Public Interest Journalism in the Online Era

Article excerpt

Panelists examine positives and negatives

The nieman foundation recently sponsored a conference of newspaper heavyweights in Cambridge, Mass., titled, "Public interest journalism: Winner or loser in the online era?"

The answer?

Winner, say a hundred or so industry leaders, including Walter Isaacson, editor of new media at Time Inc.

"The more people that get more information and get more involved, the better off you are, unless you don't believe in democracy," said Isaacson.

Overall, most attendees agreed, although not without raising some pointed questions.

And there were a few spoilsports, such as Neil Postman, professor of communication arts and sciences at New York University and author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

Postmen characterized new media as a "Faustian bargain."

All important technologies give us something and take something away," he said.

Postman suggested that the downfalls of online technology could parallel those of television, "the last technology America went into with our eyes closed."

When he hears that "technology is just a tool," Postman said he is reminded of the adage, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

The exchange between Postman, admitted "outsider" to the newspaper industry, and Richard Harwood, author of Citizens and Politics and founder of the research firm the Harwood Group, focused on the disconnect between the news media and public.

"The media is acting as a megaphone for dissonance ... People do not believe fundamentally that journalists understand people's lives," said Harwood.

Harwood complained that reporters need to "get out of the newsroom" to contact their community, but came down undecided on whether online services would help or hinder that effort.

In the question and answer period, Max Frankel, columnist for the New York Times, endorsed Harwood's views on the problem of "disconnect" but questioned his conclusions.

"Most reporters get a pretty good sense of what's troubling their community," Frankel said. "It seems to me the real problem is we favor the quick poll ... or the false dichotomy [of pro/con] because we lack the knowledge and the expertise to take an issue apart, and we do not have from our managements the kind of investment in reporting and talent ... that would allow us to understand what is going on."

The statement played well to the audience, which applauded loudly, and even seemed to be accepted by Frankel's own management, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who spoke the following day with new media analyst and entrepreneur Esther Dyson.

In their conversation, Dyson played devil's advocate and raised some skeptical questions, while Sulzberger questioned the substantive differences between interactive media and print. …