January 2008 Issue
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It could be a scene from almost any American house. In fall 2001, Dan Schultz, a 14-year-old from Philadelphia, is upstairs playing a video game, one of those online, conquer-and-colonize computer games with hundreds of people from around the world playing at once. His parents are downstairs watching Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

Suddenly, on the video game’s chat function, a Swedish video game player posts a startling message: He just saw on TV that the United States and Britain are bombing Afghanistan. Everyone takes a break from intergalactic battle as the chat room buzzes with players discussing their views on the minutes-old war. Comments fly in from Canadians, Americans, New Zealanders, and Europeans. Many think it’s a bad move; others believe it’s justified. Armed with the news, Schultz leaps down the stairs to tell his parents.

They immediately grab for the clicker and change the channel to CNN. But there’s no breaking news. “Uh, hey Dan, it must be a rumor. There’s nothing about it on the news,” his parents say skeptically. The teen insists it’s true. Before his parents can argue any further, CNN interrupts its regular programming and announces the story.

The glaring message of that night—how news can travel through nontraditional channels—stays with Schultz. It influences his teenage hobby: creating and maintaining a Web site for his friends at high school. The site began as a static thing, relying on only him, the Webmaster, to post on it messages and new calculator programs. But he began to realize that his Web site could be much more useful if he let his classmates post their comments as well. So he learned new programming languages to make his Web site more dynamic. Soon, registered users weigh in on topics like calculus homework and the anxieties of applying to college. A growing number of online visitors are drawn to the Web site’s newest feature: polls that let them ask each other questions and view the results as bar graphs. They unwind after school by chatting about GameCube, the Cheltenham High School Panther soccer team, and their favorite Seinfeld quotes. Soon, his Web visitors become an after-school online community sharing the same grades, the same high school, and many of the same interests. The popularity of his Web site and the hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes programming that made it happen—and the sense that his efforts helped to build community—draw Schultz to Carnegie Mellon University.

Not surprisingly, he wants to learn more about the information systems major offered by H&SS. After a full freshman year of course work, which included a broad variety of classes in software design, economics, and entrepreneurship, he realizes that information systems, the study of applying computer science to solve real-world problems, is the ideal major for him. In his sophomore year, he takes one of the required courses for his communications concentration: Writing for the Professions, offered by the English department and taught by Necia Werner.

He finds the work intriguing, especially the assignments to write compelling résumés, proposals, and user manuals. Seven weeks before the end of the semester, Werner tells her students to write a proposal that, upon completion, they must submit somewhere.

Remembering that lesson from 2001, Schultz brainstorms with his classmate Ian Anderson to develop an idea of a news-media Web site, one that would allow users to pull up a screen and draw a circle around any town or region on a map. From within a circle, the Web site would return all relevant news stories.

He also envisions all those returned stories coming from an eclectic group of sources: mainstream media, citizen journalists, Web logs, and Web news systems—like a search engine for news crossed with global positioning system mapping technology. In his proposal, he describes a one-stop shop for all news, local and global, where users can define what types of stories are important to them.

His developing proposal has depth. He writes about how users will identify fields of interest in order to receive news they care about. Imagine, for example, you are a Pittsburgh biologist with a daughter who is going to pharmaceutical school in New York City. You have a stake in both Pittsburgh and New York and want to keep up on local news from both areas—like where to get a good hot dog in New York and some potential summer internship opportunities in Pittsburgh. You also may be interested in France and how the French are responding to the new regime of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy. With the Web site Schultz envisions, you would be able to specify physical regions of interest around Pittsburgh, New York, and France, which will start feeding you stories about delicatessens in New York, pharmaceutical companies in Pittsburgh, and Sarkozy’s position on global warming. For the Pittsburgh segment, you would be able to narrow the scope of your preferences to “pharmacy” to avoid getting sports stories about Oakland’s Central Catholic football team. And last, you add “biology” to get stories about your own profession.

It is a recipe for a new kind of news, defined by user location and interest. And Schultz thinks his timing is right, given the perplexing media climate today. On one hand, there’s the problem of media consolidation and its resulting limited viewpoints for consumers. Six companies control most of the media in the United States, according to Common Cause, a nonprofit advocacy group. On the other hand, there’s the explosion of blogs, or Web logs, which are great for “citizen journalism” but not so great for credibility. Although some major blogs rival the mass media for their dependability, anyone with a Web page can write a blog and be a publisher on anything from fashion to cooking to underground newspapering. Rigorous ethical standards don’t exist yet. There are an estimated 104 million blogs on the Internet today, a thousand-fold increase from early 2003, according to the blog-watching company Technorati, Inc.

Schultz, in his proposal, explains that there could be a happy marriage of decentralized blogs with the powerful mainstream media. People could read first-person war accounts written by their region’s soldiers serving on the front lines in Iraq. Small towns could have fully developed news networks at their fingertips to quickly spread information about neighborhood festivals. And all of it could be side by side with top stories from mainstream media like The Associated Press.

Finally, after weeks of writing drafts of his proposal and getting feedback from Werner and his classmates, it’s done. He has a persuasive, nine-page plan in hand, complete with illustrations, charts, and a sources page. It’s ready for submission per Werner’s class assignment instructions. Schultz chooses to enter it in a new contest called the Knight News Challenge, which he had come across at the outset of his assignment when searching the Internet. The challenge asks for digital experiments to transform community news. It is offered by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, one of journalism’s largest philanthropies.

The Knight News Challenge was prompted by concerns about the newspaper industry’s future, says Gary Kebbel, journalism program officer for the Knight Foundation. Newspaper subscriptions are down, and advertisers keep leaving, Kebbel says. The Knight Foundation created the contest, expecting that futuristic, workable ideas could result to continue the beneficial impact that newspapers have had for many decades. Some of the benefits he cites have been binding a community together, identifying problems, and rallying solutions through good editorial pages.

The contest makes sense to Schultz. “Another thing that jumped out was that it had $5 million to give away,” Schultz says. Two months after entering he receives an email from Kebbel: Schultz’s proposal has reached the “highest level of consideration.” Later in Kebbel’s email, he asks whether Schultz would be interested in blogging about his ideas for a $15,000 grant. “The answer ‘yes’ came to mind pretty quickly,” Schultz says.

The clincher comes two weeks later, when Kebbel phones him in his dorm room in Donner Hall. Kebbel talks about the grant for 30 minutes. Schultz gets off the phone and calls home right away to tell his parents the good news.

Kebbel had no reservations in recommending Schultz as one of the contest’s 25 winners. Kebbel read all 1,650 applications for grants, and he thought Schultz’s proposal put forth an intelligent way to bring all kinds of information together into one place. Kebbel is a qualified decision maker: He directed the growth of AOL News into one of the largest news sites on the Internet, with an audience of as many as 24 million people each month. He is also a Fulbright senior specialist in online journalism and was a founding editor of USA TODAY.com and Newsweek.com.

“[Schultz] is talking about bringing together various technologies to try to make Web searching and finding information easier and more logical,” says Kebbel. The problem today is that there’s too much information on the Web. We can’t find what we want easily, and we often find what we don’t want too easily. For instance, there are tons of local stories added online every day, but finding the one about that car accident you saw on the highway is probably not going to happen without a lot of digging. The same thing could probably be said about global news—a lot of it is just a repeat of the same information on the latest hot topic or celebrity debacle.

Schultz’s funding is for him to “blog” about the idea through spring at www.pbs.org/idealab. With input from the blog, he hopes to develop his idea more fully until it addresses all of the complexities of a “user-contributed” news system. He plans to talk with anyone who has ideas to improve a news media system, including journalists, bloggers, and consumers.

Boston Globe editor Martin Baron understands the need for the media to change. Baron has reported for newspapers including The Miami Herald, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times in a journalism career that has spanned three decades. He says newspapers are looking for new ways to deliver information, and they’re keenly interested in how people are going to get information in the future. He doesn’t discount what Schultz is trying to do. “[Schultz] raises one way that’s come up and is proposing a way to do it, and we’ll see if he can,” Baron says. “All of this stuff is highly speculative at the moment. Everybody’s trying a lot of new things, and that’s good, and I’m interested in all of them.”

One area where Schultz will have to focus is junk. On a Web site like the one he envisions, what’s to stop people from uploading stories that are utter junk? Nothing. So he needs a good filtering system to weed out spam, Viagra ads, and false news stories. He may employ a collective voting process to keep out fake reports. For instance, if someone posts a lone report about a terrorist attack in Montana five minutes ago, the story could very well be a fake. It would be flagged for fact checking before being published. But if there are 100 stories posted about a terrorist attack in Montana five minutes ago, it has a bit more credibility and likely would not be flagged, he says.

There are other online news sites available, but what Schultz believes makes his proposed site unique is that stories are tied to a city or region of interest to the user, and the user can personalize the news covered. Once his year of exploratory blogging ends, he can apply for another News Challenge grant, possibly to build the actual Web site.

“I met Adrian Holovaty [another Knight Foundation winner] who got $1 million to develop ‘Everyblock,’ which collects public records and local news. You type in your home address, and it returns all the relevant information kept on file at the municipal building for your neighborhood plus the latest local reports,” Schultz says. “If I get $1 million, maybe I could get my Web site up and running within a few years after graduation.”

He says his second application will be in the mail by spring’s end.

Jonathan Szish is a freelance writer and former award-winning newspaper reporter.

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Carol A. Ziemba

This a great idea (Schultz's plan for customized news.) Now if I could just get my cable TV company to let me pick (and pay) only for the channels I want, that would be really great, too. Until they do, I'll stay with my rabbit ears.