Beware claims trumpeting the glories of the digital revolution. Not so long ago — in the distant 1990s — the cultural ether was abuzz with proclamations that the Internet and World Wide Web would make deep and dramatic impacts on society. Online technologies promised a transformation in human communications, particularly in news and popular media: Virtual communities would sprout everywhere in cyberspace, creating radical economic and social consequences.
Pablo Boczkowski, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Chair at the Sloan School, argues against such grandiose descriptions of a digital ‘revolution.’ Author of Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers, which won the International Communication Association’s 2005 Outstanding Book Award, Boczkowski explores three disparate digital news efforts: The New York Times Technology Desk on the Web; Houston.Chronicle.com, a now-defunct Web-only multimedia features section; and Community Connection, a New Jersey Online site, produced collectively by the Newark Star-Ledger, Trenton Times, and Jersey Journal, where nonprofits can post Web pages to promote their services.
When it comes to producing news, says Boczkowski, the producers’ social and cultural mindsets rule the process and the product. “It’s the people, not just the technology,” he asserts. “Three different news organizations used similar technologies in different ways, because the people producing the sites — their goals, their organizations, their resources, and their cultures — were different.”
THE NEWS GROUPS
Consider The Times’ digital enterprise. Boczkowski’s profile reveals reporters and editors who had the most au courant media tools at their disposal, including audio, video, computer animation, and 360-degree digital photography. Despite the plethora of resources, their digital edition was a re-hash of print stories, re-purposed for the Web. The Web writers replicated print’s traditional 700- to 1200-word article limits; the digital design, too, mimicked The Times’ six-column newspaper layout. Traditional mindsets create traditional output, whether in print or online, says Boczkowski.
The strategy of the Virtual Voyager, the Houston Chronicle’s Web enterprise, was a study in contrast. The site, fairly divorced from the newsroom, pushed the technical limits. Experimenting with audio-video, animation, innovative layouts, and interactivity, the Web site gave users vicarious experiences. Technologically savvy users were delighted. But the site’s very innovations spelled its commercial demise; the online output was too sophisticated for local advertisers, who weren’t eager to underwrite Web-only ads for a medium they little appreciated.
New Jersey Online’s Community Connection offered thousands of nonprofits a free Web site where they could promote their services. Involving fewer multi-media innovations than the Virtual Voyager, the content of the New Jersey effort was more populist than that of the other two enterprises, with information flowing in multiple directions. At the same time, the Community Connection’s editorial content pushed journalistic limits. Editorial, as the site’s editor said, “now includes Web sites built by nonprofit groups, the content in our forums, and whatever happens in our chat rooms, in addition to the newspaper stories and our polls.” This approach muddles journalism’s traditional role as civic watchdog and provider of information critical to informed citizens. Boczkowski’s commentary — that the media company used digital technology to pursue a common business agenda, both in print and online — highlights his theme that social context shapes technology’s use and meaning.
Another take on social context sheds light on Boczkowski’s choice of subject. Born and bred in Buenos Aires, Boczkowski recalls the experience that led to the intellectual passion driving Digitizing the News. While studying for his Ph.D. in science and technology studies at Cornell University, Boczkowski participated in an online chat hosted by his favorite Argentine newspaper, Diario Clarín, featuring novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges’ frequent writing partner. “Not only was Bioy my favorite Argentine novelist, but as a high school student, I had interviewed him in his home,” relays Boczkowski. “So here I was in 1996, alone in my apartment in isolated Ithaca (home of Cornell), chatting for an hour together with 60 people all over the planet, with a reporter [in Buenos Aires] reading the questions out loud to Bioy, who in turn gave his answers verbally to a typist, who then transcribed them for the chat session participants—and the whole thing was mediated by technology.”
What Boczkowski learned in the newspaper chronicle of the event, which appeared two days later, was that the interview had taken place in the same room in which he had talked to Bioy 15 years earlier. But in the 1996 scenario, the newspaper had to bring computer equipment and a host of personnel to conduct the chat. “After I read the newspaper article, I was hooked,” says Boczkowski. “Here was a stable, five centuries-old media artifact — a newspaper — with established news production routines, such as interviewing techniques that had been around for 100 years … yet the technology infrastructure was changing and destabilizing these routines. I became intrigued. I started to look at online newspapers. After a few months, I couldn’t think about anything else besides the transformation of print culture in the digital age.” All in all, a perfect example of Boczkowski’s own key tenet of culture, resources, and goals coming together to define direction and consequences — in this case, a thriving and life-long professional passion.