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This and That 4
By Ron Steinman

My problem with newspapers going online in full is one of assumed access. Does everyone own a computer? For those who do, is there a percentage that will never look for anything other than games, gossip and pornography? Before we are complicit in destroying newspapers, we had better have a way to attract and hold an audience – as well as someone, meaning advertisers to pay for the space. Newspapers are not charitable organizations. Their aim is profit, which is the American way and a good thing, too.
This brings me to my next thought. According to a recent Pew Hispanic Center Survey, Latinos now comprise about 14 % of the population. Of these, perhaps 56 % go online. Not enough computers? Not enough time in a mostly busy day? No one knows for sure. By comparison, 71 % of non-Hispanic whites and 60 % of non-Hispanic blacks use the Internet. The numbers reflect education, age, income, language, generation and nativity. Those not online represent a huge untapped market and another example of perhaps too much reliance on the Web by those who want to toss newspapers into the dustbin of news dissemination. Until we reach this and other similar markets, we face a growing part of our population that could go through life uninformed. Not good these days when information is paramount in understanding the world in which we live.

Increasingly we face the problem of sifting more information -- good from bad, accurate from inaccurate -- than we can use. Ever. Anyone who thinks because they get their information from the Web that is always on-target is in a state of delusion. Usually people get less information endlessly repeated in other forms, though still on the Web, almost none of which have any depth. If they believe the sameness of the product helps them decide how much of what they view and thus use, they are equally deluded. Seems to me it is increasingly harder to process the millions of bits and pieces of information thrown at us every second. Those who spread what they call information the way a machinegun uses bullets have no idea of the effect on their mark, the damage the firepower does. It begins to take on the look of a battlefield strewn with all manner of debris that somehow we must try to understand if we are to keep clear of landmines. Think of the hours spent creating these piles of useless, usually false information. Think of the waste.

Is the idea of the Wikipedia so pervasive that anyone with a half-baked idea thinks it will be better than the weak Wikipedia that already exists? I call it weak because I put little trust in amateurs, often hiding behind fake names, for information I require for any project, that I assume will be accurate. I, for one, trust almost no one to do my research, unless I guide him or her on the path to that information. But that’s who I am. If I am researching a story, I usually do not need the Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia supporters compare themselves to that venerable tome. They hope some day to surpass it for accuracy. Recently I saw an announcement that sooner than later there will be a new Wikipedia coming online. I can’t wait. Larry Sanger, a pioneer at Wikipedia, is the founder of Citizenpedia, a Web site that is also open to anyone who wants to contribute just about anything he or she wants to see “printed” in the digital world. As with Wikipedia, there will be no ads. It will be not for profit. Anyone – and this is always scary for me – is free to contribute and edit. However, whoever does, must be honest and file their real name attached to anything he or she writes. Because of all the mess-ups at Wikipedia, experts will vet each article for accuracy. Whether that will work is a matter only time will tell. Will the Internet be able to house more than one citizen encyclopedia? Probably. Don’t forget, even the major print encyclopedias are already online and do a good job. My concern is that I do not trust sources I am unfamiliar with for my information. I also have difficulty with altruism as a guide to accuracy. Call me a cynic, but somehow, a day’s pay for a day’s work strikes me as a strong incentive to the truth, especially for a scholar. Will anyone ever learn?

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.


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