scheduled with McCombs and Johnston. The public was invited to partipate and ask questions, and the chat session was promoted with blurbs (or "refers") set within the print edition stories, and through Web site and external Web promotion. It's not known how many people participated in the Web chat session, because the type of chat software used by the Post isn't capable of tracking it. But it was a busy hour.

One of the participants in the chat was Robert Sutter, who took the opportunity to publicly clarify some of the comments attributed to him by McCombs in the series. In a chat question directed at McCombs, Sutter wrote:
"For the Sutter Family, (the articles) have been painful to read, both for what is accurate and for statements attributed that were either poorly stated on our parts, or misunderstood during your various interviews. To strangers reading this story the inaccuracies are immaterial. To those who know our family I feel an obligation to set the record straight, as many who will read this will wonder what we really said about our parents. ...

"The only other statement that I think truly missed the mark was the comment that I felt I had been raised by wolves. What I was attempting to convey was that as the last child of six I was raised by many people. ... I feel I owe my parents and their friends an apology for that remark. If there is a way to set the record straight before this piece is concluded I would be sincerely grateful."

McCombs responded publicly on the chat, saying, "I'm really sorry if I got anything wrong. I tried my best to be accurate with a complex set of facts and relationships." He also thanked Sutter and his family for opening up their lives to public scrutiny for this story.

Other chat participants included many veterans of the Vietnam War sharing similar experiences, and one other member of the tour group that traveled to Vietnam. But the chat contained another emotional element, when McCombs' daughter, Willow, wrote in a question to her father: "I just wanted to ask if any healing took place for you on this trip and if so is there a specific experience that hit you the hardest?"

Johnston's online response included this: "I returned to Saigon, where you and your sister Heather lived as little girls, ... and experienced a lot of feelings there. Specifically, family issues and war issues were intermingled, I can sense now. What was I doing taking my family to a war zone? Really, when I think about that, I can see there are a lot of issues around it that need to be worked on."

The value of chat

It's easy to deride live online chat as a vapid medium; most uses of chat offer thin conversation and little of substance. Chat is a favorite of teenagers more than any other group. So it's intriguing to see with the Peace Church chat session how this particular online medium can be utilized in worthwhile ways. The transcript of this chat, which was managed by moderator Gayle Worland who filtered the questions, reads more like a threaded discussion forum that might take place over several days instead of a single hour. (Unmoderated chats certainly are more unruly than moderated chats such as this one.)

The other remarkable thing about the aftermath of this story is how the sources of the story itself had the opportunity to participate and indeed critique what the professional journalists had produced. It's quite a profound difference for Robert Sutter to be able to question the accuracy of what McCombs wrote in a live interactive forum, with a transcript available online after the fact, than to simply complain in a letter to the editor.

The chat session also provided readers of the series with added content and insight that wasn't in the lengthy original series of articles. Johnston's exchange with his daughter brought up a significant element in the story which was not covered in McCombs' narrative.

What's the lesson here? Simply, that journalists today must adapt to working in a two-way medium. Gone are the days when a major "enterprise" feature for a newspaper is published and the aftermath might be a few letters to the editor. Today's journalists can expect a significant story to live on for many days or even weeks in the form of public discussion forums, in which the journalists take part and answer reader questions and respond to reader criticism.

How journalism is practiced is being profoundly changed by the Internet. This humbling experience of McCombs and Johnston is a bellwether of what tomorrow's journalists can expect. The one-way nature of newspaper journalism is slowly being transformed into a more interactive one.

(Note: I had hoped to interview McCombs and Johnston about this topic, but neither was able to return repeated phone calls.)

E-mail about e-mail

My last column about opt-in e-mail services by news sites -- and the lack thereof at most sites -- brought in reports of early e-mail efforts at some sites. Ronald Dupont Jr., Internet editor of the Sunline site in Port Charlotte, Florida, reports on some early success with free e-mail content services started several months ago: "A number equivalent to 1% of our county's population has signed up for our e-mail service. Who would have thunk it? And if you look at what we offer for them to receive -- school lunch menus, health briefs, etc -- it's not a whole lot. What's gonna happen when we add a whole bunch of new e-mail features in the next month?" (A description of Sunline's current e-mail services can be viewed at

At the Calgary Herald in Canada, new media manager Dave Haynes says that his Web site recently started beta testing a "News From Home" e-mail service:
"We've automated registration and actual production of the e-mail and hooked it up on a list-serv. The e-mail contains an advertising text header and a reader sales/circulation footer, and consists of the headline and first three paragraphs of several local stories. Users are prompted to click through to our site to read the full story. Calgary is an energy town and has several thousand residents who work at least part of the time overseas on remote projects that have little if any proper Internet access. That's the primary reason we're using just a text service. We think that's all many of our potential users could possibly receive. We also think this will serve as something of a lifeline for those people working on exploration projects in the middle of nowhere.

"We don't think there's much money in this, though we'll definitely be able to sell that text ad up top. Where we see some real advantage is maintaining ties with those people who cycle in and out of town, providing incentives to start home delivery once they again take up residence in Calgary."

Sean Peck, founder of News Index, a news-specific Internet search engine service, wrote: "Though we have not marketed it at News Index yet, I just wanted to let you know I deliver e-mail to nearly the same number of unique users per day as the Web site gets unique IP visitors at News Index. So I guess you could say e-mail is like the drive-through at McDonald's; for News Index at least half of our business is being done via e-mail."


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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