By Gunther, Marc
American Journalism Review , Vol. 17, No. 9
On a typical weekday afternoon, Allison Davis, a former producer for NBC's "Today," is leading a tiny band of cyber-journalists who are bringing NBC News into the online world.
In cramped quarters strewn with computer cables and phone lines, they are preparing stories on Bosnia and Medicare, coaxing an NBC correspondent to write an analysis of lime Warner's merger with Turner Broadcasting, and selecting audio clips and still pictures from a Katie Couric interview with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Within hours, the stories, pictures and clips will be uploaded into the vast storehouse of information that is already available from NBC News on Supernet, a part of the new Microsoft Network (MSN) online service.
What can you find there? A detailed history of the conflict in the Balkans, a list of the most damaging hurricanes of the 20th century, a sound clip of O.J. Simpson's explanation of why he didn't testify in his own defense, a guide to the 1996 presidential campaign, excerpts from the latest NBC News/Wall. Street Journal poll, transcripts of last week's "Meet the Press" and last night's "Dateline NBC," local weather forecasts, maps of the world, and bios and photos of, among others, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Maria Shriver and Willard Scott.
What can't you find? This afternoon Davis is struggling to check the latest headlines from NBC and the Associated Press. They're buried in her hard drive somewhere, but she can't manage to retrieve them. "Something's wrong with my computer, not the system," she explains. Still, she's the executive in charge - if her computer can't get along with Microsoft, what hope is there for the rest of us?
That, in a nutshell, is what network news online looks like these days. There's lots of excitement, enormous potential, plenty of promises and, to put it kindly, erratic delivery.
To take another example, CNN recently opened a site on the World Wide Web that provides an overview of the day's news, again with pictures, sound clips and video as well as text. What's more, unlike NBC's joint venture with Microsoft, CNN's Web site is open at no cost to any computer user with a link to the Internet. But frustration awaits subscribers to America Online, the nation's most popular commercial online service, who want to get their online news from CNN. Some AOL members say their screens freeze because CNN's software isn't compatible with AOL's Web browser. Says one AOLer: "You can't get there from here."
If that sounds confusing, well, it is. The online world is the new frontier of journalism, and veteran television news producers like NBC's Davis, Scott Woelfel of CNN and Les Blatt of ABC News are charting unmarked, ever-changing territory.
Adam Schoenfeld, an online analyst with Jupiter Communications, a New York consulting and publishing firm, says, "All the major news organizations know there's something there online, but they don't know what it is yet. They're feeling their way along."
But Schoenfeld believes there is a growing market for online news that is bound to be filled by the networks or newspapers or wire services. "People don't have a TV set at work, but they have a computer," he says. "If they want real-time news, it's a natural. You can get stories from the AP and Reuters midday today that won't hit your driveway until tomorrow morning."
The network news business should mesh neatly with the online world - the networks, after all, have as much access as anyone to the raw materials of news, the words, pictures, sound and video that can all be delivered online. They also have valuable brand names and the power to promote their online projects.
But to deftly manage the transition from television to online, the networks will have to radically rethink their ideas about how news is packaged and delivered. For starters, online news is viewer-driven, not producer-driven. It's part of a broad social trend that is offering people more choices than ever about how, when and where to get information. …