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And That's the Way It Will Be: News and Information in a Digital World

Author: Christopher Harper
Publisher: New York: New York University Press, 1998
Review Published: July 1999

 REVIEW 1: Vian Bakir

Christopher Harper's And That's the Way It Will Be: News and Information in a Digital World provides a discursive, but chatty, journey through the professional, political-economic, social, technical and legal issues facing the rapidly emerging field of digital/on-line journalism.

It is a very readable, introductory-level book, pitched at the level of most Internet users -- those who know what the Internet is, and have used it, but are not sure what its social impact is, or the detail of its development. Engaging vignettes and anecdotes -- some personal -- are used to effectively ease the reader into each of the twelve chapters. Endnotes enable this book to be used as a research resource, but more would be useful. The short glossary of Netspeak is helpful, but could be expanded. A brief historical overview of the development of computers and the Internet is augmented by an appendix offering a useful, but limited bullet point of key dates.

This book is almost entirely US-focused, and maps out the implications of the Internet for journalism as a practice, and for news as a commodity that is produced and consumed. It offers historical context, by looking at the social implications of news reporting via newspapers and television. Starting with children -- the new generation of "digerati" for whom computers will be the main source of information and entertainment -- Harper illustrates the access children have to the Internet at school, as well as their increasing desire for access. Moving onto young adults ("GenXers"), he documents how many Internet users hold strong opinions about education, health care and politics; and how many want a sense of community -- meaning a place where people share common bonds and interests, rather than a shared location.

Harper shows how many are dissatisfied with traditional news sources -- print and broadcast journalism -- citing a recent survey showing that "a critical segment of the 'news of the future' audience does not have the basic level of interest to be engaged with the news" (22). Those who do are turning to the Internet while the traditional readers and viewers of news are getting older. Harper asserts that one problem with traditional news media is that the credibility of journalists has fallen, due to hype, imitation, predictability, artificiality (e.g. the very language used by newscasters is not used by the public) and laziness in digging out original stories and in how they are told. By contrast, digital journalism allows the user to check the reliability of information they get from traditional news; it is available with much more choice, detail and analysis; and it can integrate various media, providing news stories, photographs, audio and video.

A more in-depth analysis is provided of the immediacy, interactivity and intimacy ("The Daily Me") provided by on-line journalism. Detail is given on personal news services for subscribers, such as Fishwrap, which offers a clippings service to save the stories you have read, and reorganizes your personal edition if you have changed your reading habits. Another specialized format of custom news is "real-time" reporting, where the news moves between computers as quickly as the information becomes known. Problems with customized news services are addressed, including the egocentricism such services may encourage, arising from the fact that users choose what they want to read and filter out other information. Another problem is the negative impact on newspapers: it is more cost-effective to move the contents of a computer screen at the newspaper's office to the computer screens of the subscribers, than to print newspapers.

Some of the main "movers and shakers" in digital journalism are profiled. These include, of course, Bill Gates. Today, Gates is allied with NBC forming 24 hour news channel MSNBC, and a Web service of the same name. Microsoft offers on-line magazine Slate, and Sidewalk is an on-line service offering entertainment information. An overview of Steve Case, chief executive of American Online (AOL) is also offered. Finally, a summary is provided of computer consultant Leah Gentry's 1995 survey of on-line newspapers. Her list about what qualities should be brought to the Web include immediacy, interactivity, multimedia, and making money, where "news I want you to see you get for free. News you want will cost you money" (73).

Despite the potential of digital journalism, Harper asks if it will be any different from traditional news, offering detailed examples of good and bad digital journalism -- including the Chicago Tribune and MSNBC.

The Internet edition of the Chicago Tribune debuted in March 1996. A detailed description is offered of how editing and reporting compares to the processes in traditional newspapers. To summarize, the reporting is the same as working for a standard newspaper -- gathering the information and talking to the people -- but it is put together differently. A process of "layering" is described, where the first page uses an anecdotal lead to draw the reader into the story; the second page broadens the story with the "nut graph," the paragraph that explains the main points of the story; and other pages flow from these two pages to allow the reader to follow a variety of links that expand on each report. Because a computer screen has less space than a newspaper's front page, the first page/layer of a digital story can contain a headline, a digital photograph and text that makes the user want to continue to the next layer. What works best is when the Web layout is like a magazine: your eye and attention are focused on one part which is easily digestible and flows and leads you to other parts. Problems are documented: for instance, on-line reporters sometimes resemble one-man bands, carrying a variety of technical instruments without the skills to do the job properly, but these are optimistically described as "growing pains."

In examining MSNBC, Harper examines why Microsoft entered the TV market. He argues that one of the highest stake games in the next decade will be who controls what you use -- the electronics industry with TV sets and analog technology, or the computer makers and digital technology. Starting now, consumers will eventually replace every one of their televisions with new digital models, creating a market of at least 230 million new sets worth an estimated $150 billion over the next decade. Microsoft's arrangement with NBC for a TV channel and an Internet site was one step towards controlling this market. Now the company has expanded the Microsoft Network to provide information and entertainment programmes on those same computers. NBC and Microsoft want to use MSNBC as a means to make better economic use of personnel and computer programming. MSNBC on the Web provides news on demand that meets peoples' needs: news is being broken down into niche markets of individuals who will control their own access to the types of information they want and when they want it.

Problems with combining the Web and TV are described, not least the fact that the Web is a text-based medium, providing good photographs, articles and graphics, and adequate radio clips, but poor video sequences. Technical problems give images on the Web a jerky quality; and information on the Internet moves in small packets that travel in a variety of directions between computers, causing images to sometimes arrive out of order, creating nonsensical sequences. Harper argues that at some point these problems will be solved, but warns that there are few advantages in moving TV to a computer just to copy what already exists -- and poorly at that. Digital journalism must find its own strengths and play to them.

Funding of the Internet is addressed. Harper predicts that advertising is likely to be the primary source of money to finance digital journalism. Unlike with broadcast or print media, where you have to deliver a short message, the Web offers the possibility of describing your product any way you want and to show virtually any type of image. Unlike traditional media, which cannot give specific numbers on how many tune into an advertisement, Web advertisement results can be counted immediately. There is a growing body of research about what works: for instance, bright colors like blue, green and yellow work best. Web advertisers can provide the information, track what readers find interesting and then close the deal. Harper considers the impact of Web advertising on the funding of traditional media, and ends on an optimistic note: despite dire predictions, newspapers survived the introduction of radio and TV; radio survived the onslaught of TV, and it is likely that all media will adapt to the competition for advertisers from new media.

The "upside" of the Internet is explored, focusing on news and information in poor US neighbourhoods and the developing world. For instance, in November 1996 in Alexandra, a poor black township north of Johannesburg with no running water, a group of people at a community center used the Internet to pull in Web sites of African newspapers to find out what was going on around them. These are people who do not read newspapers on paper; instead, they have leap-frogged to on-line sources. Some see the Internet as a potential boon for African universities, allowing schools to access information from top libraries throughout the world. Barriers to developing countries using the Internet are addressed, like the inadequate telephone system, and the dependence on unaffordable computers. The up-beat message is that the Internet and Web have created new communities of people that know few geographic boundaries.

The "downside" looks at troubles facing the Internet. Harper argues that the Internet faces its own version of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first is "war" -- where hackers and cyberterrorists launch attacks to disrupt the flow of information. Here we are introduced to "worms," "logic bombs," "bots," and "SYN attacks." The second horseman, "death," comes from traffic overload and system crashes which slow access to information, creating the "World Wide Wait." The third horseman, "pestilence," focuses on the problems of the "millenium bug." The fourth horseman, "famine," is where a dearth of specific addresses on the Internet may impede the ability of business, news organizations and other groups to communicate with one another.

The "dark side" of the Internet discusses issues of pornography, hate (e.g. the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan) and privacy. US government intervention is discussed, as is how the First Amendment may apply to the Internet, and how to define the Internet under law. Harper advocates restricting freedom of speech on the Internet -- e.g. racism and hate -- and that all communications on the Internet should include a name and a verifiable e-mail address.

Harper questions whether digital journalists will have the same rights as print and television journalists. It is difficult to tell because the Internet editions of newspapers are global and libel laws differ between countries. In questioning what copyright laws exist in cyberspace, Harper suggests that one can probably get away with anything unless the information comes from a large company with aggressive lawyers. In looking at the future of the Web, Harper concludes that unless it can offer a reliable service, people will not come, advertisers will not come, and digital journalism will die. Predictions from a range of players in the field are offered -- both negative and positive. On the whole, an optimistic message about the state and future of digital journalism is proffered.

Vian Bakir:
Vian Bakir is a Lecturer in Broadcasting Studies and Faculty of Art and Cultural Studies, Falmouth College of Arts, Falmouth, Cornwall, UK whose research interests include the use, and non-use, of the mass media and Internet as a campaigning tool by pressure groups, interest groups and sub-cultures as well as media coverage of environmental issues, issues of risk (including genetic modification of food), and "rave" culture.  <vian.bakir@falmouth.ac.uk>

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