REPORT: At Nieman confab, media ponder digital frontier

By Bill Densmore

Journalism researcher Bill Densmorewas among those invited to a May, 1995, conference at a Cambridge, Mass., hotel organized by then-Nieman Foundation researcher Katherine Fulton. Here is his report written a few days later.


      WRITER'S NOTE -- Last week approximately 200 news media
editors, executives, pundits, observers and would be-
entrepreneurs gathered in Cambridge for a two-day Nieman
Foundation seminar entitled: "Public Interest Journalism: Winner
or Loser in the On-line Era?" The foundation made audiotape of
all of the formal sessions and plans to have them transcribed
and available on the World Wide Web shortly. (For information

      In the meantime, here is one attendee's view of the
affair. This is not a news account, but an analysis. I have
attempted to weave conceptual threads and illustrate them with
quotes from speakers and panelists. I did not attend as a
reporter, I failed to do such basics as interviewing
participants for their reaction to the proceedings.

      After reading this "setup," it is my hope that other
conference attendees will add their own threads or clarify
those which I have imperfectly woven; and that other readers
will extend the conversation.

      This "story" is thus arranged in two parts:

      1. A wrapup of themes expressed.

      2. A description of the program structure and


By Bill Densmore
The Newshare Syndicate

      CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- May 7 -- Like curious onlookers
peeping through cracks in construction-site barricades,
America's media organizations are eyeing the foundations laid
for a digital information infrastructure.
      Will they leap the fence and pick up a shovel, or watch
the structure rise as sidewalk superintendents?
      There were few new clues last week as approximately 200
media executives gathered here for a Nieman Foundation
conference on public-interest journalism in the on-line era.
      Think about the basics of human nature, the "overpowering,
and durable appetite for story . . . and coherence," said wrap-
up speaker Jack Fuller, publisher of the Chicago Tribune.
Journalism which defines itself by purpose and values can be
alive and well in the online era, said Fuller, but only "if we
avoid being in a state of denial over all this."
      The point of the event, organizated by Nieman Fellow
Katherine Fulton of Duke University [fulton(at)],
was not to spur action on the digital frontier. It was to offer
perspective to those on sidelines from others who have already
plunged in.
      "Internet people are frontierspeople," said Arthur O.
Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times. Behind them,
he said, "are the barbarians like me -- the shopkeeper. We're
their worst nightmare, but we're coming." The Times already has
a service on America Online and publishes a truncated daily
facsimile edition. Soon, says Sulzberger, the newspaper will
"put page one up on the Internet -- and it will be free." The
efforts are all experimental, he says. "We don't know where it
is going. In the long run, it's got to pay for itself."

      Here is some of the advice conference-goers heard:

a. New mechamisms; same consumer needs
      -- Don't expect news consumers of the next era -- reading by
computer or home printer, viewing by interactive cable or
listening by digital broadcast -- to have fundamentally
different needs or interests than now. Rather, find a way to
customize information to individuals while simultaneously
offering broad community context and agenda-setting. News
organizations which provide a stable window on the world and
neighborhood will be winners in whatever medium they use, and
consumers will search for and settle on them.
      "People are going to follow and want stability," says
Sulzberger, the Times publisher. " . . . Then they'll stop."
      Developing context outside the familiar format of the
front page is a challenge which has yet to be met by online
services or other digital-delivery experiments. The front-page
provides context, selection and the editor's cherished chance
to set the agenda for a community of readers. "Where is the
front page in cyberspace?" asked former Oakland Tribune
Publisher Nancy Hicks Maynard during one talk. "I don't have
the answer to that yet."

b. Local news: The "branded" product
      -- National and international news are available from many
sources, searchible and sortable. As such it is a commodity
which is of little added value to the consumer trying to
differentiate the offerings of a plethora of information
providers. And as a result, local news will continue to be the
"killer application" for content providers seeking to gather or
retain users.
      "For us, the idea of local is important," says Omar Wasow,
the just-out-of-college owner of New York Online, a community-
building dialup service which focuses on the ethnic stew of the
nation's largest city. "The mix is the message."
      "What we are trying to do is broaden and deepen the
relationships we have with our community," says Frank Daniels
III, editor/publisher of The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.,
and pioneering Internet entrepreneur.
      "The local enterprise and reporting is what creates
value," says Maynard.

c. The newsroom: The most precious resource
    -- The one newspaper resource which will survive into the
digital age is the newsroom, because presses and trucks may
ultimately become a secondary means of delivery. For this
reason, newspapers should be beefing up their editorial
resources as the one sure way of preserving their competitive
      "The change in distribution patter is the single most
exciting thing about the web," says Sulzberger."It dramatically
changes the whole cost structure." Sulzberger says newspapers
should invest not in distribution, but in news.
      The web makes it possible for individual reporters to be
their own publishers if they are willing to take the
entrepreneurial risk, adds Sulzberger. But the danger they
face in trying to do so, he says, is that their message will be
lost amid the chaos. "All of our reporters have the capability
to do that," the publisher ssaid. "They can create a brand on
their own."

d. Enabling community, not just personalization
      -- Because the last decades have seen us emerge from a
society of information scarcity to information glut, news
organizations of the digital era must provide consumers a
a way to eliminate unwanted information and thus save time. But
this role must be perceived as "enabling" consumers to identify
and satisfy their own information needs, rather than simply
"relieving" them of the glut, says Maynard, the ex-Oakland
      Moreover, if the "enabling" role results solely in each
consumer finding information only fitting personal prejudices
and interests, the result will be a further erosion of
community and society. The potential for such "atomizing" of
society was viewed by a number of conference-goers and speakers
as the most worrisome potential anti-democratic effect of
personalized news delivery.
      "The more we create dissonance in society, the more we
push people away from public life," says Richard Harwood, a
Bethesda, Md., based industry consultant who just completed a
study of public journalism for the American Society of
Newspaper Editors. "There are too few boundary-crossing
institutions that allow people to feel community,: adds
Harwood, who says his research shows that people "yearn for
civility" in public life.
      Harwood says news consumers he interviews are invariably
more interested in discussing journalistic values than new-
media technology. As a result, advises Harwood, "Don't focus on
the technology, focus on what it is going to do for us."


      The Nieman Foundation conference on public-interest
journalism in the online era was an attempt to survey the
impact of new-media formats on an old concept: the ability of
news professionals to define the public agenda and foster
dialog rather than dissonance. "Is this a journalism rennaissance,
or a reformation?" asked conference organizer Katherine Fulton,
a Nieman Fellow who now teaches at Duke University.

      On Thursday, Fulton used Donald Bartlett and James
Steele's Pulitzer Prize-winning "America: What Went Wrong?"
series in the Philadelphia Inquirer as a case study of how new
media might approach a major public-service project. One
conclusion: While newspapers might still set the agenda, new-
media technology may allow the followup to be quicker, cheaper
and more interactive.

     Next, three panelists described their particular brands of
new-media public journalism. They were Mark Benerofe, executive
vice-president of consumer services for Delphi Internet, owned
by Rupert Murdoch; Lew Friedland, a University of Wisconsin-
Madison professor who launched the non-profit Online Wisconsin
Internet news service and the Civic Practices Network; and Omar
Wasow, founder and president of New York Online, described as
the nation's first minority-owned online service and one which
has overcome the white-male demographic of most online

      Then media researcher Richard Harwood, of Bethesda, Md.,
engaged in an on-stage dialog with Neil Postman, New York
University professor and author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business."  A central theme
for Postman is that modern media is a largely "privatizing
experience" for consumers, distancing them from community. Postman
also advised the audience to consider the negative as well as positive
implications of new media. Society never considered the unfortunate
consequences of the automobile's transportation dominance, he said; now
it is too late. Harwood saw a need for new media to foster "boundary
crossing" by consumers among a variety of interests and perspectives.

      On Friday, former Oakland Tribune Publisher Nancy Hicks
Maynard [maynard(at)], just elected to the board of
Tribune Co. of Chicago, offered an approach to marketing
public-interest journalism in the digital age. It used to be
that newspapers talked to readers who bought goods from
advertisers who placed ads in the paper. Now the relationships
are not as simple, she says, and move in both directions. Well-
capitalized or unusually smart media organizations can be new-
media pioneers and other media groups can be "timely entrants"
into new technologies, says Maynard. But those which are
reluctant to enter on any basis, "will be out of the game."

      New-media analyst and entrepreneur Esther Dyson next
moderated a discussion among Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher
of The New York Times; Walter Isaacson, Time Inc. editor of new
media; and Frank Daniels III, executive editor of The News &
Observer of Raleigh, N.C. Sulzberger talked about the value of
analyzing, not just collecting, information. Daniels urged
newspapers to get "back in the game" by providing news
immediately via the Internet. He said the Nando.Net Internet
news service his company runs was handling 500,000 requests for
information per day on the Internet because of its
comprehensive reporting on the Oklahoma federal-building
bombing. "The freer and more open the net is, the better off
the regional papers will be," says Daniels. Their brand
identity has credibility which transfers across media. "The
more chafe that is out there, the more likely they will turn to
do," he added. "But they won't turn to you if you're not in the

      In the digital age, the Federal Communications Commission
should largely stop awarding licenses based upon a theory of
scarcity of public airwaves and should stop acting as a
"content nanny," FCC Chairman Reed Hundt said during a Friday
speech. Rather, he said, antitrust "concentration analysis"
should determine whether a newspaper can own a cable operation
or a TV station or an Internet service. Hunt also urged that
the FCC move out of the content-regulation busienss, set aside
spectrum (or bandwidth) for public use and force licensees to
provide free time for poltical campaigning. "That is completely
achievable in the age of multicasting," he said.

      Helping the non-profit Africa News Service
[africanews(at)] to achieve financial stability lead
to a revealing exchange between panelists and audience Friday
afternoon. Panelist Steven Brill, publisher of The American
Lawyer and owner of Court TV, offered to pay the service $2,000
a month for court coverage in Africa. But when he challenged
media executives in the audience to propose similar forms of
in-kind support, there were no takers other than the editor of
the Norfolk Virginian & Pilot, who offered to become an Africa
News Service subscriber.

Copyright, 1995, The Newshare Syndicate. Reposting or
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