The Power of the Internet to Misinform -- and Fool Reporters

By: Steve Outing

Roger Fidler recently got a first-hand lesson in the power of the Internet to inform -- and misinform -- on a consulting/speaking trip through Asia. His experience might serve as a warning to reporters and editors who rely on information gleaned from the far reaches of cyberspace in their coverage.

Fidler is the former director of the now-defunct Knight-Ridder Information Design Lab in Boulder, Colorado, and the newspaper industry's most visible proponent of portable flat-panel tablet technology as the cornerstone of the long-term future of the newspaper industry. He's currently putting the final touches on a book about the future of media, "Mediamorphosis"; is about to start teaching at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Communications; and continues to travel the world doing consulting work and touting his flat-panel tablet vision in speeches.

It was one of those speeches, to the 19th Asian Advertising Congress meeting on the resort island of Bali, that a reporter for the Jakarta Post quoted Fidler as saying that by the year 2005 print media will be pushed out of the market by electronic tablet publishing, and predicting the demise of print journalism by that time.

To anyone who's ever heard Fidler give a speech, such sentiments would seem terribly out of whack with his previous public statements. Says Fidler of being misquoted, "Obviously, this erroneous story has been embarrassing and troubling for me. I have always been a champion for newspapers and have consistently argued that newspapers are not on the verge of extinction."

Being misquoted is a fact of life for anyone in the public eye. (The newspaper apologized to Fidler, blaming it on an inexperienced reporter.) But the Internet has significantly amplified the impact a misquote can have, as Fidler's episode demonstrated. Cowles/SIMBA Media Daily picked up the item from the Jakarta Post and from there it spread throughout the media community. He's fielded many calls from reporters wanting to follow up on his "controversial" views on the demise of print newspapers.

Fidler continues to get phone and email messages from newspaper industry leaders attacking his "message" to the Bali conference. A Knight-Ridder executive sent a nasty letter rather than call to confirm that the quote was accurate.

Says Fidler of the episode, "Critics of mass media have often called attention to the significant damage that can be done to personal reputations by sloppy reporting and editing. Some have argued that the Internet will overcome this problem by allowing people to access original source information and to make their own judgments without third-party mediation. That, however, is simply not true. Erroneous stories that circulate on the Net can be just as damaging and even more difficult to correct. At this stage in the Net's development there is little to no accountability. Reporters who use the Net to gather information for stories need to be especially diligent in their verification of sources, quotes and 'facts.'"

If you're interested in Fidler's real views, here are some excerpts from his speech in Bali:

"Far from dying, newspapers may actually be well positioned to emerge stronger than ever in the next decade. But to do so, they cannot remain as they are. Social, economic and environmental pressures are already forcing newspaper executives to rethink the nature of the business and to consider alternative publishing opportunities. ...

"No one expects printing presses and paper to disappear entirely in the next century, but they are certain to be used quite differently and much more sparingly than they are today. Initially, electronic editions designed for tablet appliances will complement printed editions. But, for most publishers of newspapers, magazines, and other ephemeral printed products, the superior economics and attributes of digital ink and silicon paper will ultimately make total conversion to this form of publishing irresistible. ...

"I ... firmly believe (flat-panel tablets) will enhance and extend the printed word in our cultures. Instead of completely discarding 500 years of accumulated printing and publishing knowledge, and 300 years of newspaper experience, next-generation flat-panel displays could lead to a new Renaissance in typographic communication."

Interactive Publishing presentations available as audio files

Audio files of presentations at the Interactive Publishing conference in Zurich, Switzerland, in mid November have been available on the Editor & Publisher Interactive Web site for several weeks. However, they were of limited usefulness since the tapes were broken up into days rather than by speaker. We have now made available as RealAudio files the presentations of Peter Winter, acting CEO of New Century Network, and Esther Dyson, president of EDventure Holdings, as well as my own presentation on online newspaper services revenue strategies.

To find the conference audio files, go to the main E&P home page, scroll down the page and look for the RealAudio link. (The direct link is

Putting conference presentation tapes on the Web was a first-time experiment for us, which accounts for the delay in getting the tapes broken out into individual presentations. We plan to do it again with presentations at the Kelsey Group/Editor & Publisher Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco on February 21-24, 1996. With the experience of Zurich behind us, we should be able to upload individual presentation tapes quickly.

Best Online Newspaper Services Competition

Please don't forget to nominate your own company or another for Editor & Publisher/The Kelsey Group's 1996 Best Online Newspaper Services Competition. The nomination form is on the Web at Deadline for nominations is January 24, 1996. Winners will be announced at the Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco on February 24, 1996.

Column schedule during holidays

I'm resuming this column today after taking a week and a half off for the holidays. There will be a column published Thursday, December 28, then another short break for New Year's. Stop The Presses! will resume its normal 5-day-a-week schedule on Tuesday, January 2, 1996. Happy holidays!

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