At a recent panel discussion held at Columbia, five new media leaders explained how their news staffs have sprinted from the technology dark ages to the forefront of electronic journalism, arguing that others must follow suit or be relegated to the history books.
The discussion brought together Len Apcar, NYTimes.com editor; Jeff Gralnick, NBC special consultant and former VP of ABCNews.com; Andrea Panciera, editor of The Providence (R.I.) Journal's ProJo.com; Craig Newmark, founder and chief customer service representative of Craigslist; and James Taranto, editor and columnist for the Wall Street Journal's online editorial page, OpinionJournal.com.
The event was the inaugural session of a new joint initiative between Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and the Hearst Foundation to examine the latest media trends, with an emphasis on new media and online journalism.
As the panelists spoke and fielded questions -- many of them from mobile phones and e-mail -- moderator Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia Journalism School's dean of students, pulled up relevant Web sites on a screen behind the speakers.
At one point, Panciera turned questions back on the audience, asking how many people read newspapers in print form. Almost every hand went up. "This is a skewed response," she laughed. "At most colleges I go to, almost no one is reading a print newspaper."
Although panelists' responses took a potentially explosive turn when Taranto lit into the New York Times editorial page for its stance on Judith Miller, the evening wrapped up like a how-to course in new media.
Apcar noted that people now seek out information online, rather than having it delivered. "That has made the Internet a surgical strike information source," he said.
But is that information legitimate? Newmark said that with so many facts available, fact checking becomes even more crucial. Craigslist, like other online publishers, has had to develop detailed strategies to deal with false information that spreads like wildfire across online forums.
Panciera said that the Internet has allowed for ways, unimaginable up to now, of getting information to readers as well providing clues about readers' interests. By setting up a chat on ProJo.com for female high school tennis players, for example, the paper was able to give readers interaction and information while also gaining insight into its audience by reading over the chatroom exchanges.
Old habits die hard, though. "I admit to being a dinosaur," Gralnick began. When Princess Diana died in September 1997, 5 million page views in a month at ABCNews.com opened Gralnick's eyes to the readership possibilities it presented.
Now Gralnick has gone beyond the printed page, proclaiming that newspapers must go out and find their audiences "on whatever devices they are using."
Taranto pointed out that this new accessibility was changing political history. He suggested that Trent Lott would still be Majority Leader, Dan Rather might still be reporting, and Harriet Miers would be headed for the Supreme Court if online dissemination hadn't made their shortcomings such instant household information.
"My original story [on the lack of support for Miers] would never have been as prominent in print," Taranto said. "If a public person does something foolish, they'll get jumped on very quickly."