I sat in a classroom with 75 reporters, editors and technologists in the Spring of 1994 and I didn't know what the hell they were talking about. The Nieman Foundation had gathered together print journalists from across the country to discuss cyberspace, commercial on-line services and the Internet and their implications for the news media, politics and journalism. The discussion was lively, mind-opening and downright confusing for this publisher of National Journal, a Washington-based magazine for the political and policy community.
Only 18 months later in November 1995, National Journal and our partner American Political Network (publishers of the Hotline) established "Politics USA" as a major site on the World Wide Web. The goal, simply stated, though ambitious in nature, is for "Politics USA" to be the first stop on the Internet for the politically interested - whether professional, activist, student or just plain anyone trying to understand what's going on in politics and government. News, analysis, data bases, games, chats, reference material, marketplaces, bulletin boards and hypertext links galore are all integral to this meeting place for political players and watchers alike. In short, it could be one small step toward an interactive democracy.
During this 18-month transition from near total ignorance about the net to knowing just enough to be dangerous, we launched our ambitious 20-person-plus joint-venture. We are only beginning to grasp what the Internet means for journalism, the coverage of politics and political involvement of citizens.
Some facts. As of November 1995, there are more than 1,500 Federal, State and local government web sites on the Internet. Each of the presidential candidates has not only his own home page, but also a parody site established by others. Every Senator has a home page as do many House members. The White House and Cabinet agencies were also quick to develop and link home pages. Public and private interest groups have joined the rush to cyberspace, each hoping that the politically interested will find their site.
Already the consumer is beginning to face too many choices, too many sites and too little information as to not only what's on the web, but also what's good, what's bad, what can be trusted, what can't. It's as if one is let into the Library of Congress, told that every book one could ever want was available for free, just go find it ... and by the way, there's no librarian and very limited card cataloguing.
The 1996 election season offers both the net information providers and consumers a unique opportunity to take advantage of, and experiment with, this newworld which combines cyberspace, politics and journalism. It will also be the first campaign in which the candidates themselves use the Internet to communicate with - and mobilize - the computer-savvy segment of the electorate. …