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Newspapers, Community, and the Web

By Howard Rheingold

When amateurs all over the world can transmit eyewitness reports to everyone else in the world, including pictures, via the Net, the traditional news business is severely challenged. In the old days, you had to own a press and a distribution network to get your message out to a mass audience. Nowadays, a personal computer and an Internet account will do. It's no wonder that more than one hundred of the biggest newspapers have launched websites.

Few newspapers seem to understand the new medium well enough to adapt. One traditional newspaper, however, launched a web site that does seem to get it, by mixing local information, worldwide news, internet access, and community service. It wasn't the New York Times or the Washington Post, but the Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer.

The NandO Times is the Raleigh News and Observer's website. NandO made the radical move of not just putting a page up on the Web. They became an Internet provider in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. For as little as ten dollars per month, local customers can dial in a local call for "light" Internet access. NandO has given accounts to all the local schools free of charge. When Research Triangle area residents log on, they can join the rest of the world in the NandO Times, a continuously updated world, U.S. business and sports news website. Along with the sports news, the NandO website offers sports chat, ennabling subscribers who share a common interest in sports to communicate with each other.

"NandoNext," one of the items featured prominently on NandO's home page, is "devoted to the interests and attitudes of the next generation, with stories and art created by students from high schools throughout the Triangle." A sixteen year old high school boy gave a withering pan of a current sci-fi action movie. Here is a place where the high school kids of the area are in charge, and they are pretty good at it. I'll put their high school film critics on my hotlist, as an alternative to what I read in the regular newspaper.

I read a News and Observer dance critic's review of a current performance, then clicked on the icon, waited a few minutes to download a few seconds of digital video, and watched a bit of the dance the critic is critiquing.

Another feature offers a community service to local readers. When Wake County recently reassigned children to different school districts, NandO gave online subscribers access to a special database. Parents can enter their address and find out what school their children are reassigned to, then click on the name of the school and find more specific information about the school.

Local features like the Wake County School Assignment Lookup provide a service to the geographic community, and establish bonds with the people who buy the paper-based version. We're still going to need the craft of journalism, no matter what medium it migrates into. We're going to need worldwide networks of trained observers who know how to get a story, verify it, and tell it quickly, and we're going to need editors who can quickly sift through all the good, bad, and bogus reports and pick the right mix of winners. But the current institution of the newspaper, vulnerable to the price of woodpulp, reliant on industrial-era distribution, has no choice but to explore the territory of electronic delivery. One good place to keep track of newspapers online is YAHOO, another site specializes in "the daily news -- just the links," . San Francisco's Chronicle and Examiner jointly sponsor The Gate where newspaper readers participate in discussions with newspaper columnists and each other. It's heartening to see that the most successful experiments are those that don't forget the value of community.

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold