Looking around the corners
from Write Hard, Die Free (Chapter 17)
Though we didn’t think of it this way at the time, we spent those 20 years in Alaska assembling a playbook for practicing our different style of journalism: reader-centered, philosophically transparent and intellectually aggressive. The lessons we accumulated helped us defeat the Anchorage Times, but they would remain relevant long beyond its demise.
Over the years, we anticipated in surprising ways the media transformations that were to upend traditional newspaper journalism in the decades to come. We got a lot of things right—sometimes by trial and error, itself a novelty for most newspapers—and saw beyond the horizon more than you’d imagine.
Some of that is demonstrated by our behavior: retreat from the View From Nowhere; a constant search for voice, whether in describing life in rural villages remote from urban experience or in spelling out plainly how lawmakers caved in to oil interests; and extensive outreach to readers through guest columns, advisory boards, community meetings and the like.
As we progressed we abandoned—sometimes emphatically, sometimes covertly—the dominant paradigm of journalistic objectivity, realizing without knowing the words for it that the “View From Nowhere” served neither readers nor reporters best. I told staffers, students and civic club audiences a hundred times that I had come to believe “truth is a plural noun,” that the notion of “getting both sides” of a story was a fiction that hardly ever fit the real world.
Throughout the war we turned our back on reporting “news of record” and looked instead for news of genuine relevance. We let our opponents at the Times and television stations report on city council meetings; we discovered corrupt city managers instead. We took the legendary Gene Roberts at his word when we read him saying “Not all news breaks. There is also news that trickles, and seeps, and oozes.”
I preached that we needed to remember we did journalism for readers, not to them. We renounced Devine Right as justification for anything we did. We came to understand with practical certainty the necessity of a new relationship with readers, dramatically modifying the top-down Editor As God structure built into the very fabric of American newspapers. I faced unending push-back not only from professional peers but likewise many of the staffers I was trying to empower. Thus it came as no surprise to me, many years later, to see how reluctantly newsrooms adapted to changing realities.
We abandoned traditional newspaper design for a radical new look in Impulse, our young reader section, asking skeptics in Sacrament to compare it not with other newspapers but rather with MTV and CD covers, its real peers.
As I’d promised in an early Advocate column, “We will resemble, on balance, more the guerilla soldier than the regimented Redcoat. We see ourselves not as part of the organized system but as an alternative to it. We will be civilization’s cheerleader and society’s scold.”
Much of our unusual operation was the product of hard-won experience. Some of it, though, was foresight.
In 1987 I was invited to speak at a gathering of the somewhat grandly imagined Alaska Future Society, and of course I chose to talk about the future of news and information. By then I was online myself, on local BBS systems and global services like CompuServe and Dialog, and I’d already formed strong ideas about how things were going to change.
I started the speech by recounting how many newspaper editors a generation earlier had seen television only as a competitor, never responding to the ways it had changed storytelling and sometimes even refusing to list the TV schedules. I said:
...the editors who recognized that television was a force to be reckoned with were able to adapt, to strengthen their report as a result. Today they publish successful, useful newspapers. The other guys are gone.
A very strong parallel can be drawn between that experience and the newspaper editor of today who watches the computer revolution and tries to determine what that will mean for the newspaper of tomorrow.
Without question, computerization has changed and will continue to change the nature of successful newspapers...
It's clear that I think the press in general, and newspapers in particular, play a role that we need to keep alive in our society. But I don't kid myself into believing that simply because we are important, that we are guaranteed a successful future.
I then talked some about changes that had already changed to world in which I worked: obvious things like 24-hour cable news, USA Today, increasing numbers of niche magazines serving special interests. I also noted how easily available worldwide telephone service and even the increasingly well traveled audience changed expectations.
For all that, it's obvious that the biggest revolutionary factor in a newspaperman's life today of the computer:
- Newspapers will change physically because of what computers can do for them and readers.
The very nature of technological change is that it is difficult to predict what form it will take... But we can confidently predict what role newspaper may play in any of several scenarios:
• If inexpensive, widespread personal telecommunications like the French experience with Minitel becomes common, newspapers will offer increasing On-Line services to supplement the more general content of their newsprint publication ...
• One of the most exciting developments coming for publishing is the refinement of HYPERTEXT, an electronic publishing system that lets readers access information along many different avenues, and not just the linear fact-follows-fact method we now use.
• If the development of superconductors allows increasing miniaturization, as predicted, wrist-sized personal computers may link us all with databases easily and instantly from anywhere we work ... and newspapers will have to adapt to that.
Obviously, I don’t know precisely which of those scenarios or dozens of others will come true. But I do know that successful newspapers will adapt and adopt those new technologies; and like the old fogies who thought television was a passing fad, the others will fade away.
More important than those exciting physical changes that technology may bring is the fact that computers and the liberation they bring will change our expectations about news and information.
As a user of computer information services myself, one thing I have experienced most strongly is the fact that access to the speed and depth of information computers bring changes our expectations forever. I am no longer satisfied with a library that closes its doors at 9 PM, because I know I can dial-up a reference service at any time of the day or night and find the information I need.
But pure volume of information is not what readers need—or even what they want. In fact, we are awash in information. We need not more information, but more useable information...
The newspaper of tomorrow must think of itself as being in the information business, not the printing business, and then it will see that the technological changes on the horizon are opportunities, and not problems.
Two years later, in August 1989, I’d refined my ideas somewhat and begun to talk about how to apply these notions to the newspaper business. In a memo to the McClatchy strategic planning group I complained that the newspaper industry was responding to the coming changes mainly “by seeking legal and legislative restrictions” against electronic competitors. That was clearly failing even then, and I argued for direct competition:
We have advantages and strengths to play to if we choose. We have the franchise today as Anchorage’s primary information source. We have an enormous information base, comprised both of the historical record of what we’ve covered and the material we generate and receive every day.
Yet we offer that information in one way at one time of day only: a newspaper printed shortly after midnight and delivered before breakfast.
Voice information systems, computer access avenues and other outreach efforts could change that. We can find ways to offer closing stocks in the afternoon, research into the 1985 legislature, more in-depth reporting on Lebanon than appeared in our pages. We can do all that with off-the-shelf, present day technology.
By doing so, we also preempt others from making a move into those areas and position ourselves to do even more—computerized classifieds, talking Yellow Pages, etc.—in the future.
It can be expensive, and we need to find out if we can make it pay.
The strategic question: What are we waiting for?
In April 1990 I rounded out my emerging theory of changing information climates in a speech to the Alaska Library Society that I called “The End of Smart on the Top, Dumb on the Bottom.” Now I was thinking about something more radical than replacing printed newspapers with electronic online services. I was pondering what I called “distributed power”—the notion of co-creation, of sharing our role in the information system with users.
I tried to draw them a picture of what I imagined: “in a world of distributed power, the top-down pyramid becomes a geodesic grid. You replace the dumb terminal or television set with a telecomputer that can be a video, processor, and communications device all in one. Then you hook it up to all the other computers in the world and serve that network with fibre optic connections offering nearly unlimited bandwidth...”
The top/bottom metaphor I used in explaining is well-worn by now but seemed like a revolutionary insight to me at the time. Throughout history, it posited, power had been arranged in a hierarchal pyramid where the intelligence (and, thus, the power) resided at a central location and was distributed downward for consumption. At a television station or newspaper it was obvious: we learned things and told the audience. The same was true even of online services in those days: huge mainframe computers accessed by what were essentially just terminals. I even argued that the model of a huge central government that put citizens on the fringes was the same system.
But I could sense that was quickly changing, and I told the librarians:
The exciting new concept here is in the sense of distributed power and interactive communication. The consumer becomes a user or participant and can add to the grid as well.
My experience is that this marks a fundamental shift in expectation. Not only does connection change the volume and speed of information transfer, it also changes what you expect from information.
If you use E-mail for a while, postal mail seems unbearably slow.
If I grow accustomed to accessing Vu-Text at 11:30 Thursday night, a closed library seems unacceptable.
This is the lesson everybody n the information business must decipher and incorporate...Like nearly everybody else, I examine this equation with a combination of awe and trepidation: what will the future bring? What if we guess wrong? Will I have to retrain? Can I keep up?
But the other half of the equation gives me greater comfort: the quality of information gets to be more and more important, and that's what we have been doing best all along.