For Rogue Valley newspapers and television stations, the Internet era has been both the best of times and the worst of times.
A wealth of information that used to be found only at the library, by phoning sources directly or by driving out to the scene is now available at reporters' fingertips. They can instantly get the latest U.S. Census data for their communities, delve into the background of the new school superintendent, find road conditions on the Siskiyou Pass.
The Mail Tribune is the largest local news Web site in the Rogue Valley, with an average of more than 19,000 different people visiting www.mailtribune.com daily and recording an average of more 4 million page views a month.
Precise comparisons are difficult to come by, but one site that measures traffic to Web sites, www.quantcast.com, shows the following number of unique monthly visitors (counted only once regardless of number of visits):
(KOBI, which recently changed its Web site, did not record enough traffic for a valid sample)
But as reporters have come to expect information instantaneously, so have readers. And that means journalists often must write their first version of the story — sometimes just a couple of paragraphs — immediately for the Web before they've had a chance to fully report it.
Reporting by real journalists talking to real people in the real world still has to be done the same way it was a century ago, notes Mail Tribune Internet Editor Julie Wurth. But newspapers and TV news stations can now augment their reporting with online files of government research, the full text of speeches, maps and other auxiliary information that can be linked to the end of stories. Readers can do their own research and arrive at their own conclusions.
"The Internet has opened up the world in a big way and cut out a lot of wasted time phoning people and trying to track down people and information," says KDRV-TV Assistant News Director Mike Nelson.
For example, during fire season, when wildfires are burning in several areas, the Internet is a tremendous resource, Nelson says. The National Interagency Fire Center provides links to government agencies fighting the fires, including sites that are being updated minute-by-minute by crews in the field.
Television stations and newspapers can approach stories from many angles, from a short news update to an in-depth story with picture galleries and video. They can trade stories with affiliates and pull information off Web sites for localizing.
Since the Internet is limitless, the challenge, says Mail Tribune Editor Bob Hunter, "is using your skill to pick your focus and do it well."
He added, "It's easy to do a thousand things online but it's not possible to do them all well."
Bill Kelly, news director at KOBI-TV, agrees the Internet is an ocean of information that's easy to access, but cautions Web content has to be checked with independent sources.
"It's made things much faster," says Kelly. "It's also opened the window for people to put any information on the Net, so we have to be very careful."
Hunter says true journalists must distinguish themselves from flocks of bloggers and "pretend journalists," some of whom may be doing valid reporting but their stories may be slanted toward a cause. The challenge for the Internet user is to figure out which sources are credible, he says.
Newspapers some years ago got a jump on Web use and now lead broadcasters in unique visitors, with the Mail Tribune and Ashland Daily Tidings attracting more than 133,000 different people per month, compared to more than 66,000 for all three of the Rogue Valley's commercial TV stations combined, according to Quantcast, a national company that measures viewing of Web sites.
"Newspapers lead on the Web because we have more reporters and more news," Hunter says. "While the Web definitely has created a challenge for newspapers, the majority of online news is still being produced by newspaper reporters."
The latest challenge for newspapers is incorporating a new dimension of Internet interaction called social networking, Wurth says.
The Mail Tribune launched its own social-networking site, roguecurrent.com, earlier this year. Users can start their own groups, blog, post photos and videos and link to Mail Tribune news and calendar events.
Though many still enjoy the three-dimensional paper you hold in your hands, that format may change, too, Wurth says. In the future it may be delivered on a Kindle, the book-reading device by Amazon.
"The Internet is new, different and hopeful," says Wurth. "I like change and it's going in a positive direction for the industry "¦ but there's a lot of discussion now about how media companies can make it pay, be profitable and stay in business."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.