Information Superhighway: The Digital Future Can Mean Great News for Newspapers, Journalists and News Consumers

American Journalism Review, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Information Superhighway: The Digital Future Can Mean Great News for Newspapers, Journalists and News Consumers


The next person who compiles a list of journalism pioneers might want to save a footnote for New York Times reporter John Markoff, early cyberscribe.

Fifteen years ago, Markoff was a news-service reporter in Silicon Valley when curiosity caused him to log onto Arpanet, the Pentagon-funded computer network used by elite scientist to swap data. It was an unheard-of-audacity, like crashing an ultra-exclusive cocktail party. But Markoff stayed, and he gained entree to high-powered electronic conversations and contacts unknown elsewhere. "I really was the only kid on my block when I started," he said. "I had a window into a world that no one else had."

Markoff has consistently exploited his advantage. In 1988, his on-line sources helped him identify the perpetrator of the worst computer virus epidemic in U.S. history. Robert T. Morris, a 23-year-old Cornell graduate student, had in one night unwittingly caused the failures of more than 6,000 computers at companies, universities and military facilities across the USA. Markoff fingered him on the front page of the Nov. 5 New York Times. "Most of my sources are accessible over the 'Net." Markoff said. "I use it as much as my telephone."

Today, millions of people worldwide use Internet, Arpanet's descendant, whose offerings compare to those of a megalopolis. Markoff has seen his edge erode as more reporters mine computer networks for sources, ideas and data. Still, he depends on Internet every day as an essential tool of his trade.

Journalists still waiting for the vaunted information superhighway should know that some competitors already are driving on it. Networks such as Internet and on-line services such as America Online, CompuServe, GEnie and Prodigy are changing the way people work and play.

But as the highway continues to develop, important questions remain for the news industry: What does the information superhighway mean for the future of the news media? Will journalists become obsolete? And what will be the consequences for news consumers?

The media convergence

Content - information, entertainment and other services - is the commodity that will be bought, sold and traded along the information superhighway. News organizations are ideally suited to profit and prosper on the highway because they are, in effect, content factories.

Newspapers, particularly, mint enormous quantities of high-quality content every day in the form of news stories. And because people will need old news to give perspective to new news, newspaper libraries are mines of priceless info-ore waiting to be smelted into marketable, digital form.

"It's almost a waste for a newspaper to expend huge resources gathering the news, print it once, then put it away in a box," said Sig Gissler, former editor of The Milwaukee Journal. Distributing news electronically on the information superhighway will let savvy news organizations get more bang for their journalistic bucks.

Many newspapers are starting to do just that, among them USA TODAY, The Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The Boston Globe and the Albuquerque Journal.

One year ago, the San Jose Mercury News started an on-line service called Mercury Center, which is available to the 700,000 nationwide customers of America Online. "It is not an electronic newspaper. It has no pretensions of that," said Bill Mitchell, director of electronic publishing for the Mercury News. "Print is clearly the medium for browsing, to be surprised. But if you're searching for something, then the electronic medium is easier."

Mercury Center customers can: tap into the Mercury News electronic newspaper library that dates to June 1985; correspond with Mercury News managers; peruse Mercury News stories in greater detail; read what's happened since the morning newspaper; read 200 to 300 stories daily that the Mercury News has no room for; and access more than a dozen other newspapers. …

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