The Web and the Starr Report

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By: Steve Outing Looking through a media analysis lens, the release on the Internet last week of Kenneth Starr?s infamous report on President Bill Clinton?s sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky brings lots of fascinating issues into focus. Obviously, the existence of the Internet dramatically changed how this story was played in the media. Indeed, many industry observers are calling the release of the Starr report on the Internet a ?defining moment? for the online medium -- since so many people went online to read the titillating document.

Newspaper editors last Friday faced a potentially costly decision: should they run all or large chunks of the 445-page Starr report -- and incur a large printing and paper bill without any additional advertising on those extra pages to lessen the blow -- or make the report available only on their Web sites -- merely running excerpts in print and referring readers to papers? Web sites for the full document?

A good number of American newspapers opted for running at least an abridged (but still long) version of the report in print, feeling an obligation to make the document available to a wide audience -- not just those individuals who have access to the Internet. Just about every major newspaper put a copy of the complete report on their Web sites, as an HTML document and/or in downloadable form.

Insta-book

Because the report was so huge, several newspapers turned the report into an instant book, which could be ordered by mail. The Memphis Commercial-Appeal in Tennessee printed the full report in book form, which it is selling for $7.95 including postage. That paper?s sister publication in the E.W. Scripps chain, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, printed only excerpts from the report in a special section on Sunday, but promoted the Memphis paper?s print version.

The San Antonio Express-News in Texas also decided that the Web wasn?t enough, so it printed the entire report in tabloid form and sold it for $3 plus tax above the newspaper regular price, according to new media managing editor Linda Ash. The newspaper printed ?the long version of the excerpts? of the report, which was what also was on the Express-News? Web site. The printed tabloid full report is being sold at Shamrock gas-convenience stores, and at H-E-B and Albertson?s grocery stores. ?Sales were brisk in some areas, with some stores asking for more copies,? Ash says. Kinko?s copy/office stores in San Antonio, meanwhile, printed the full report and was selling copies for $35. (The report was of particular local interest because special prosecutor Starr hails from San Antonio.)

And at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, the newspaper also published a special section which could be purchased at the newspaper office for $2 or for $4 ordered by phone and mailed to the customer. Says Spokane.net?s Susan Mulvihill, ?At least we didn?t have to worry about the issue of the (online) ?haves? vs. the (print) ?have-nots.??

In it together

At the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Tribune Co. newspaper published excerpts of the report in print and the full text online -- a fairly typical reaction to the situation. ?We are careful not to alienate our non-Netters,? says Internet Edition assistant editor Glenn McLaren, ?but we cannot ignore the growing Internet audience by failing to take full advantage of the medium?s capacity for delivering a major news item in its full form.?

Chris Kouba, content manager for Virginian-Pilot Interactive Media in Norfolk, Virginia, says the Starr report was a ?perfect example of how a newspaper and Web site complement each other.? PilotOnline carried the full text of the report as soon as it was available, beating the print edition by 12 hours. Like many papers, the Virginian-Pilot devoted only two extra pages for report excerpts, which were edited to make some of the more sexually graphic passages appropriate for a ?family newspaper.? The Web site had the unexpurgated version, with a warning note to parents that the content might be objectionable.

For those papers that did not make a print copy of the full report available, the issue arises about offering access to the document to all of the community, not just those who use the Internet. Those papers that published and sold the full reports cover the bases in that regard, but not all publishers chose to go that route.

?I can?t see an ethical problem here,? says Mark Shenefelt, online manager for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, which published only report excerpts in print. ?Ideally, we would publish the full text of all important documents in the newspaper, but smaller papers cannot afford the newsprint expense. The newspaper?s Web site is a supplement to the paper, an additional value, that allows the company overall to provide more service than it could before the Web was born.?

To serve those who don?t have Internet access, the newspaper is referring them to the local library, where they can read it online, Shenefelt says. Also, anyone can walk in to the Standard-Examiner office and read a hard copy of the report left at the front desk.

Associate professor George Harmon of Northwestern University?s school of journalism agrees that newspapers shouldn?t feel obligated to print the entire report on paper, since most public libraries now have Internet access to serve those community members who don?t own or have work access to Internet-enabled computers. ?True, some people don?t know how to log on,? he says, but ?if computers didn?t exist, some people still wouldn?t read or would have poor eyesight. A news organization can?t reach everyone, computer age or not.?

A contrary view

Perhaps lost amongst the hoopla over the release of the Starr report is the idea of whether the full report should have been published by the media in the first place. Dirk Smillie, director of the News Research Group, a New York-based bi-partisan media research organization, says that the media?s lemming-like rush to get the report online in its entirety ?is not really in the public interest; it?s more pandering to the public?s prurience.?

If Starr?s report had been 400-plus pages of dry legalese about Whitewater instead of about oral sex in the Oval Office, Smillie doubts that news organizations would have done any more than refer readers to the government Web site where the full document resided, and publish excerpts of the most important parts of the report. But because this report was about sex, the document was rushed online by hundreds of media sites under the notion that "the public has a right to see it."

Steve

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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 at:steve@planetarynews.com

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

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