No one can deny that the Internet had invaded popular culture: everyone from Dilbert, NPR's All Things Considered, and Pizza Hut all have net.identities, newspapers like the New York Times have started special "cyberspace" beats, and Marc Andressen has replaced Bill Gates as the latest nerd poster boy.
As the now-infamous New Yorker cartoon goes, on the Internet no one knows you are dog. But in the past year it seems as just about everyone knows a reporter is on-line. So no big deal, right?
Well, not quite. Reporters have yet to really embrace the technology wholeheartedly, and will continue to lag behind the average experience curve. Most of the on-line use is still email only, and many are even fearful of that relatively simple technology. And the split is getting wider between those net.savvy reporters and those that aren't yet with the program.
I'll explain why, but first let me share some of my own experiences. I'm one of those lucky enough to make their living as a professional writer for various computer trade press publications: I do a weekly networking column for Infoworld (among other freelance assignments), and in a past life was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine. I've been using email for nearly a dozen years and the Internet for several, and about a year ago got my own domain name. (No big deal, but according to the Times' Peter Lewis, it carries lots of cache. Little did I realize how trendy my own nom de cyberplume would be at the time.)
To give you an idea of the general hands-on knowledge of the computer trade press, let me tell you a story about when I first started as a working journalist back in 1987 at PC Week. I was working out of my home (then in Los Angeles): a radical idea for the times. I was visiting the main offices in Boston and a reporter was having some troubles with his PC, one of the original IBM two-floppy classics. He couldn't save files to his floppy, and asked me to help.
I immediately did what any super-techie would do: typed "dir B:" and heard this grinding noise coming from the floppy drive. When I opened it up and saw that the diskette was worn almost so thin as to be transparent, I asked the reporter what he was doing.
His response: "Those can come out of the machine?" was priceless. Basically, he had been using the same (360 k!) floppy for many months because no one told him what we all now know is obvious.
Lest you think that most of the press does better today, I want to assure you that there are many reporters at all of the techno-trades that have even less knowledge today than my friend did back in those dark pre-Windows, pre-1 gigabyte hard disk, 8088 days. Chances are, those of you reading this probably have lots more hands-on knowledge of computers, networking, the Internet, and so forth than your average reporter, editor, and freelancer.
On top of this lack of knowledge, newspapers don't necessarily fund technology: many reporters have only recently stopped using the Tandy model 100s and gotten decent Windows or Mac laptops to lug around. And the system in place at most newspapers, Atex, is based on DEC computers that can be found in the Computer Museum. This is not an industry that likes to be on the cutting edge.
Just to give you perspective: when I started Network Computing magazine four years ago, we were the first publication at CMP (the parent publishing firm that produces about 20 other computer periodicals and does about $300 million in business a year) to use desktop publishing software to produce the magazine completely electronically. Today, more than half are still done on this aging Atex system.
Modestly, I consider myself one of the more hands-on kind. I have a variety of computers and networks in my office that I use to test and write about products. And I use a variety of tools with the Internet these days: in order of frequency I would say email, the Web, FTP, and reading net news.
I use my Internet account as my primary emailbox and have several other accounts as well: an alias on MCI Mail (many of the computer trade press and public relations people still use this system, and my alias forwards mail to the Internet account), an account on Radiomail (an interesting wireless service that is useful for getting email in odd places and helpful when I travel, provided I can get a radio signal), an account on Apple's E-World which has been interesting but not very useful yet, another account on CompuServe (more on that in a moment), an account at Infoworld's LAN-based cc:Mail system which is another alias to my main Internet account, and several test accounts depending on what products I happen to be using. I probably have about a dozen different email addresses right now and typically get and send around 30-50 messages a day. When I ran Network Computing the entire staff lived on email (since I hired editors that were located in many different cities, a novel concept four years ago) and would routinely get 150-200 messages a day, which was crazy.
Many of my interviews are also done over email: I find it better to capture quotes directly and it also gives me a chance to do the reporting over a longer time period, rather than trying to track people down quickly. I find myself spending more time with those sources that are email-accessible, since these days trying to get someone on the phone is nearly impossible.
Many of the general reporters are now using various email services, and it is amusing to watch how they dip their toes into these waters: some embrace it whole-heartedly, some don't catch on to the culture at all. Most of my colleagues in the trade press still look upon email with much skepticism, ironically. Overall, I think the general non-reporting public is as a whole more comfortable with email than my reporting brethren: my mother-in-law, sister, brother-in-law, and even the family next door all use email in their daily jobs and we correspond via various email gateways to the Internet.
Email is probably the tool best suited for reporters: it allows for collection of information and can be mastered quickly, especially with America On-Line or using a good graphical front-end such as Qualcomm's Eudora (which is my current favorite). Over time we will see just about every reporter with an account on one system or another. The real pros will be those that can figure out how to send mail between systems, which will continue to be a fairly arcane process for the remainder of this century.
Many of the computer vendors that I cover (Novell, Microsoft, Sun, DEC, NEC, IBM, to name just a few examples) have their own web pages. Some work better at locating information than others. Most are still more billboards than meaty archives of information. Many of the trade publications have begun their own pages (Ziff's is probably the furthest along and has lots of helpful links, most of which usually work). Overall, the press lags behind many fine academic (including many home-grown student-created one-person information factories) efforts here.
I think the Web will someday be a powerful publishing tool, if we can get the bandwidth and reliable connections to support all the browsing going on. Some of the computer publishing houses that I work for are beginning to contemplate doing on-line publishing via the Web, and we will begin to see more of this in the years to come. But no one has worked out the financial model quite yet, the authoring and editing tools are still stone-age (compared to tools like Quark Xpress and Adobe Photoshop for print publishing), and of course the technical talent to create Web servers is fairly scarce. This latter item will change quickly as the number of college grads who are webmasters enter the work force.
With FTP, I am beginning to see a real dichotomy among my colleagues: the more technical ones use this tool all the time, while the net.newbies don't want anything to do with it. Delphi and AOL have the right idea (make it easier for people via either menu picks or graphics, respectively) but the trick is tying in a search engine that works with the actual tool to download the files. Pipeline and others are working in this area, too. But by the time better software comes along, probably those reporters and trade press product reviewers who haven't used FTP probably won't start.
In the past year several news groups or listservs have cropped up for the more technologically-inclined media: HTMARCOM, for high-tech marketing types (and some editors, too), an on-line news discussion list (for those editors that are bringing out on-line versions of their publications), one on providers of Web servers (comp.infosystems.www.providers) and others. Expect this to continue, and further news groups to come and go to segment the on-line communications provider marketplace.
David Strom (email@example.com) lives and works in Port Washington, N.Y. and writes on technology topics for Infoworld and Forbes.
Copyright © 1994 by David Strom. All Rights Reserved.