The postman knocks a thousand times

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
29 October, 2016
Editorial: 43
Fecha de publicación original: 29 octubre, 1996

Date of publication: 29/10/1996. Editorial 043.

*Fifth article in a series on digital journalism

 The hare will leap out where you least expect it
(Don Quixote Chapter II)

This is an article with an (as yet unknown) expiry date. A lot of what I have to say now about the Internet and journalists, especially those who work in big communications companies, will quite possibly change substantially in a couple of years. Nevertheless, although the situation may change spectacularly in just six months, in terms of the digital calendar this is still a very long time. This is true, above all, because of the particular areas I want to focus on, and even more so if we take into account the time that has already passed.

Approximately two years go, I first began to sign articles in El Periodico including my e-mail address (now it is a standard practice in the Telematic page which comes out on Sundays, although in the electronic version of the newspaper the address is not yet active). Luís Reales did the same on La Vanguardia. It was the first time that such a thing had happened in the Spanish press (both of us were in Barcelona, a kind of gentle indication that it was Catalonia which was going to take the lead as a pioneer in media initiatives in Internet). Since then, a lot of bits have flown under the digital bridges in cyberspace. However, despite the innovations that have subsequently taken place, particularly the fact that nearly all the leading media in Catalonia have opened up digital newsagents on the Net (El Periódico, La Vanguardia, AvuiCatalunya Radio or TV3 to name but a few), the number of journalists who have their own e-mail addresses is extremely, ridiculously low. None of these media in Catalonia (nor in other parts of the country) have assumed as part of their policy the systematic distribution of e-mail among its journalists. Not even among their editors. In fact, Internet connections in newsrooms are the exception rather than the rule, which obviously makes the use of e-mail difficult. From the companies’ point of view there are reasons for this (which I will analyse next week). From the journalists’ point of view it is paradoxical that communication professionals have still not incorporated into their arsenal of tools the most powerful one of all, the Internet with all its informative facets. In short, it is hard to understand why journalists have not yet gathered together as a “benign pressure group” to obtain what should be their main claim to a minimalist digital programme: e-mail in the newsroom (the “maximalist” one would entail defining themselves as digital journalists within the bosom of the companies. Another ball game altogether).

It does not seem right that professional journalists still come up with what is possibly the most frequently reiterated question in the last two years: is there any worthwhile information on the Internet? This question is a clear indication of the way things stand . (I am not going to waste time on the string of comments that usually accompanies this question: Internet is just a game, it’s a waste of time, etc.). The only way of finding out if there is good information on the Net (or anywhere else for that matter) is by using the test of St. Thomas, the first digital journalist of the post-Golgotha era: put your fingers in the wounds. The answer one comes up with is self-evident: on the Internet there is excellent information to be found, the best contacts and a very ample spectrum of personal, institutional and documentary sources, inaccessible through any other means, including telephone or fax (unless you are lucky enough to break through the wall of assessors, secretaries, last-minute meetings, absenteeism with or without justification, etc. which surrounds the busy people of this world one would like to talk to). All of this is on hand with e-mail, the Internet’s most fundamental tool. The WWW plays a supporting role in this regard and is, almost invariably, just functional with respect to e-mail.

The question is how much imagination is used, in this kind of Miguel Strogoff cyberspace, to create contacts, discussion lists, or ways of verifying the identity of personal and data sources one has access to. E-mail allows for gathering information rapidly, contrasting it, increasing one’s circle of contacts, making oneself known in the information sectors one prefers and maintaining a constant update of sources and activities. The relationship of journalists with cyberspace matures as they make use of this tool, which is like a kind of needle tying knots in the Net: the first messages quickly become a dense framework, a complex map of physical and mental contours in which it is best not to get lost. The advantages of e-mail as compared with the telephone and fax are incomparable: it is like constantly moving within an information system which is in part defined by oneself and in part by the dynamic of communication and digital interaction, whose capacity and speed has no equal in the “real world”.

Here is one example: in February last year I was sent to attend the Congress of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Atlanta (US). One of the conferences, which lasted four days, was on the state of the ex-USSR nuclear arsenals. Experts and scientists from the US and various republics of what used to be the Soviet Union took part, all of them with first hand knowledge of the problem in both countries. They were the “creme de la creme” of nuclear physics, atomic weapons production and radiological protection. I got the e-mails of nearly all of them. Back in Barcelona, I began a post-AAAS discussion group and the number of people taking part grew and grew until it even included authorities from the US Department of Energy and the Energy ministries of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus. Each new member on the list had been referred there by one of its habitués. The quality of the information which circulated through this discussion forum was unparalleled in any other dimension, at least, that I, as a journalist, know of. I have published a number of articles based on the reports, interviews and data obtained through the list. And the miraculous, so typical of the Internet, continues to occur: while I receive answers to electronic messages with the speed typical of the digital era, I still have not been able to talk to some of the participants by telephone. But they are always available via their electronic post boxes to answer any questions or suggest ideas for finding the most suitable sources of information needed. Today, while I have been writing this article, I was alerted through two discussion lists (one of them the above-mentioned) of a series of articles in Physics Today on the history of the Soviet nuclear programme, which were written in the aftermath of a meeting of 300 experts in Dubna, Russia, in May this year. The message carries a long abstract and the names and addresses of various scientists who attended the meeting and are prepared to answer journalists’ questions.

E-mail opens a window with a view hitherto unimaginable. But more importantly, the global view it offers allows journalists to interpret, among other things, and fairly accurately, the interests of their readers, because the latter interact directly with communication professionals and are beginning to form an integral part of that information. This is a completely new phenomenon which, let’s be honest about it, we were not, and are not, prepared for. In fact, the abundant| bibliography that exists on the history of journalism emphasises in a thousand different way that the events which the media narrate do not form part of people’s lives, but rather a life which people suspect must exist beyond their own. From this point on, the amount of interest that each person has in these events is mediated by an enormous number of cultural factors. Interactive digital media has subverted this rule because the people themselves are starting to dictate which events interest them and, in addition, demand some kind of participation in them, at least at the communication level. Within this new framework, digital journalists cannot continue to play the role of mere “digesters” of the information they receive. It is this very interaction through the digital media which will force them to take on other roles (and to prepare to act on them). The road that lies ahead is clear, to a great extent, thanks to thousands of digital journalists who have sprung up from nowhere to take up the possibilities which the networks offer for interactive communication.

Translation: Bridget King


* Other articles dedicated to digital journalism

1.- In search of the digital journalist
2.- From the dictatorship of the technicians…
3.- …to the rebellion of the masses
4.- The birth of “soft power”
5.- The postman knocks a thousand times
6.- How to escape from the newsagent and survive the attempt
7.- The floating university
8.- The knowledge correspondent
9.- Hard disc journalism