In October, John Gage, chief researcher for Sun Microsystems and currently a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard, met with the Nieman Fellows at Lippmann House and talked about the convergence of technology and the press. During the question and answer period, he shared his vision of one way that newspapers could use these news tools of communication. They could have students report and write about what’s happening in schools. He began by using California as an example because of his experience in wiring schools for the Internet and developing a Web page for each school.
There are about 13,000 schools in California, 1,050 school districts. If you try to read about schools in the Los Angeles Times, the paper might cover oneschool, they might cover the Los Angeles unified school district—that’s 700 and some odd schools—but they’ll never cover all of them. They can’t. So, they won’t. And they don’t have anybody on the ground [at all of these schools] anyway.
So, there is all this tension between, “Get the local news; news is local,” and you could try to do that and it could fail because people don’t want to pay for [the kind of reporting it would take to do] it. Now we have something brand new [in terms of technology], and somewhere there’s going to be a shift.
We have a way to make a free, universally readable newspaper for every school in the world.
Four years ago I did a project. I just got fed up because I wanted to get my kid’s school wired to the Internet. Well, gosh, you talk to the contractors, it’s $50,000. And you talk to people who run the school, and they’re worried that they don’t have the money or the expertise or the permission.
But the parents do. It struck me that the two million people in California that had downloaded Netscape by January 1996 had all the expertise needed. All it would take was finding a way, a cheap way, to allow them to organize to go wire their own kid’s school. That way was the Internet.
So I said, “We have 13,000 schools in California. I’m going to order every engineer in California to go to their kid’s school on Saturday and, eight o’clock in the morning, bring a ladder, bring the reel of wire, and go in and wire the school, and I give you permission.”
I lied to everybody. I said, “Saturday morning, March 9th, everybody has permission to go to the school, bring a ladder, and wire the school.” It took me two hours to make a Web site for every school in California, so the parents could go to their kid’s school and volunteer, so other people could see them.
A lot of parents said, “Really?” “Yes, absolutely.” “No kidding?” And they called the school and said, “Guess what? We’re going to come over on Saturday morning.” The principal would say, “No you’re not. It’s my school.” The parents say, “No, no, this guy said that we could do it, and we’re going to come and we’re going to bring the wire for free and it doesn’t cost anything.”
Well, in the 1,050 school districts, about 50 school districts said, “It’s a communist plot,” or “It’s the devil coming.” In other places they [school administrators] said, “We better get in front of the troops because they’re our parents and they all work, and they have computers at their work and they’re going to come and wire it.” So it ended up that we did this project to get all the schools wired, and on that March day, 100,000 people got up in California and wired 4,000 schools in the morning. They just brought the wire; it cost the schools nothing. People sold cakes. The Web page for every school, that cost nothing, had turned into the tool to organize the neighborhood, the parents. It became a mini-newspaper for the school, where you could write what you wanted about the school.
News emerged that otherwise none would see. At one school, I heard about girls developing bladder infections. A parent told me, “There was attempted rape in the bathroom, and the principal, who has no budget, locked all the bathrooms because they had no security to keep the bathrooms safe. There aren’t any bathrooms. The girls don’t have a bathroom.”
You must be joking. “No, we’re not joking, that’s exactly the problem. We can’t get the school board to listen. We get no money for police or security. There’s no money in the school. Some of the parents try to volunteer to help make the place more secure, but that’s our big problem.”
I said, “You know what you ought to do? Write it on the Web page for your school, because when it’s written down there’s a story there that can change people’s lives. You’re a little newspaper.”
“Oh my God,” she said. And she wrote a long thing about it, big scandal, and stuff started to happen.
So that’s the idea. What we need is to get every school in the world linked to the Net, and then get the kids to report on conditions in the school in their community. If I want to find out in rural Japan if the NTT project to get bandwidth into Honshu or someplace really worked, I could ask the head of the school, and they’re going to tell me one thing. Let’s get the kid in school actually involved.
How can we cast this in a way that might work? I mean, this is something that we’ve got to do. I went to The New York Times and said, “You’ve got the foundation; let’s do this for the Times.” Kids in the service area of The New York Times have T-shirts that say, “New York Times Technology Reporter.” At each elementary school, teachers pick one student, and we end up with 6,000 kids with T-shirts and they all file a story every week about what’s in their school. “The dog did this. The roof leaks. It’s boring. Of the 20 computers we have, 10 don’t work, and the math teacher won’t let anyone not in math touch the one that does work.”
Of the kids who file, 52 kids a year, one each week, will appear in the real paper. At the end of the year, The New York Times, we’ve got 52 new journalists out there. They’ve been in the paper, so they’ve written something, and the other 6,000 kids file on The New York Times’s Web site, which costs nothing. They’re writing about local news in a community. Now we can use the editorial function, which is to find interesting stories, and then figure out if any of them is true, and it generates some new kind of journalism that comes from the place up. And since we can see these things suddenly it’s new, it’s different, and the kids, by the way, are all going to have cameras. Figure that out. So now the kids are all running around taking pictures.
And then there will be great lawsuits, because the principal will try to shut down one of these things because he said that the principal is having an affair with a teacher, and then there will be all these freedom of the press lawsuits. It will be great. It will be chaos.