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Intelligent Agent: Feature

Look, you know some things are going to have to change around here.

Like journalism, for instance.

I'm not talking about grafting an old product onto a new medium, which is, with a few exceptions, what everyone's been trying to do. The Web is jammed with newspapers and magazines taking their paper-based content and repurposing it. (That's the buzzword, I believe, for the online equivalent of leftovers. Hang a few hundred words out there and gussy them up with Hypertext Helper and maybe people will eat it.)

Of course we won't eat it. What are we, stupid?

The Birth of Way New 

By Joshua Quittner

Well, Big Media isn't stupid either. Why do you think It's here?

Nearly two-thirds of the cost of putting out a newspaper or magazine is the cost of printing it (paper, ink, printing presses) and distributing it (trucks, delivery folks, mail). Uncouple the content from the production and distribution costs, and you see the kind of cash we're dealing with here. Introduce the possibility that by the end of the decade, 100 million people will be on the Net. Now, give those people the technical ability to pay 3 cents for each and every story they read. If only 1 million people read, say, one Time story on O.J. Simpson, that's US$30,000. Pretty soon, you're talking about real money.

Right now writers need Big Media because Big Media owns the means of distribution. But as soon as a standard for exchanging trivial sums of money is adopted on the Net, it will turn the tables on that equation, and Big Media will need writers. It becomes cheap to be a mass-market publisher, right? So if the financial terms of the relationship are unsatisfying, writers can publish their own Web sites, presumably taking readers with them. The news gatherers/storytellers with marketable points of view can dictate the terms for publishing their spin on the world.

But the change I'm talking about has nothing to do with making money. Indeed, the change I'm talking about is much bigger than money. I'm talking about a sea change in journalism itself, in the way we do the work of reporting and presenting information. The change that's coming will be more significant than anything we've seen since the birth of New Journalism; it may be even more revolutionary than that. It has to be: Look at all the new tools we're getting.

Tom Wolfe's article, "The Birth of 'The New Journalism'" smashed the conventional notion of reportage. If you aspired to The Calling, you had to read this piece; it's taught in most journalism schools to this day. Wolfe pointed out that it was OK to have fun with facts (as long as the writer had mastered the material). It was good to speak with a voice (as long as the writer wasn't too much of a dork). It was important to take risks and experiment (as long as there was a tangible payoff for the reader).

But Wolfe and company had a relatively small tool chest to loot. Imagine what those new journalists could have done with video and sound, with hypertext links and limitless bandwidth. Yes, a journalism that uses the best devices of the novel - and the movie! and the radio! and the CD-ROM! and networked communications! - to tell stories.

We're not just going to change that art, but evolve it - you understand - take it to the next plane: The Way New Journalism.

So where are the Way New Journalists? They're out there hacking around, testing the tools, looking for ways to use this radical change in technology to improve storytelling. You can see it on the Web. Already, there are things that work, and things that don't. Most of these sites have nothing to do with journalism; but then again, neither did the novel.

A Few Things That Should Work in the 
Way New Journalism:

The element of surprise: I titter as Netscape paints 10 new images on my screen. It's like headlines in three dimensions: Something catches my eye and tricks me into looking for more. Something lures me into interacting and tunneling deeper for information. Point, click, and open a jack-in-the-box that tells you something you didn't already know.

Sudden narrative: Face it - until we have flexible flat panels with brilliant, high-definition displays, reading on the screen sucks. Sudden narrative to the rescue: Tell me a dramatic story in, say, 250 words - a screenful of text. This is an important device, too, because brevity will be an antidote to the Net's information overload.

Voice: Voice becomes more intimate and immediate online. You expect your reporter (or your newspaper/magazine) to be an intelligent agent, a voice you recognize and trust. Since, theoretically at least, our email addresses will be part of our bylines, you'll be able to flame away at the reporter. This means the piece of reportage will exist in an organic state, with an evolving factual base. Small errors will be unacceptable because they can be so easily corrected. You'll also "know" your reporter better.

Hypertext links: Go as deep or stay as shallow as you want within a piece. Start with a headline version of a story and link deeper. Hell, you can click right back into the archives and put any event into historical perspective. But hypertext can also be a curse because journalists might use it to avoid doing their jobs (the job of filtering all that information into an all-you-need-to-know, ready-to-eat package). The problem with hypertext links is, where's the closure? I want my news fast and furious; I don't want to be surfing around for three hours, only to end up dazed and confused and disintermediated at a White House press-briefing site.

Instant reaction/The Big Talk Show in the Sky: No more of that Man on the Street crap. You can build reaction right into a story by linking to the appropriate Usenet forum, IRC channel, or MOO. You can talk about this story by joining the thread already in progress - or start your own. Don't underestimate this device. I learn best by reading, but talking about information with someone else is an equally efficient way to absorb data.

I suspect that the people who figure out how best to use the tools of
the Net for journalism will be the people with nothing to lose. Which
is to say, kids, students, the disenfranchised. The Wolfes and the
Breslins are out there. They have a medium but no platform ... yet.

I teach a class at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. We use the Internet to find news stories. Soon, we'll be publishing our stuff on a Web site. I told the students that we're starting from scratch; we have no content to repurpose. We just have a Web site, our own computer geek who can tweak HTML like it's his native tongue, and empty space that extends infinitely. How do we fill it? What works? Will anything work?

"Do we have to use the page as a metaphor? Can a page be an oval or a circle instead of a rectangle?" one student asked.

I'll let you know when we find an answer.


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