I thought it fairly glamorous when in a recent Los Angeles Times article about foreign correspondents I was pictured next to Mel Gibson. But times have changed since “The Year of Living Dangerously,” as the writer of the article pointed out. When I was in Indonesia this spring, as the film character had been during the unrest of the 1960’s, the political drama was only part of my challenge. As a reporter for the Internet site MSNBC-Interactive (MSNBC.com) I had the additional curse and blessing of technology.
It was May, when thousands of student protesters were camped inside Jakarta’s parliament complex. The protests had already led President Suharto to step down after 32 years. Still, the heavily armed military presence outside the compound remained in place, and the protests persisted, now targeting newly named president B.J. Habibie. Students raised new banners outside the buildings, screaming with slogans like “Go to hell Habibie and Suharto and all your cronies,” and chanted “Hang Habibie!”
Finally, it seemed, the military authorities had lost their patience, and late one afternoon the troops that had remained outside the gates started to move in large formations onto the parliament grounds. This change seemed sure to portend a face-off and possibly violence with the students, but when?
Had I been a newspaper or magazine reporter, I would have been taking notes and planning to go back to the hotel to write only when my weekly or daily print deadline was upon me. Had I been working in television or radio, I would have been shooting with a particular news slot in mind. But writing for the Internet, making the usual editorial calls—when and how much to file—is more complicated. The medium’s strongest suits—speed and versatility—mean that the scope of choices is enormous.
In covering this Jakarta story, I was carrying a digital recorder, digital camera, regular SLR camera and a cell phone. My options as the troops arrived were many. I could use the cell phone to call in periodic updates to the story so that MSNBC news editors could publish bare-bones text stories within minutes. Or I could use the time to instead record digital sound and still pictures. Then I could jump on a motorcycle taxi to return to the hotel, process the sound and images, and send them by E-mail for immediate publication. This process is amazingly quick compared to sending it by Federal Express to the United States, but still comes at the risk of missing important moments in the story. Or I could use some combination of the above.
The content of the story varies depending on my decisions, along with editors, graphic designers, “interactive application editors” and media editors back at MSNBC-Interactive headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
Had I been carrying a digital video camera, which is becoming more common for reporters now, I would also have had the option of producing and sending video segments through the phone line. The result is a pretty cool feature for the Internet user—just click and play. But the process—even for our media editors who are trained to do it—is time-consuming and costly through international phone lines.
For background pieces, we drew on work I had done well before the crisis. For instance, as I was leaving for Jakarta, we revived a package outlining the political and social problems, reported on a previous trip. As a standing feature to go with political analysis, we published an interactive application to help untangle the web of Suharto family privilege and business interests. By clicking on individuals pictured in a family photograph, the reader could call up a summary of special deals, taxes and family-held monopolies.
Then, as the crisis unfolded, we stayed to a relatively fast, pared-down approach. When the troops later moved students out of the parliament I called in the story from the parliament so MSNBC could publish it immediately, then recorded natural sound and comment for a fuller version to come later. As President Suharto resigned, MSNBC published a banner with the news immediately. I then did a phone interview with MSNBC television and an analysis for publication shortly after.
The technology doesn’t always come through. When my digital camera gobbles up its battery, it leaves me to describe powerful scenes in the old fashioned way—with words.
Internet news reporting can be rich and timely. However, the results can also be confusing, incomplete or overwhelming. It may be gratuitous to point out that those of us who report news for the Internet are still working on the formula.
The discussions with editors at MSNBC revolve around how we can best use our time and the “space” on our site (which, by the way, is not unlimited). Where is the most value—speed or depth? And, even on breaking stories, how can we use the features of the Internet to tell the story in a better way? It’s a compelling challenge to get the right combination. And for me, personally, it is a way to bring together skills that I acquired working in radio, print and photography.
The Internet is not always a superior tool. After all, I still love to pick up a copy of The Economist and sit on a park bench. And there are definitely things about it that worry me as a journalist. On the Internet, readership can be tracked better than any other medium—down to how many readers visit a given page and for how long. Marketing people love this, but for journalists, the risk of writing market-driven stories instead of important stories has never been greater.
But if you can ignore the numbers—and some of us go out of our way to do so—there is something compelling about the immediacy of the medium that I never experienced while working in magazines or radio. For readers, I am now only a click away.
So, for instance, while watching the drama unfold in Indonesia I had dozens of readers writing to me every day—many of them Indonesians in Jakarta or living abroad. Human rights groups were sending statements. Individuals were sending accounts of looting in other towns around the country. People wrote from abroad for advice about getting their family members out. Some were foreign business executives asking for information, or passing on their own experience.
Not all of these comments are useful, or can be verified, but some lead to story ideas, angles or contacts. Above all, they are reminders that the subjects of the stories and the readers—who are sometimes one and the same—are real people. That is a point that Mel Gibson’s character—Guy Hamilton in Jakarta—didn’t figure out until very late in the movie.
Kari Huus, International correspondent, came to MSNBC from Hong Kong, where she was a business writer and editor for The Far Eastern Economic Review. She was also a correspondent for Newsweek in Beijing. Her old media allegiance is to radio, having worked for NPR and Minnesota Public Radio as a writer and producer.