Diane Worthington is a vivacious woman with a flair for words and a recently discovered calling for computers. With her official press pass, she appears to be just another of the more than 14,000 journalists hovering about the Democratic National Convention.
But looks are deceiving. This clothing-store-owner-turned-journalist and two partners in the fledgling Transcoastal Electronic News Service (TENS) are pioneers in information-age journalism. TENS is the first group to cover a major political event exclusively for a computer network.
Their stories are being published on the Source, one of the electronic information services that have sprung up to give computer owners more things to do with their machines. With a microcomputer one can read Ms. Worthington's report about her interview with ''River Otter'' at the All Species Rally. Or her colleague Mike Greenly's description of his encounter with Charles Robb, where the Virginia governor answered one of his questions with such authority that only later did he realize he hadn't gotten a straight answer from the experienced politician.
Computer conferencing has unique features that make what Ms. Worthington and her partners - ex-Avon marketing vice-president Mike Greenly and telecommunications expert Sherwin Levinson - are doing quite different from traditional reporting.
Print journalists research and write an article. After it appears they may get response from readers in the form of phone calls or letters. A small fraction of these may appear as letters to the editor, but most never see the light of day. Much the same is true in broadcast journalism.
In what can best be described as ''interactive journalism,'' however, those tied into the computer conference can exchange remarks, opinions, suggestions, and send requests to the TENS reporters in messages that can be read by all participating.
Reporting on a computer network has the immediacy of broadcast journalism while retaining many of the virtues of print. Armed with small, battery-powered computers, TENS writers can file reports from almost anywhere over the nearest telephone. Seconds later the information is available to readers. A chronological record of all reports can be scanned or printed for a permanent record.
''It's heady stuff ... mind to mind communication,'' says Ms. Worthington, who discovered the Source just a year ago. Taking naturally to the medium, she rapidly achieved recognition by moderating some of the most successful conferences on the Source and became co-editor of an online newsletter.
''We see (what we are doing) as a supplement to conventional coverage. We want to provide a candid and uncensored forum for people to comment about events ,'' she explains.
The interactive nature of computer conferencing intrigues Steven Teichner, a well-known political pollster who has joined enthusiastically in this pioneering effort. Mr. Teichner handed the group their first scoop: seven-hour advance notice that Walter Mondale had chosen Rep. Geraldine Ferraro for his running mate.
''I like to play with anything that is new and has potential. So far my response to this whole thing is that it has been both fun and I have learned a lot. (But) I'm not sure that this can be used on a large scale,'' Teichner says.
The reports of the trio of fledgling journalists add considerable texture, if not analytical depth, to conventional coverage. They also bring a bright-eyed sense of excitement at odds with what can often appear to be cynicism adopted by much of the media: In one report Greenly admits, ''Ever since I could read, I've been a media freak.... When I first entered the Democrats' Shrine to my Media Passion - I mean Moscone Center - I was all grins and giddy. Hi, I'm here to meet my destiny, thank you.''
Such a personal and unpretentious style appears to be the TENS hallmark. There is less distance between reporters and readers. Personal backgrounds and biases are clearly spelled out. Stories read like literate letters to friends.
Based on feedback from Source participants, their efforts appear extremely successful. The comment of a subscriber who signs himself Dr. Memory is typical:
''From someone who's been paid to report news: You three are doing an excellent job! you have taken me more places, more intimately and more poignantly, than the networks even aspire to.''
Another respondent adds that reading the morning newspaper seems ''impersonal and incomplete'' in comparison.
All along, readers have been feeding a steady stream of observations, recommendations, and questions to the reporters. Lisa Carlson wrote eloquently of her euphoria when she heard of the Ferraro choice and has suggested a delegate to interview. ''DeQuincy'' wonders if the Mondale/Ferraro ticket looses badly whether that might keep both parties from putting a woman on the ticket in 1988. And ''RLH'' asks the TENS reporters for evidence that the oldtime Democratic leadership may actually want a defeat so they can regain control of the party.
This year it was an uphill battle for the group to get press credentials. Party officials didn't know what to make of them. It reportedly took some support from influential, computer-literate Democratic congressmen before the credentials came through.