sree.net > talks > Computers & Writing 2001

Note: I was the luncheon speaker at "Computers & Writing 2001" on May 18, 2001, at Ball State University. This was the 17th year of this conference, which is working to "enhance the use of computer technology for teaching, learning, and research." About 260 people were in attendance at the lunch I spoke at. I was introduced by Bob Papper, professor of broadcasting at Ball State. More on the conference at www.bsu.edu/xtranet/cw2001/. Reax to reax@sree.net.

Content is Still King: Lessons From the Online Journalism Awards

A keynote speech at "Computers & Writing 2001"

Ball State University
Muncie, Indiana
Friday, May 18, 2001

By Sreenath Sreenivasan
Administrator, Online Journalism Awards
Columbia University journalism professor

It is a singular honor for me to speak to you this afternoon and not just because this year's theme "2001: A Cyber Odyssey" evokes one of my favorite movies. I am excited to be part of a gathering of people interested in two of my favorite things: writing and technology.

When I told a friend who works at the Encyclopedia Britannica that I was going to be speaking at Ball State, he reminded me about another Columbia professor who had spent some serious time in fair Muncie. Robert Lynd (and his wife Helen), as many of you no doubt know, set their classic sociological study of 1929, "Middletown: A Study in Contemporary Culture" right here and one of the families in the study is the Ball family that was the benefactor of Ball State University.

As any writer would, I thought -- a-ha! -- that's a halfway decent anecdotal lead. If I can somehow connect what the Lynds had to say to today and throw in the encyclopedia, I could keep this somewhat compelling and keep some of you from falling into your soups.

I could refer, for example, to the fact that we have many similarities between 1929 and today. Think stock market troubles then and stock market troubles now.

I could also make a comparison between the arrival of television just three years prior to 1929 in London and the arrival of the Internet as a viable medium just five years ago.

I could also talk about how the Encyclopedia Britannica where my friend works has evolved since 1929 and how its evolution has been closely watched by those tracking how quality information is presented online. If people don't read the encyclopedia online, what hope to the rest of us have?

But as any good writer knows, making a tenuous connection for the sake of transition or a segue is silly. I will stick instead to the advertised title of my talk, "Content is Still King: Lessons from the Online Journalism Awards."

One of the goals of this conference is to "enhance the use of computer technology for teaching, learning, and research." That's a worthwhile mission, of course. As someone who has helped spearhead his journalism school's push of the current generation of computer technology, I am also always trying to keep the focus not just on the technology, but also on the content it serves. I am often considered too techie in a place where many professors and students are proud to be ink-stained wretches. This is a school that as recently as 1985 had only electric typewriters -- yes, three years after Time declared the personal computer its "Machine of the Year" -- and you know if a societal trend is on the cover of Time, then it really has gone around. (That's why I tell fellow journalists that they need to at least once, try out Napster -- after all, the CEO's face has graced the magazine, aged beyond his 19 years by the recent turmoil.)

But we have made great progress at the school since then. We started teaching new media in the fall of 1994 - ancient history in the Internet age. Nowadays, all students are learn Web production and computer-assisted reporting. We have truly incorporated computers into our writing.

Around the world, this is a great time to bash the Net and computers. Even as millions of Americans have gone online and had their lives affected in small and big ways, it's become fashionable to tear down the Internet and its promise.

Every day, you hear virtually the same thing: The Internet is dead. The bubble has burst, it's overrated. And the most insulting of all -- the comparisons to tulip mania.

Yes, there was a Nasdaq crash and, yes, companies went under, lots of them. But who said places like BBQ.com deserved to stay alive or get funding in the first place?

People are confusing the stock market crash with troubles in online journalism. They are NOT the same. That's like blaming chess players for the XFL.

I don't need to preach to the converted here -- actually you are not just the converted, you are the proselytizers.   You know the difference and know better than all those confused people.

Over at the Online Journalism Awards, I must admit it was unsettling to see some of our winners and finalists lay off staff after winning our prize. We didn't want to turn into some sort of jinx.

Karl Idsvoog, publisher of APBNews.com, a crime site that we honored thrice, said it best as he accepted his awards: "I wish the investors liked our content as much as the judges did."

And he's right. Too many organizations doing pioneering work the fields of writing and exploring new ways of storytelling have gone under and been betrayed by fickle investors hoping to make a quick buck.

I know where to lay the blame. I lay it at the greedy fingers of the venture capitalists. I lay it at the short attention spans of members of the media. Journalists can build things up really fast and bring then down even faster. Journalists love black and white. But the Internet is all shades of gray, which journalists just cannot make out. An odd colorblindness, it seems.

If you get your tech news from the mainstream press, you will think the Web is filled with just three things: neo-Nazis, child pornographers and financial scammers. Once there were stories about the Internet changing everything and being so useful. You don't hear that anymore. Those stories are so 1997. I know, I wrote some of them.

Now what do you read and see on the news? Twins illegally adopted on the net; the knife that killed those two Dartmouth professors was bought on the Net; buying anything online means someone steals your credit card details and mom's maiden name.

"The Internet is good" is not a story. "The Internet will come through that screen and eat you" -- that's a story -- A1, above the fold, film at 11.

I agreed to administer the awards not because the world needed another set of journalism prizes -- god knows we have enough of them. But I imagined that we would encounter issues similar to the ones that were tackled by the folks setting up the Pulitzer prizes at the turn of the last century, as they tried to come up with ways to honor newspapers.

At the OJAs, we are trying to help recognize excellence in online journalism -- that is NOT an oxymoron, by the way. These aren't the only good stories online, but they are some of them. Now when people say there isn't any good journalism on the Web, I can say there are at least 25 examples over at http://www.onlinejournalismawards.org.

So what are the lessons I have learned?

LESSON ONE:It isn't about the glitz, it isn't about the bells and whistles. It's about the storytelling.

The best online journalism is no different than the best print or broadcast journalism. The most compelling stories are the ones told clearly and simply, keeping the readers in mind.

One of the finalists for general excellence, our top prize, was the Central Europe Review. This site of news and analysis about Central Europe is, I am sure a daily fix for almost all of you. The editor was thrilled to be a finalist and, in fact, couldn't believe he was in what he called "great company" (Salon, CNET among them).  His site's budget is not in the millions of dollars or even 10s of thousands -- it is in the hundreds of dollars. That's right, hundreds of dollars -- built using volunteers and TLC.

LESSON TWO:  And this is good news for everyone present here, it starts with the writing. Keeping it straight, writing in easy to understand chunks that people can digest. No more showing off your SAT vocab list.

LESSON THREE: We haven't solved the scroll versus click debate. You know what I mean -- some people will tell you that the best sites allow you to read everything in one page, while others much prefer to click through, wanting to keep interacting somehow with the screen. These are the people who hate just hate sitting and watching.

LESSON FOUR: It doesn't always have to be short. One of the items of conventional wisdom about the Web is unless it can be absorbed in seconds, it won't be touched. We had once been promised a bottomless newshole where word counts wouldn't matter, and we could write long. Instead, we got a new medium dominated by short bursts of facts and thoughts, making classic television soundbites seem long and thoughtful. But as our readers have evolved along with the Web, some nice, deep stories have attracted plenty of fans and deep interest.

LESSON FIVE: If you have content people want, they will come. We have seen sites that do just one thing, but do it well, better than anywhere else and they have attracted significant interest.

LESSON SIX: Size matters, but not in the way you might think. For some sites, their sheer size is their main selling point. But there are plenty of cases of smaller sites that are doing just fine, thank you very much. You might be familiar with sites run by individuals that have shown they have more devoted fans than some of the big sites. For example, news junkies among you who like to read about media gossip may know about Jim Romenesko and his MediaNews.org. Film fans, about Harry Knowles and his Aint-it-cool News. Parents, about 14-year-old B.J. Pinchbeck and his BJPinchbeck.com, a homework helper so potent he was bought by the Discovery Channel. And everyone knows about Matt Drduge and his Drudge Report -- 2.4 million visits in the last 24 hours. But how many people know that Matt's dad, Bob, runs one of the best reference sites? Refdesk.com is my start page and Colin Powell recently told the NYT it was his favorite site. Not his favorite reference site, his favorite site.

LESSON SEVEN: We must care about the digital divide. When the Internet was just an academic's tool it was all right that not everyone was online. As more things to do with work, society and life in general move online, it's crucial that we care and do something about it. Too many people do not still have access to the Web and as the technology becomes more sophisticated, it is important that storytellers remember to keep low-bandwidth versions available.

LESSON EIGHT: Just because we haven't figured out the business model doesn't mean all this is going away. We will figure it out, but there will be some pain along the way.  There will be a way to make all this work -- banner ads are just not it. There will be ethical lapses, the line between "church and state" will be blur -- but it should all come back. Think back to the early days of television. APBNews founding editor Hoag Levins has been studying the advent of TV and reports that people said television wouldn't work either. Too expensive, too many variables, poor technical quality -- and advertisers just would not be interested. After all, radio was just so much better. 

LESSON NINE: There are new ways of using computers and writing being experimented with all the time. Some of the pioneering work is being done by people right here in this room.

As long as we don't accept all that conventional wisdom and most of all believe everything journalists tell us, we will all be just fine.

Thank you for your attention and enjoy the rest of the conference.

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