Internet and Newspaper Moving Forward Together

Some readers fear the newspaper is on its last leg—being knocked down by the rise of online news. But that’s not the attitude portrayed by online editors of some of the country’s top newspapers.

The 8th Annual International Symposium on Online Journalism kicked off at the University of Texas at Austin Friday. The event lasted for two days and featured panels containing many prominent figures in online news addressing various topics pertaining to the new medium.

The first panel of speakers came from USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The editors spoke of the importance of converging online and print versions of news and their own views of the multimedia outlet.

“There’s really an increasing need to sort of look at the organization from the ground up,” said Kinsey Wilson, who is vice president and executive editor of USA Today.

Wilson said the addition of the Internet isn’t just another typical medium that will grow and eventually act in the same way as those that preceded it. He stressed that tinkering with the newspaper and corresponding website separately is the wrong attitude. The question he believes needs to be asked is, “How would I rebuild this today if I were starting over?”

Neil Chase, from the New York Times, agreed, saying the solution is to invest more in the infrastructure. “[It] requires more of a global look at how we’re going to do the whole newsroom,” the continuous news desk editor said, “as opposed to what we’ve been doing for a long time.”

Wilson pointed out that, with this approach, it’ll take time to adjust to the new terrain. “We’re feeling our way, and we’re going to stumble sometimes and make mistakes,” but he said that it’s all part of the process.

Bill Grueskin, the managing editor for the Wall Street Journal, paralleled Wilson’s statement by commenting that the interactivity of online news is and will continue to be a priceless source of insight and information for journalists. He emphasized that when readers comment on a news story through blogs and other forms of online communication, they often bring in a fresh look that may be worth investigating. “Stuff in the blogs is a lot better than what runs on the inside pages of the Wall Street Journal some days.”

“I think it’s in fact suicidal not to have some dialogue between readers and journalists,” said Jim Brady of the Washington Post.

The vice president and executive editor hasn’t had the best experience with that dialogue. Early last year one of the Post’s own reported that lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave campaign donations to Democrats and Republicans. Abramoff had actually directed his clients to give to members of both parties but had only donated personal funds to Republicans.

After the error, one of the Post’s blogs became a war zone for internet users. They condemned the story and newspaper, and after attempting to eliminate the more colorful language posted, Brady finally shut down the blog entirely. The backlashfrom his action was enormous with users calling his actions a slap in the face of free speech.

But Brady continues to support the back-and-forth between newspapers and readers. “You have to accept there’s going to be some crap that comes in with the good, but there’s a lot of good there if you tunnel down.”

Despite the prediction from some that online news will not so much complement newspapers as it will eliminate them completely, he assured the audience that newspapers will stick around for quite a while. In fact, all of the editors promised as much.

“The reason newspapers are going to be around, all four of the newspapers up here and lots of other ones,” New York Times’ Chase clarified, “is because of the news judgment, because of what they do.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Grueskin did warn that, “people don’t stop reading the newspaper because it’s too important in their lives. They stop reading it because it’s losing relevance in their lives.”

He went on to add that journalists do what they do because they want to have an impact on the world, and the Internet gives a good sense of exactly what that impact is. In his own way of paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, Grueskin may have said it best in defining what attitude news makers must take. “Maybe it’s time for us to ask not what print can do online, but what online can do for print.”