On-Line Journalists Complain That They Get No Respect

Congressional press passes are first sign of acceptance

It's called "way-new journalism." And maybe it's way too new.

The idea is easy enough. Way-new journalism is the reporting that appears in cyberspace. But in the ordered world of media where there's a space for broadcast journalists and a space for print journalists, the arrival of a new kind of reporter that bridges the two is confusing everyone from political campaign aides to journalists themselves.

The hardest part "is trying to convince people that we're real," says Carl Malamud, a pioneering Internet reporter and publisher and president of the now-defunct Internet Multicasting Service.

"They don't know what to do with us," says Kathleen deLaski, a former ABC-TV reporter and now a new media reporter and editor for America Online.

This situation may change as on-line journalists push for recognition. Last month, Hotwired - one of the best-known on-line publications - received a press pass from the House and Senate periodical gallery, a highly coveted badge of respectability in official Washington. America Online and PoliticsUSA, an Internet political service, are also applying for similar accreditation, which could come as early as next month. Still, for reporters toiling in the trenches of cyberspace journalism, recognition has come slowly.

Sometimes the lack of recognition helps. On the eve of February's New Hampshire primary, when Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan was making a last-minute surge, traditional journalists were barred from his state campaign headquarters, but Ms. deLaski and her on-line crew were allowed in. Apparently, they weren't viewed as "real journalists." Perhaps it helped that the state campaign press secretary was an America Online user.

More often, though, the lack of recognition hurts. Even many journalists are baffled by the enthusiasm of on-line reporters to file stories for publications that none but the Internet-savvy have heard of.

"The question I get all the time is: 'Why would you want to do that?' " says Jon Katz, media critic for Hotwired.

Although the Internet is huge, and even a service such as America Online boasts a base of subscribers larger than the four largest American newspapers combined, the on-line audience is nebulous. America Online isn't saying how many people log in to its politics forum; on the Internet, no one even knows how many people log on. The traditional technology for counting the audience is vague.

For example, the Netly News, an irreverent story-a-day feature on Time Warner's Internet site, gets some 200,000 "hits" a week, but that could mean a few readers downloading huge numbers of files or thousands of readers looking at a small amount of material. "I would guess if it was 5,000 people overall. that would be a big number," says Joshua Quittner, executive producer of the feature and the writer who coined the term "way-new journalism."

"I sometimes think that all Netly News readers are my relatives," he quips.

On-line readers are a demanding crowd. "You don't get any of the reverence that a pundit would get," Mr. Katz says. "Readers are very tough. You check your e-mail and some days you're black and blue."

Traditional Capitol Hill reporters don't appear hostile to on-line journalists, they just don't know anything about them. "I've never met one," says Alan Fram, the Associated Press reporter who heads the five-person committee overseeing the House and Senate daily press gallery. "We all believe that this is a direction the news industry is evolving in. We're not going to stand in the way of it."

Not everyone is welcome, however. In February, the periodical gallery refused to accredit Vigdor Schreibman, the one-man publisher of an Internet news service called Federal Information News Syndicate.

"It has nothing to do with the mode of publication," says David Holmes, superintendent of the periodical gallery. "He's not a professional journalist. He's an advocate."

Sorting out who is legitimate is one of the problems related to the new medium's crossover nature. It mingles newspaper-like print with the immediacy of broadcast. Even those who practice "way-new journalism" don't know how to define themselves. "It's sort of part radio-talk show host, part TV reporter, part print reporter," deLaski says.

Still, the situation is improving for on-line journalists. "You still have to fight, you still have to prove you're real," says Mr. Malamud, who had to petition for six months before getting his congressional pass in 1994. "But at least it's possible now." Malamud, however, is giving up the field and will write books about the subject instead.

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