In the speeded-up world of technology, I can only compare covering the Internet technology beat during the past eight years to something like covering Hawaii between when it fell into the orbit of the United States and now. For both assignments, the story began as one best handled by something akin to a foreign correspondent, but evolved into one requiring the approach and mindset of something closer to a business and real-estate reporter.
I began my career as the Internet reporter on the overnight desk at theAssociated Press bureau in San Francisco in 1993. I had done a few computer stories at the Seattle AP and before that some stories on an up-and-coming company called Microsoft as a reporter for the Seattle National Public Radio affiliate. All this because my high school happened to teach BASIC, making me the de facto computer expert on staff.
The San Francisco overnight was a protective shift. It involved doing the weather report, some radio pieces and a few rewrites, but mostly one was there in case the Big One hit. In the grand AP tradition of dues paying, it was where green reporters were sent to cure for awhile.
Alone in the bureau from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., I was bored and lonely and quickly began fiddling with the ’tube I’d been assigned. After a few days’ work I finally figured how to back out of AP Edit and get the modem to dial out to my newly acquired Internet account on what I, at the time, did not realize was an already famous online community, the WELL.
Coming to work at night was suddenly fun, an ongoing party I was eager to return to. The WELL was composed of thousands of fascinating people discussing everything under the sun, as well as an e-mail link to a brand new world. Each night after the briefs package was sent, I explored, and quickly realized what I was learning about was a story worth writing about. Thankfully, my bureau chief Dan Day took my word that this Internet thing wasn’t just some new CB radio-like craze, but a true cultural shift that we should be covering. My first story was about the Women’s Information Resources Exchange, a newly begun women’s Internet network which much later morphed into Woman.com.
I was discovering (and covering) a new culture, and I frequently likened the beat to being a foreign correspondent. But I was stuck on the overnight desk, doing interviews by phone in the mornings and precluded by union rules from venturing out on my own time to actually meet the people I talked with. And by AP rules, I couldn’t write bylined stories since I hadn’t physically been to the (mostly Silicon Valley) towns these people worked in.
To get around this, Dan and I hatched the idea of a weekly column to be called “On the Net.” But the AP’s then-executive editor Bill Ahearn turned him down cold, saying it was hardly national news. Ever an editor to stand up for his writers, Dan ignored New York and decided to run this new column on the state wire.
During its first year, the AP’s own computers couldn’t even handle the @ sign in e-mail addresses, meaning that at the bottom of each column we had to write, “Elizabeth Weise can be reached at weise (insert ‘at sign’ here) well.com.” Half the time the papers that ran the column forgot to substitute those words for the actual @ sign, and I’d get angry messages from tech-savvy readers wondering what kind of dolts we were. The AP wouldn’t have email for its staffers for another two years, so I had to use my private account for my reporting and my address, and none of this was even reimbursable.
When the Web hit, at the AP we had terrible trouble writing about it. It turned out that the // in http:// (which at that point was still required to actually reach Web sites) was read by some computers in the system as a “Stop Text” message, meaning the story cut off as soon as those characters were sent. It took the technicians several weeks to figure out what was happening and much faxing of articles to papers unlucky enough to be on those lines.
That first year of columns was like writing from some distant civilization, one now virtually extinct. The Internet in 1995 basically consisted of the digital cacophony that was Usenet, the once thriving but now almost forgotten bulletin board of the Net, and Internet Relay Chat, the grandfather of all chat and instant messaging programs, which is now mostly inhabited by hackers and hacker wannabe’s.
One momentous and hysterical day was when America Online finally opened a gateway to the Internet. Thousands upon thousands of “clueless newbies” stumbled out the door into alt.best.of.internet, the first Usenet newsgroup on the list. Unfortunately, much like Columbus when he hit San Salvador in the Bahamas and thought he’d found China, they thought this one newsgroup was the entire Internet and spent several days bumbling around complaining about how small and boring it was. Net “denizens,” as we tended to call them, sat on the sidelines, chuckling and baiting them.
After close to a year of this, with “On the Net” running in a goodly number of papers on the West Coast, New York finally decided the Internet was a real thing after all and that they should actually be covering it. I was offered the august position of national writer, based in San Francisco, with a newly created title that New York was convinced sounded perfectly cutting edge—AP Cyberspace Writer.
To this day I believe it stands as the oddest title ever bestowed on an AP writer. It ran just below my byline, though few papers actually used it, choosing the AP bug instead. Business cards were a different matter, demanding all sorts of explanations as I handed them out at conferences, but no matter what I said the person reading the card almost always burst into laughter at the sight of the title. After I left, the AP quietly changed the beat’s title to AP Internet Writer.
The next two years were marked by a growing national fascination with the Internet and the online world and the gradual coming along of the news industry to the change. And in the way of a reporter who was taking part in the culture she was covering, I fought a constant battle with those back home who kept telling me (rightly so, I realize now) that the bulk of America would have no idea what we were writing about. In the beginning the copydesk required that each use of the word “Internet” be followed on first reference by the phrase “a world-wide network of computer networks.” Then there were the numerous fights over the use of World Wide Web (as it was dubbed by its inventor) rather than the grammatically proper World-wide Web.
And e-mail took forever to beat out electronic mail on first, or sometimes all, references. (Wired magazine recently decreed the return of the hyphen to e-mail, after valiantly and ungrammatically demanding that it be email to all and sundry for years.) Then there was the ongoing struggle over reaction stories. In the face of any catastrophe—say the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles or the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City—the general desk immediately called looking for an Internet-Reax story to accompany the required sidebar containing a compendium of man-on-the-street comments from around the nation. It took the better part of a year to finally convince them people online were just the same as those offline.
In 1997 USA Today made me an offer I couldn’t refuse (not hard to do with someone on an AP salary), and I switched to covering the same beat for a newspaper. This new position was nirvana. One of the issues that always came up in the early years was where newspapers chose to run the stories we were writing about this new Internet culture. It seemed clear to the writers that they were news or perhaps style stories, being as they covered the hitherto undiscovered world of cyberspace. But because they were nominally about computers, they almost always ran in paper’s business sections.
By a happy twist of fate USA Today’s resident computer and Internet geek-turned-editor Bruce Schwartz happened to work in the Life section, so the paper’s technology coverage had always run in that section. This freed it from the problem many of my tech-writer brethren faced. They might write a fascinating cultural story that touched on several facets of the online world, but their editors required that end-of-trading stock prices be ingloriously shoehorned in to make the story work for the business section.
Now, three years further down the road, Bruce and I agree the world we both began covering back in the early 1990’s isn’t the same beat we’re covering today. We all knew this day would come—it was in the very nature of our reporting to bring it about. The Internet wasn’t supposed to be a secret kept for only academics and scientists; it was a worldwide communications medium.
But we were there during the brief, heady moment when it seemed as if the Net might hold the possibility for a truly new world order. As Howard Rheingold pointed out in his 1993 classic, “The Virtual Community,” the Net wasn’t just about the possibility of one-to-one communication, it was about the possibility of one-to-many. It represented the chance for anyone, anywhere, to post their own manifesto, to speak to the world. The Internet stood to fundamentally change the age-old proposition that the power of the presses belonged to those who owned them. Suddenly, you didn’t need a press to broadcast your thoughts to the world.
But that time has passed. The possibilities are still there, but they’re hidden behind the billboards for Wal-Mart and eGreetings. Many of the people who once might have done cool things merely for the sake of doing them now are hoping to get noticed, get bought out and get rich. The word “interactivity,” which once meant connection between human beings, now too often simply means, “You can watch ‘Friends’ and click on Ross’s sweater and buy it!”
The Internet that streams at me every day as I sit at my desk is Singapore as compared to Borneo, and I find I liked covering Borneo better. Most of what needs to be written these days truly is a business story; it’s about money and sales, real estate and corporate power. And I’m not the only one. More and more of my colleagues, folks who’ve been doing this thing for longer and shorter periods, are slipping away into other beats. Those of us who weren’t business reporters don’t want to become them, and increasingly that’s where this train is headed.
The frontier has been settled, the prairie’s been fenced, the sheriff has come to town and the businesses on Main Street have begun their move to suburban malls. It’s time to get out of Dodge.
Elizabeth Weise has recently begun the process of switching from the Internet/technology beat at USA Today to covering the scientific, cultural and ethical issues raised by biotech and nanotech.