Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 3 / July 1, 1994 / Page 8

Into the Net: A Reporter's Transformation

by Anne Bilodeau (

The modem -- what a bulky, resource-consuming pain it was when my computer-programmer father brought one home 20 years ago. It took up a corner of our kitchen table and tied up phone lines for hours. Later, after the programming work was done, I used it to play in a virtual cave designed by idle brains at MIT. I cried when my father pried me away from the attached teletype at 3 AM, and dreamed about trolls and crystal bridges.

Little did I imagine, when I first explored Collosal Cave as a six-year-old, that my modem would become my best friend and cyberspace my back yard. A flash, a bobble of the screen and the scratch of a hard disk turning. My Usenet posting is filtering out, in a mysterious diffusion, into the hands of those who are most likely to find it interesting.

After years of play, my professional and personal loves are converging. I'm falling in love with computers all over again. What better means could there be for satisfying a newspaper reporter's hunger for relevance than a mind-link like Internet? As I have found, to my naive chagrin, information has a way of staying ahead of even the most enterprising reporter. The news may be what we say it is, but our audience dictates, and acts upon, what matters.

Ultimately, the same mystery lies at the core of newsgathering as any for-profit scheme.. Sometimes people need our work.. Sometimes people don't. We interview, we search through piles of paper, we study details till our eyes go bloody and write till our fingers ache. Once our product heads out into the world, all bets are off. No moving finger ever moved faster than the reader who skims our work and turns the page.

Like most human perversity, this can be turned to our advantage.

We can matter. we can count...if we are willing to take on a new role.

Rather than the traditional arbiters of the good, the bad and the ugly, communicators will be the channellers we have always claimed to be. We will see our product set aside in Newsgroups, in personally-tailored news vehicles, printed by micro-presses and distributed in virtual neighborhoods with a vitality no clipping ever saw.

This new role is a logical extension of the role we already play, and it forces us to work smarter. Not to dress up a page, or meet a "news mix" requirement, or fill a section, or even to pursue a cause, but to concentrate our efforts and keep a laser focus on what people really need.

Look at the explosion of new newsletters, the concentration of information to what some might call an absurd degree. Newsletters proliferating, each paid for dearly by folks who need inside information more than air.

What the intrepid Internet-based reporter will need to know, I can hardly imagine. My strolls along Internet's byways have been of brief duration, exploring only to the limits of my still-brief patience with machines. But there are ways to get inside the head of even a coconut, if you really need to do it by deadline. I have vowed to take on Internet reporting with the zeal I reserved for figuring out male behavior during my teens.

With just a little bit of regret.

I admit it. There is no doubt that I sometimes feel left out. I missed it -- the days when the Fourth Estate was a genuine aristocracy of artless, dogged news gatherers. Wishing for the big-hearted, grab-you-by-the-coattails breathlessness of grungy newspapering, and feeling that the flourescent glow of an online database is a poor substitute for physical adventure.

The bad news about the online explosion is that it undermines the this information brotherhood.

But this is also the good news. Even for me.

In not being born into a world where the macho of Hemingwayesque-male bonding in the newsroom was common, I'm making up my professional expectations as I go along. People worldwide making intimate, direct use of my work is more than I had hoped for.

How better to keep me honest, when I get that deific high of a news touchdown, than to know that the people reading that story care about what I'm saying. That they will choose my work for its content, not the pretty pictures I pile up or the influence I may wield.

Channelling the word, the image, the information in bundles unthought of before, comprehensive beyond belief, putting the resources of world-wide ingenuity into the hands of the populace. Almost too much power, except when we remember that any Jane with a computer can join the procession in a few minutes at the modem.

This is true survival of the best news-delivery agent, and it's about time. Either the people who read us will decide we have something special, and buy in but good, or they will do it themselves and our word processors will flash blankly. So be it.

If that's a bit much for the cops reporter in Podunk, well, not everybody can drag-race on the ol' superhighway. I'm planning to get there.

These new demands can offer information delivery a bracing restorative. Right now we are in a difficult, awkward relationship with technology. Advances in software and hardware seem to force writers to be editors, editors to be designers, and designers to try all three...four hours before the issue goes out.

Maybe the online, organic news connection can move beyond us a channel for pure news delivery, through a vehicle of incredible flexibility and power. We will be heard by a willing audience.

To keep up, we will have to work the Internet beat ourselves. Not pass through it, but walk the virtual streets and hang around in the virtual bars, clubs, hot tubs and priories. For every gathering place that people know, there will be a purer, more concentrated rootless equivalent out there.

There will be a new taste to our news-gathering process.

Online news offers a satisfying wholeness -- rather than knowing how to design a page or write a headline, we can become the information experts of a newborn profession. And why not borrow from the librarian, the scientist, the statistician, to become another pure culture of information?

I envision my sweat-perfected stories falling neatly into my readers lap like a ripe banana.

I sign on again, headed for wider and wider worlds.

Anne Bilodeau is a newsletter editor and one of the founders of the Society of Electronic News Delivery, a new journalism organization promoting greater use and understanding of electronic media.

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