Rumormonger Matt Drudge was, as is his custom, spreading gossip on the Internet. This time it was about a certain Cabinet official who was supposedly growing very restless in his job. There was also, delivered to browsers with the intriguing label Contains Graphic Description, yet another lurid account of Paula Jones alleged encounter with Bill Clinton.
The days Drudge Report was just another entry in the vast, uncontrolled electronic network that has been unleashing a tidal flow of chat, creating a myriad of business opportunities and, according to some, revolutionizing the practice of journalism.
Onto this shifty terrain now steps the Online Journalism Review (www.ojr.org), the USC Annenberg School for Communications new electronic magazine. The brainchild of Annenberg dean Geoffrey Cowan and made possible by a grant from USCs Annenberg Center, its an ambitious attempt to direct the hard scrutiny of journalistic standards at the flood of electronic information, as the Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review have done with traditional news outlets.
Online journalism presents terrific opportunities and serious potential problems, Cowan says. I thought the best way to discuss the developments that were taking place and to critique the problems was with a journalism review.
It has a deceptively broad mandate. In three months of operation, OJR has, among many things, looked at Internet censorship in Cuba and China, analyzed the latest software to create Web pages, done edgy features on online publications like Salon Magazine and Tabloid, reported on the use of the Internet in Katmandu and, of course, tracked the progress of the Monica Lewinsky story on the Internet.
WEEKLY EDITORIAL MEETINGS in the Annenberg office of executive editor Larry Pryor have a global cachet as the discussion rambles through about 30 stories in various stages of development.
The setting is Pryors gray-toned, clutterless office on the ground floor of the Annenberg School. Outside, the newsroom, a grid of about two dozen computer stations, is in full swing. Its here that the rest of the online program is housed: the Annenberg News Service, with about 70 students providing daily stories for the Los Angeles Times Web site and other electronic outlets, and the High School Journalism Project, training younger journalists to use the Web.
Pryor, a 35-year veteran of the Los Angeles Times and a former editor of the Times Web site, likes the global approach.
In our first issue, we published a list of 50 names to know [in the Internet], he says. Then we got deluged with e-mail telling us how provincial we were. Why are all the people on the list Americans? Dont we know the Web is worldwide?
So OJR put out its international list last month, ranging alphabetically from George Adams, editor of a satirical Hong Kong Web site, to James Winter, a Canadian communication studies professor who puts out a weekly on-line magazine. (The U.S. list ranged, not alphabetically but in rough order of importance, from Bill Gates to Leah Gentry, editor of the Los Angeles Times Web site.)
We see our role as being watchdogs, Pryor says, but we want to be helpful to the public, giving them the reliable places as well as the unreliable ones, which they might want to avoid. Or where they might go with the awareness of what theyre getting into.
OJR editors also see it as providing a service for journalists in a new field. The Web, with its 24-hour accessibility, has already succeeded in speeding up the news cycle, as well as providing reporters greater and more immediate access to research data. The increasing competitiveness has also spawned some shoddy journalism, OJR writers have pointed out, as reporters rushing to beat the competition have failed to fully check out their stories.
We need to train journalists in using this new technology, Pryor says. Its essential to their jobs.
OJRs watchdog role has turned up more good than bad, Pryor insists.
The more involved I get with online journalism, the more impressed I am with the quality, he says. Theres a lot of evidence that its getting stronger. We want to recognize that.