Yet, when the Internet was first gaining popularity, some reasoned that its nearly limitless capacity and its ability to transmit information cheaply and quickly would render such news organizations useless. Why, they reasoned, do we need newspapers and magazines to interpret events when the Internet will bring us unedited information we can interpret for ourselves?
As these people imagined, much of the raw information behind the news is readily available on the Internet, often at the same time it becomes available to reporters. Web sites produced by state legislatures and the federal government include the full text of bills, vote counts, committee schedules, detailed budget information, press releases and reports on everything from sustainable development to health care spending to the increased accuracy of the National Weather Service's new supercomputer.
Of particular interest in an election year is www.open secrets.org, which offers free access to campaign contribution data, searchable by donor or recipient, at both federal and state levels. The University of California at San Francisco maintains a Web site, www.library.ucsf.edu/ tobacco/mangini/report, which contains tobacco industry documents, including numerous internal R.J. Reynolds memos on young smokers.
News publishers utilize polls extensively, especially as elections approach. Gallup Organization polls are available in their entirety and at no charge at www.gallup.com. The Polling Report compiles and compares Gallup and other polls at www.pollingreport.com.
Some Internet articles even include links to the primary documents that inspired the story. Salon recently published an article on clothing retailer Benetton's catalogue, noteworthy because it features death row inmates. The article included links to the company's press release and to the catalogue itself.
Finally, although wire service stories are not primary documents, they are sources used extensively by print, broadcast and Internet publications. These news organizations often edit the original articles, sometimes drastically. The full stories, however, are posted online by the Associated Press (www.wire.ap.org), United Press International (www.upi.com) and Reuters (www.reuters.com).
For those who would rather use more conventional news sources, the Internet expands the publications available to everyone by removing the geographical and logistical limitations on access to news resources. American Journalism Review's Newslink site (http://ajr.newslink.org) provides links to nearly all newspapers on the Web, including international, alternative, college and specialty publications.
The Crayon (www.crayon.net) makes it even easier for readers to select the newspapers or wire services they'll see each day. Users create and save a list of preferred news sites. The Crayon's site then displays the selected sites in the main frame, while a list of the user's selections appear, like a table of contents, in a smaller frame on the left. The set-up allows easy movement among the publications.
The Internet not only offers more choices, it also provides news much faster than print journalism. Unlike the print media, which issues editions daily, weekly or monthly, the Internet provides publishers with the opportunity to issue news reports several times each day. Television news producers also have this ability, but most people don't monitor their televisions throughout the day.
Many do, however, keep an eye on the Internet while at work. Covert surfing for stock quotes, sports scores and news updates is now a part of the American office culture. At least one local company has officially sanctioned this recreational use of work time and computers, as long as it's infrequent, brief and the material viewed is not offensive to co-workers.
And software such as Entrypoint, available at www.entrypoint.com, allows workers to monitor headlines without taking a break at all. The program places a small banner at the top or bottom of the computer screen. Headlines, stock quotes and sports score continuously scroll past, providing a summary of the days news in an unobtrusive manner.
The Internet also allows publishers to incorporate supplemental and background information into stories, information that print and broadcast media must leave out due to lack of time or space. Online news stories often contain links to maps, historical and cultural background information, census data, government reports, similar coverage by other publications and biographies of the article's subjects and author.
A recent article on www.cnn.com told of Russian troops entering the Chechen capital of Grozny. A sidebar to the story contained links to an archive of related stories; to the Web sites of both the Chechen Republic and the Russian government; to ITAR-TASS, the Russian news agency; and to Interfax Information Services, a news service covering Europe and Asia.
Although the speed and capacity of the Internet has increased the breadth and depth of news that's available to the public, the impact of the Internet on news reporting hasn't been entirely positive. While TV, radio and billboard advertising often instill the desire to purchase, time and distance usually separate the viewing of the ad from the purchase. The longer this separation, the more the desire can dim.
But the Internet merges the purchasing function into the advertisement. Intrigued viewers click an Internet ad and, a few clicks later, are able to order the product -- anything from toys, CDs and books to electronics, automobiles and plane tickets. There's no time to consider budgetary constraints, no time for the desire to dim.
This immediacy increases the power of the content that the ads surround, further threatening the deteriorating wall between journalistic content and advertising. Advertising links next to each of Salon's book reviews invite the reader "Buy it at Barnes and Noble." Although each of the reviews in a recent issue seemed well-balanced, it's not difficult to see the conflict that could arise between journalism and commerce on the Internet.
But, for the time being, these strategically placed ads have been utilized only with product, book, travel and music reviews. The Internet's very essence -- its open, democratic design and low entry costs -- has, however, had a negative impact on news content by allowing untrained and uncontrolled "reporters" to publish nearly anything as news.
Brill's Content reviewed 51 stories written by Matt Drudge in the Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com) between January and September 1998 and concluded that 32 were untrue or never happened and that the accuracy of an additional 10 stories is debatable or unknown.
So the Internet has had both good and bad affects on reporting and on the news. Overall, it's made more information available to more people than ever before. Although most people never take advantage of this access, it's there for those who wish to dig beneath a reporter's interpretation of a new law or read firsthand what China's newspapers are telling their readers about upcoming U.S. presidential elections.
But the Internet is as open to abuse and self-promotion as much as to the exchange of information. Net users should enjoy their unprecedented access to news publications and other information but should also carefully consider the source of that information.
DIGITAL WIRE is a monthly look at issues surrounding the rapidly changing world online. Next month, it'll all be different. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com