Politics & Policy

Internet Dependency

How did we journalists ever survive without it?

Nine years ago, I was a newbie reporter — and columnist, photographer, page designer and obituary writer — at a weekly paper with a circulation of three thousand in a small town with an annual raisin festival. The only one in the office with the Internet was the editor/publisher, and I’m not sure he really knew how to use it. It was a primitive existence — just a word-processing program, Adobe PageMaker, and paste-up boards that left my fingertips covered in wax and nicked from Exacto blades by the end of the day we went to press.

Now, as I quickly crank out a column thanks to my immediately available sources — wire stories, research papers, and websites ranging from crazy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s to crazy Kim Jong Il’s — and as I swipe and paste quotes gleaned from e-mail exchanges, I wonder what I did before the Internet age caught up with technologically-stunted newsrooms. I think I called people. Looking back on my college columns dealing with national issues, wondering where I got those stats with no Internet, I get a sinking feeling upon realizing I most likely relied on the Fresno Bee for facts.

Just seven years ago, I was working at another Internet-free weekly newspaper — in this instance, because the publisher, who had Internet, was cheap when it came to the rest of us, as suggested by the hamster running on the wheel inside my computer. I remember the editor ominously noting that the Internet age would sound the death knell for traditional newspapers, and that we twentysomethings had better start considering new careers.

Soon I learned there were two ways to look at this: You could suffocate in your own newsprint while the ship went down and cling to the cheap office chairs as staff was whittled away with each circulation drop, or you could embrace the web and realize that this simple, global exchange of information had piqued people’s interest in the news and punditry like never before.

Once you get over the editorial snobbery that led newsmen to dismiss Internet journalism as a lesser life form and write off bloggers as guys in pajamas, you realize that there’s no editorial freedom quite like the Internet. The print journalist experiences a newfound appreciation for not having five editors — all of whom may have agendas of their own — looking over his shoulder monitoring and tweaking his work. And no page designer is going to lop off the most important paragraph for lack of space.

The smart journalist also needs to look at the web as a wellspring of opportunity, and admire what the top bloggers have been able to create in a very crowded cyberspace. Your work stands on its own in a cyber news environment where gender or ethnic quotas don’t exist (whereas they could in a newsroom); it makes the rounds on its own merit and falls directly in the hands of the critics that count — the audience, a population often misunderstood by newspapers trying fervently to raise their bottom line.

To this day, some of my relatives who fear the Internet think that if the column doesn’t come out in newsprint, it doesn’t exist. But even supplementing the print with online access can make a world of difference. When I was a columnist in 2001 at the San Bernardino County Sun, when there still wasn’t a comprehensive online setup, my readership basically consisted of the incarcerated. I wasn’t overjoyed by the thought of my column being passed around the cellblock, but at least they were loyal (if captive) readers. What the web can do for a writer in terms of distribution beyond the correctional system is amazing.

The Internet has expanded my network of sources like never before, thus reducing the need to meet informants in a dark parking garage dressed in trench coat and fedora. That does wonders for a journalist on a shoestring budget, as I can now get the latest scoop from Baghdad and Kurdistan sources without leaving my pajamas.

It’s easy to become completely, utterly addicted to this medium, whereas journalists of old may not have felt such kinship with their typewriters. When my home computer had to go into the shop for all of 48 hours because of some Russian virus, I suddenly found myself not knowing what to do without my blog, website, column research, and sources. Faced with the Herculean task of actually having to drop work and go do things like watching chirping birds in the park, I went down to Kinko’s and used their rent-by-the-minute computers.

Not every online pundit, whether with a newsmagazine or on a blog corner, takes the time to check his facts (though it’s not as if print journalists, and their editing gauntlet, were impervious to error — or laziness). On the flip side, so many prying eyes forces accountability, and such widespread availability of information facilitates renegade fact-checking — and inspires backseat writers, too: Internet news has made everyone an (ostensible) expert. Every so often I get a letter from a reader that begins, “You did a good job on that column, but you forgot to point out that…”

What is truly worth celebrating over the past decade is that the Internet has made possible a broader, more comprehensive world of journalism. Not only is the web a boon for freedom of speech, but — especially in a politically correct world — truly diverse speech.

— Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She blogs at GOP Vixen.

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