Skip to Content

Hacking the Net

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend to friendSend to friend

David Nicholas looks at the Internet phenomenon from the point of view of the Media.

The Internet comes wrapped up with so much hype and vested interest that it is difficult to gauge whether it is changing much in the libraries, workplaces, and industries around the country. This makes it fertile ground for researchers. The Media was chosen as the area to study the phenomenon because it seemed likely that it would be hit very hard, one way or another. Furthermore, it seemed from the statements pouring out of the industry that nobody really had a clue about the outcome. On the one hand Simon Jenkins of The Times claimed that The Internet will strut an hour upon the stage, and then take its place in the ranks of the lesser media (Prestel, CD-ROM). On the other Victor Keegan of The Guardian said that the Internet will almost certainly be the twentieth century's greatest technological legacy. Now, both are eminent and well respected journalists, but which one should we believe and how could they be such poles apart? It was such violent disagreements and extreme positions amongst journalists and media watchers that fuelled the search for the academic truth about the Internet and its impact upon the media . And from this, maybe, there was the possibility of gleaning what would happen in other industries not so close to the information front-line.

Research in this area is difficult: the waters are muddied by huge vested interests, wishful thinking, lack of data and poor methods. There is also an undue reliance on what is happening in the States, where it is said, for instance, that newsrooms are "flocking" to the net and that The WWW has become the online resource of choice at US daily newspapers.

A lot of the so-called research in the field is of very dubious quality. Typically much research has been done on the back of questionnaires - usually online ones, which are characterised by leading, ambiguous and shoehorning questions that reflect little more than the researcher's own preoccupations and biases. Instead, for this project around 250 interviews were conducted with journalists, editors, systems people, freelancers, student journalists, media librarians from newspapers - national and regional, magazines, new media companies and broadcasting organisations. The situation at The Guardian was investigated in some depth. {newsboy bellowing headline from The vast majority of interviews were of the open ended, unstructured sort in which the interviewee could determine the nature and direction of the discussion. The research found out what they thought, rather than encouraged them to echo the researchers' thoughts. This produced very different, and arguably more accurate, results.

The levels of Internet use were not quite as suggested by the industry commentators. Plainly use has been talked-up because it was found to be low and patchy, varying from one in ten journalists in the regional press, through one in three journalists in the national press to ten out of ten journalists in the new media companies companies who were responsible for Web based news products. It tended to be the old hacks, editors, subject specialists, new media journalists and - it is nice to report - media librarians who were the heaviest users. There were good reasons for the poor and variable take-up. Limited access to Internet terminals was the biggest. By and large the editorial systems from which the journalists worked were not capable of accessing the Internet. Shared, stand-alone PCs - often without printers - were not an acceptable substitute for most journalists. The other reasons were: a shortage of time; the richness of existing sources of information; the fact that journalists were catching up on the previous rounds of IT (FT Profile, internal databases etc.); and some suspicion as to the worth of the Internet and that it was not all what it was cracked up to be.

It was possible to divide journalists in to seven categories on the basis of their use and attitude towards the Internet:

Net worshippers. These are the young, computer generation IT whizz kids who have embraced every aspect of the Internet, and are culturally committed to it. They often work in new media, at places like VirginNet, or earn their money as freelancers.

The economically-driven. These people work in small newspapers with no library (e.g. Sunday Business), and are attracted to the Internet for the wealth of free information it provides for what they regard as little time expenditure.

The pragmatists. This group have readily incorporated the Internet into their array of general information sources. They do not regard it as having heralded a fundamental shift in society, or, less spectacularly, see it as an excellent way to reduce company bills, but they do appreciate the convenience, power and - above all else - its accessibility. They are not behind in calling it into action. The great majority of information professionals and librarians fall into this category, as do most of the senior journalists. Another characteristic of this group is that they are heavy information users per se.

The occasional dippers. This group includes a large number of journalists who use the Internet only when other sources do not solve their information problems. The majority of Internet end-users in the national and local press fall into this category, but only a small minority of librarians (largely those working for the tabloids). Generally their low use is not down to any dislike of the Internet for in many cases they would use it more if they had either better access or training (or, more generally, both).

Enthusiastic novices. These are journalists who do not know exactly what the Internet offers, but are intrigued by what they have heard, and express interest in using the system themselves once given a demonstration. The bulk of this group is formed, interestingly, by both older (50+) and younger journalists. They generally blame time constraints for not mastering the system. None of them claimed that their age was a barrier or that, nearing retirement (some interviewees were in their late fifties) it wasn't worth the effort of learning.

The non-believers. The group is made up of journalists who are basically not interested in the Internet. They have a variety of practical reasons for their abstinence, and would be unlikely to adopt the system even if they had desktop access. Apart from problems of time constraints and job status, the biggest problem for this group is that of authenticating Internet data.

The resentful dinosaurs. This group - exclusively journalists and lead by the iconoclastic Simon Jenkins - represent the polar opposite of the Net Worshippers. They see the Internet as a threat to their privileged access to information, and are not in the least interested in empowerment or democratising the news. The whole ethos of the Internet as a conduit for the free exchange and sharing of information is anathema to them.

On the whole the use of the Internet was mundane and simple; very similar in fact to the use of commercial online services. It was mainly the Web that was being searched - there was very little use of newsgroups or e-mail for instance. Bookmarking was all the rage, search engines were little understood.
The main types of activity were:

  • searching Web newspapers.
    The Washington Post was a very favoured site, and, interestingly few journalists searched their own web sites.
  • searching official/government sites, especially by medical and scientific journalists.
  • searching for the obscure or offbeat.
    Contrary to expectation it was mainly librarians who did this, probably because these searches were more difficult to conduct.
  • searching entertainment sites, favoured by features journalists.
  • using the Web as a giant contact directory.

The Internet issues and concerns

Overload

Scare stories about the dangers of information overload abound. For media librarians this was seen to be beneficial as they saw possible job opportunities arising as a result of overload, in that there would be an enhanced filtering role for them. However, many journalists were not really worried about overload and its attendant problems. It was largely a case that only those who did not use the Internet were worried about this, overload being one reason why they did not use it. For the rest, having more information was a cause for celebration.

There were specific reasons why the Internet and its infinite information and communications capabilities held no fears for journalists. First, wallowing in information was nothing new and it was something journalists were quite prepared for; the extra material yielded from the Internet was relatively small compared to what was already available; it was worth hunting through trivia to find valuable information; unlike the phone the Internet is unobtrusive; the ease of access to documents on the Internet more than compensated for any problems associated with finding too many.

Journalists were, however, as one when it came to where they saw the real overload threat coming from, and that was e-mail. In consequence few provided their e-mail addresses to readers or became members of discussion groups or lists.

Quality issues

The quality of much of the data on the Internet is held to be suspect and a potential barrier to its use. Some non-using journalist saw it this way but for the majority this was of little concern. Indeed, some journalists were happy to have increased their supply of suspect material: journalists, unlike academics, are not always seeking the truth and there is plainly a demand for the controversial, gossip and dirt. Of course journalists spend much of their time authenticating data anyway so there was nothing new here. However, attitudes did vary according to role and position. Those in authority, subject specialists and librarians were most concerned. Experience was also a factor, in that those with most of it were least concerned. Quality problems were usually, and easily, circumvented by choosing trustworthy sites (there was a very good trade in these) and by double checking.

Interestingly, journalists actually had serious quality concerns but these were not directly related to Web obtained data. It was felt by many that the large amount of information that journalists had to deal with, combined with the speed with which they were expected to process this data and submit it, was leading to a weakening of the journalistic process.

Displacement

With such a powerful and pervasive information or communication system as the Internet will not other communication forms and information sources suffer and get elbowed aside? Well, the answer appears to be no. This is because: the Internet fills gaps in the coverage of others sources; the data obtained still needs checking with other sources, leading to an increase in their use; and there is still a doubt over the permanence of some Web-held data. In the case of the library there appeared no threat whatsoever. Indeed, the Internet, that so-called end-user tool, was creating all kinds of new opportunities for information professionals, and increasing their status as a result.

By contrast, the position of the commercial online host seems far less secure. Existing online users, both librarians and end-users, are increasingly playing the information field. They are becoming increasingly canny when it comes to online choices and are taking some quite sophisticated value for money decisions like using the Net for free access to foreign newspapers. Significantly, too, the hosts' biggest customers are also becoming the biggest users of the Web. As if that was not bad enough information providers who were once happy to supply their information exclusively to the hosts (and accept the royalties), have declared a form of independence hitherto unknown and are now putting some of their data up on their web sites and freely swapping data amongst themselves.

Conclusions

It would seem that as always technological hype and anecdote precede reality by some margin. Most models of technological change indicate that it's never that quick, never that straightforward and never that revolutionary. And that is very much the case with the Internet. It is best to look to the past, rather than the future as a guide to technological take-up. Few journalists use the Internet but even fewer have made their mind up about it. Things are changing all the time and there is still a lot of technology in the pipeline so this subject will be returned to next year.

The really big concerns to emerge from the project were the future of the hard-copy newspaper if and when news reporting migrates to the Web, and the technological dilution of the journalistic process.

So it would seem that, so far, Simon Jenkins has been right about the Internet in that it is a niche information player. But the really interesting question is for how long will he be right?

Reader Response:

by sterling stoudenmire: sstouden@thelinks.com

"seems to me the article ignores the unprecedented growth in net related delivery technologies.. from xml to broadcast over the net just five minutes ago the national hurricane center in Miami intercepted (broadcast) a tropical depression message to my netscape browser.. the message replaced the netscape page i was viewing in my browser... that is the beginning of a ubiquitious media."

References

[1] Jenkins, S. No plugs, no wires, no rivals. The Times 4th January 1997, p16.

[2] Nicholas, D. and Fenton, D. The Internet and the changing information environment. Managing Information, vol. 4, no. 1/2, Jan/Feb 1997, pp. 30-33.

[3] Nicholas, D. and Frossling, I. The information handler in the digital age. Managing Information, vol. 3, no. 7/8, July/August 1996, pp. 31-34.

[4] Nicholas, D. , Williams, P., Martin, H. and Cole, P. The changing information environment: the impact of the Internet on information seeking in the media. Online Information 97: proceedings. Learned Information, 1997.

[5] Nicholas, D., Williams, P., Martin, H. and Cole, P. The Internet: the users' story. Managing Information, vol. 4, November 1997, pp28-31.

[6] Project Web site: Journalists and the Internet research project. City University, 1998.
<http://www.soi.city.ac.uk/~pw/ji_lit.html>

Author Details

Dr. David Nicholas,
Email: Nicky@newbury.u-net.com
Date published: 
19 July 1998

This article has been published under copyright; please see our access terms and copyright guidance regarding use of content from this article. See also our explanations of how to cite Ariadne articles for examples of bibliographic format.

How to cite this article

David Nicholas. "Hacking the Net". July 1998, Ariadne Issue 16 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue16/cover/


article | about seo