Factors Affecting Journalism On the World Wide Web

By Jean Wang
December 5, 1996

More and more newspapers are developing online components. As they move online, many issues will have to be addressed in order for these web sites to survive. The historical development of a commercial, advertising-supported newspaper industry can serve as a basis for analyzing web-based news content delivery, but the unique structure of the web must also be taken into account. This paper will discuss some of the major issues surrounding electronic publishing through an examination of the recent controversy over a series published on one newspaper's online component.

Dark Alliance - A Case Study

From August 18-20, 1996, the San Jose Mercury News ran a series of articles about the introduction and spread of crack cocaine in Los Angeles - Dark Alliance. The graphic identifying this series was a picture of a man smoking crack superimposed on the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This series was also placed on "Mercury Center," the online component of the Mercury News, but it was not merely re-published as an afterthought, as is currently the case with most content on newspaper web sites. The web site for the series was developed in the months before the series was to be published in the paper and contains much of the source material that was the basis for the series.

In the words of the San Jose Mercury News, the series has taken "on a life of its own." (Carey, Pete, "Analyzing Criticism of the Drug Series," SJ Mercury News, Oct. 13, 1996) Most people have concluded that the Dark Alliance series proves the CIA sold cocaine in the United States to fund the Contras, a CIA-organized guerrilla army in Latin America. The strength of the reaction by the African-American community, which has been hardest hit by the spread of crack cocaine, has instigated several investigations by the federal government in Washington, D.C. However, the series never reported direct CIA involvement. Despite this very crucial, but little reported fact, the effect of the Dark Alliance series continues to be felt, with no end in sight.

Dark Alliance has also caused a lot of controversy in journalism circles. Some have hailed the Mercury News' use of the world wide web to "publish" this story as a revolution in the way "news" is distributed. Others have criticized the series for overreaching or misrepresenting the content of the series, and blame the Internet for the spread of an unsupported conspiracy theory. The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the Washington Post all have investigated the series' claims and criticised it.

An Example of the Particular Dangers of Electronic Publishing

Despite the claims that the Mercury News has revolutionized journalism by placing source material online, the most remarkable aspect of the Dark Alliance story is its persistence. Months after the series was first published, it continues to cause controversy and is still mentioned in newspaper articles. Unlike traditional newsprint publishing or broadcast, content published on the Web remains easily accessible to a large audience for a long time after it is first released. This persistence can be detrimental in the case of misinformation. The non-linear structure of content-delivery on the Internet can hinder the correction of misinformation or misinterpretation. A reader can recieve the misinformation without receiving the subsequent correction. This persistence of information (or misinformation) combined with the Web's non-linear structure enables the continued spread of misinformation unchecked by efforts to correct or clarify.

Traditional print and broadcast mediums are not immune to the spread of misinformation. In this case, radio talk shows and newspapers helped spread the idea that Dark Alliance proved the CIA ran drug rings that were instrumental in spreading crack cocaine in urban America. However, the linear, "here-today-gone-tomorrow" nature of print and broadcast restricts the ability of misinformation to persist to the degree that it does on the Internet.

After much criticism from other newspapers, the Mercury News changed their introductory paragraph on the index page of the series to say in part: "...The series never reported direct CIA involvement, although many readers drew that conclusion..." However, it is unlikely that someone who had already visited the site would return and see this disclaimer.

The Mercury News tries to absolve itself of responsibility for the conclusions their readers drew, but many of their actions were responsible for encouraging people to conclude that the series proved "direct CIA involvement" in the spread of crack cocaine in the US. The original graphic that was prominently displayed in the web site was a picture of a man smoking crack superimposed on the seal of the CIA. This image clearly impies a direct connection between crack cocaine and the CIA. While the Mercury News would like to believe people simply came to the wrong conclusion after reading the article, it is more likely that people saw the graphic and didn't read the articles or read the articles with that image coloring their interpretation. The influence of images in web content can undermine the message of the text, therefore images must be used responsibly with this understanding. Examining research into the effects of visual imagery in television news would be a potential way of understanding the impact of images in web content.

Many research studies have shown that television viewers interpret program content differently. Despite the one-way flow of information and the fixed structure of the program, audience members are able to conduct different "readings" of the programs. Web content, with its interactive flow of information and multi-pathway structure is even more open to individualized readings by viewers. While this may be considered individually empowering since the viewer gets what he wants out of it, the overall impact may be socially divisive. Each group of people with common special interests can look at the same site and attach differing meanings. Therefore, there is a danger that electronic publishing will be splintering rather than community-building. In the case of Dark Alliance, the great majority of the people who have posted to the reader forum believe the series proves direct CIA involvement in the crack cocaine trade. It is likely that most of these people already held a strong distrust of government and were sympathetic to conspiracy theories. They viewed the site through their own set of lenses and were able to see a story that fit within their interpretive framework.


GREATER NEED TO ATTRACT AUDIENCE The controversy surrounding the Dark Alliance series generated increased "hits" for Mercury Center, the online component of the San Jose Mercury News. Like the print version of the newspaper, Mercury Center also depends on advertising to make up the bulk of their revenue. This dependence on advertising for revenue necessitates being able to deliver a large audience to advertisers. For web-based distribution, this presents unique challenges.

The typical modern newspaper is a commercial enterprise that depends largely on advertising sales for revenue. It was the advent of the penny press in the 1830's that created newspapers as we know them today. Newspapers gradually went from small-circulation, subscription-based businesses to mass-circulation, advertising-based businesses. This change in where revenue was coming from changed the content of newspapers. Newspapers had previously been very narrowly focused, having a small readership that directly payed for a significant portion of the costs of production. With the arrival of the penny press, newspapers were now selling their readership to advertisers. "The success of newspapers ... therefore did not lie in primarily persuading readers to believe what they read, but in convincing them to read in the first place." (Schudson, page 166)

The unique structure of web-based delivery of news content places an even greater burden on the newspaper to persuade readers "to read in the first place." A printed paper requires less effort in " the purchase" on the part of the reader. They see it on newstands in the street and people come to their door trying to give them free samples. Readers often have already seen the printed paper before they commit to reading it. The structure of the WWW requires the reader to actively request the content and the reader must have some desire to read this content without having seen it. (This is not to say that everyone who goes to a site will read the text, but that there must be some initial desire to read it in order for the reader to request the document.) On the web, distribution depends on demand, and supply does not in itself generate demand. (Lacy/Simon, page 176)

Credibility Heightens Value of the 'Product'
The Mercury News was able to generate a lot of interest in their site by promoting it. Mercury Center staffers posted messages on several Internet news groups alerting them to the series. (These news groups have allegedly been centered on such topics as drugs and conspiracies.) Gary Webb, the reporter who wrote the story, went on radio talk shows and did television interviews where he publicized the series' site on Mercury Center. These promotional tactics were instrumental in generating hits for the Dark Alliance site, but have affected the credibility of the San Jose Mercury News. In their promotions, it was not clear that they were not reporting direct CIA connection in the spread of crack cocaine. The nation's leading newspapers have criticized the way the Mercury News handled the story, and by prevailing standards of journalistic objectivity, the series was handled in a sensationalistic manner - particularly the use of the image of a crack smoker superimposed on the seal of the CIA. This graphic caused such controversy that, weeks after the site premiered, it was eventually removed and the editor admitted regretting its usage. (Carey) The San Jose Mercury News is a regional paper with a good reputation, but it's handling of the drug series, particularly the online component, has damaged its credibility for some portion of the news-consuming public.

To attract a mass audience, a newspaper must "satisfy public standards of truth." (Schudson, page 166) Given the demographics of the Internet, these standards will be those of an educated middle and upper-middle class. This readership is consistent with that of most mass circulation metropolitan daily newspapers. These newspapers have developed a tone of content that reflects and resonates with this readership. Therefore, it is likely that these standards of journalistic objectivity will continue to prevail in advertising-based news publishing on the WWW. A newspaper's credibility is a key component in the value of its 'product' as demand may decline if readers become too doubtful of the accuracy of a newspaper's content. (Lacy/Simon, page 174)

Current Impact of Off-Line Actions
Currently, what happens in traditional media greatly affects usage of sites on the WWW. 'Hits' on the Dark Alliance site went up after reporter Gary Webb went on radio and television talk shows. Many people would not have seen the site if they hadn't heard about it and gotten the url through traditional media. Most of the sites that receive heavy amounts of traffic are those whose reputations were developed in the off-line world - through affiliation with magazines, newspapers, or businesses. The influence of the off-line world on web site usage will probably continue since it requires a certain amount of effort to reach a site if you don't already have the url.

Need for Standards of Conduct
Like all other mass mediums, the Internet will also need to institute some measure of self-censorship. Standards of conduct can limit expression, but can establish the necessary credibility a web-based newspaper industry will need. The structure of the Internet makes it difficult to police, and there will always be sites that violate many people's conceptions of decency, truth, and necessity. However, organizations that hope to attract the mass readership that is necessary for advertising-supported publication must exercise some measure of self-restraint in order to remain viable. The history of mass circulation, advertising-based newspapers points to the need for web publications to also adopt measures that will enhance their credibility.

Critical Mass
Critical mass is the size of the audience needed for a new technology to be considered successful. (Morris/Ogan, page 45) This concept is important in evaluating when advertising in web publications becomes economically viable to advertisers. While this concept is important in evaluating the success of the Internet, it is particularly difficult to apply in this area. Critical mass can differ with the type of usage and the costs of production. Critical mass for a newsgroup or other forum where participants generate content will not be as large as that for a publication which contains a lot of costly original content and depends on ad revenue. But, in some sense there is an overall critical mass for the Internet as "interactive media only become more useful as more and more people adopt it." (Ibid)

Final Thoughts

There are many more issues surrounding the delivery of news-content through the WWW, but analyzing the history of print journalism provides a range of issues that will have to be addressed in electronic journalism. Today's news organization are moving quickly online in fear of being left behind, but they will continue to stumble and falter unless these issues are dealt with. However, the greatest challenge to electronic journalism may be the limited public access to the Internet. Inadequate education and computer hardware will continue to limit the size of the Internet population unless significant changes occur, and news organizations will need to work within this constraint. The demographics of the Internet world also points to a particular danger of this new technology that is not limited to the field of journalism - the potential that the Internet will remain accessible only to an educated elite and the democratizing potential of this new technology will remain unrealized.

Jean Wang