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Shuttle Fallout: Meta-Journals Trump Media Pundits

Online roundups are 'most important source'

A recent UCLA survey found that 70% of Internet users consider the Net to be their most important source of information. Let's not get into the faulty logic of Net users rating the Net high (and 99% of people watching "The Simpsons" said they loved "The Simpsons"), but instead imagine a similar survey of media lovers, watchers and junkies. The hypothetical: If you were on a desert island over the weekend (or perhaps telecommuting in Thailand?) and missed the news of the space shuttle disaster, where would you turn first to gauge how the media covered the event? Or, in the parlance of the UCLA survey, what would be your "most important source of information"?

I would submit that the meta-journalists provided that on Monday, while the vanilla media pundits gave only a vague notion of what happened, who missed what, who tripped and who got it right in the rush to cover the Saturday morning news. I'm not sure if 70% of media junkies would agree on that (do they agree on anything?), but the coverage of the coverage at Lost Remote, Jim Romenesko's Media News, Jonathan Dube's and the Washington Post's double-punch of Media Notes and Filter gave me a more complete picture of the media's performance under pressure.

It's no accident that these columns are in weblog format, and that they have loyal industry followings. The Lost Remote looks at TV coverage, and found that the local site from Nacogdoches, Texas, was a must-read for TV producers. Lost Remote's weblog and e-mail offering do a great job of covering broadcast journalism and its increasing synergy with the Web. Romenesko has been a favorite of media mavens for years, and he gives exhaustive links to media criticism of shuttle coverage, making him an important source for the mainstream pundits. Jonathan Dube gave a helpful roundup of screen shots of top news sites (similar to what my colleague Staci Kramer did here at OJR, though without her detailed commentary).

The Post's media godhead Howard Kurtz has co-opted the meta format online and sometimes goes too far in quoting vs. commentary. In this case, he quickly noted how the media missed NASA's problems before the crash. The newer player for, Filter, by Cynthia Webb, focuses more on technology issues, and looks broadly at the mainstream media's take on the online angle, from AOL chat room banter to virtual memorials to tacky paraphernalia sold on eBay (and later pulled).


Original or rehash?

Outside of Filter, these meta-journals have had a long history by Internet standards, and have been recently tested and proved resilient after Sept. 11 and during the long march toward possible war with Iraq. While pioneers such as Slate's "In Today's Papers" have proved their utilitarian worth, the latter day meta-journals go further with heavy doses of lively commentary and an unwavering focus on their niche audiences.

Just as the weblog format itself depends on the reporting of other journalists, the meta-journals online are mainly dependent on other sources (though Lost Remote runs its own listserv discussion). Then again, the media pundits have a similar dependence on viewing other media, though from a closer range -- and with the power of first-hand interviews with news people behind the scenes.

Still, in the rush to the story, and the rush to judgment on how the story was covered, the meta-journalists give a quicker view, a more complete view, and the one I would want most on a deserted island. In other words, my "most important source."


Timely UCLA survey

The UCLA survey comes at an interesting time in history, as online news sites have started to gain credibility and even profitability in some quarters. The general findings -- that the Internet is becoming a more important source to some than TV (though the Net still has credibility issues) -- sadly dovetail well with the shuttle disaster and the resulting raft of coverage online.

Quick quiz: Which of the following online headlines is about the UCLA survey, and which is about shuttle coverage? "A Wealth of Information Online." "Internet on Rise as Information Tool." OK, granted, these headlines are weak and obvious to start with, but one proves the other. The former goes with a New York Times article about the way an online community like Slashdot could put together more resources than, say, The New York Times on the story as it unfolded -- from radar pictures to eyewitness accounts of the shuttle's disintegration. And the latter is an AFP wire story about the UCLA survey and how users find the Net more important than any other medium, despite rising trust issues.

In the case of this disaster and previous disasters, the TV remains as the paramount source for trusted commentary and moving images. But the Net is becoming a go-to medium for lightning-fast background and depth, forums for grieving and varied opinions, and, unfortunately, the people who want to make a quick buck on memorabilia.

Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for The New York Times, travel stories for the San Jose Mercury News, and a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at [email protected].

read past glaser online columns