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A Chat With Sreenath Sreenivasan

Sreenath Sreenivasan's picture
Date:Apr 9, 2001
Topic:Online Journalism
Duration:One hour

Sreenath Sreenivasan is a professor of new media at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He is the founding administrator of the Online Journalism Awards, the most comprehensive prizes in international Web reporting and writing.

His "Tech Guru" segments appear on WABC-TV in the New York City area and on 7online.com. He has written about technology for The New York Times, Time Digital and India Today, among others.

He is a co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association and makes his home on the Web at sree.net. "Sree" will discuss trends in online journalism, Web writing, and more.

Transcript of the Chat

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to Wordsmith.Org's ninth online chat! Today we've invited Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He is joining us from New York City. In this chat we'll talk about issues related to online journalism.

Welcome, Sree!

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
A pleasure to be here.

Hi Professor, what, in essence, differs in on-line journalism from print media? Writing style? Vocabulary? Audience? Or, nothing in essence?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
A combination of those factors. I think the writing needs to be punchier and sharper; the vocabulary has to be simpler; and keep in mind that your audience is unpredictable. Of course, time and speed also are factors. I'm sure we will get into all of these soon.

Can you brief us a little bit about the On-Line Journalism Awards? And, criteria? What goes into award winning?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
Good question. The site is onlinejournalismawards.org -- we launched the prizes last year to honor excellence in Web journalism. And no, that's not an oxymoron. We wanted to identify examples of good storytelling. We did that by assembling respected old- and new-media journalists and having them look at the best work. It was not easy. We had entries from 12 countries and the quality of work varied greatly. But it was gratifying to see so many good stories being done.

Why do you say audience are unpredictable?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
By being unpredictable, I mean that in, say a TV show, or in a magazine, you know who your audience is. You have all kinds of ways of telling who's going to be tuning in or picking up the publication. Not so online. Like this chat, for example. :-)

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Sree, What would you say about the use of vocabulary, cultural idioms, etc., when writing for a global audience?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
It's one of the toughest things we struggle with when we teach online journalism. And, of course, there are turns of phrase that make sense in one country that don't make sense elsewhere. We have to constantly beware of using words and phrases that don't make sense to a wider audience. eg, saying "the river" or "the city" or not using the mayor's first name -- they are all things reporters and writers have to struggle with. Things like spellings, the use of the word "here" and any kind of localisms. Localisms make it tough if you have readers/visitors from around the world.

According to IHT, the Internet has liberated the world from grammar, punctuation and spelling. Your comment?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
Funny you should ask that... I am known for writing all my casual e-mail in lowercase and using e-mail shortcuts like thru and folo and such. But I think the Internet does allow us to do that for casual or informal communications, but we can't just rely on that style. In fact, it requires us to be even more careful when we are doing something more formal. Hence Anu asked me to write upper/lower .

It sounds as though as on-line J-writing is more akin to broadcast news than to print. Yes? Other comparisons?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
Excellent comparison. I think it is much closer to broadcast than newspaper style. Too often, print folks (including me) try to show off our vocab lists instead of trying to keep it simple.

Some excellent online writing tips can be found at cyberjournalist.net.

Martlet - Victoria, Canada
With the benefits of online journalism -- like unlimited space, instant and rapidly updated coverage -- will we see a decline or even extinction of traditional print news? Also, will/does online journalism have more in common with printed news or TV news, in terms of reporting and presentation procedures etc?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
We are already seeing a decline in circulation and readership in most categories. But I would hesitate to predict the death of the printed word. All previous predictions about the death of, say, radio (as newer forms emerged) have proven to be false. The fact is, there are so many choices for consumers that they are going to choose what makes sense for them in terms of accessibility and speed. I think good reporting is good reporting. The medium doesn't matter.

An aside: You get used to spellchecking and choosing your words carefully, that this chat format is tough.

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
And, as you can see, I made a grammar error in that previous line. Sigh.

Do you think, as broadband becomes more widespread and TV becomes more interactive, that online journalism will turn more and more like TV, and TV will turn more and more like the Internet, and the distinction will disappear?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
I think we are going to see a merging of the two boxes -- i.e., cable and the PC. Some of it is already happening with Web TV and the like. The cost and technological barriers are slowing the progress. But let's not forget that there are plenty of people who want to just relax in front of their TVs and not interact.

What does online journalism have to offer that print does not, and vice-versa?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
Done right, online journalism is the best of magazine, newspaper and broadcast. What it offers that print does not is instant access and the ability to read as little or as much as the consumer wants. E.g., I may only want to read the headlines, but my friend may want to read the background materials, listen to audio, look at pix. The Web allows you to do that.

On the other hand, the serendipity of print -- an editor chooses what you see and how much you see -- is something that we are getting away from online. And that's unfortunate. I might choose to read only stories about a specific topic, cutting me off from the wider world.

We have had decades to perfect, say, the newsmagazine. We are still trying to make the rules as we go along in our little business.

dana germany
But what does it offer for the journalist?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
It offers you a chance to expand your reach, tell stories to new people and get the kind of feedback you never could in the past. But at the same time, the current economic woes in the US mean that you may just end up doing more tasks for less work. Also I see far less editing and attention to detail in many Web journalistic publications.

anna India
I have taken a deliberate shift towards online journalism, leaving a plum job with the Times of India, as news correspondent. Are the news sites as popular as the newspapers?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
The numbers are still low, mainly because access is still so low around the world. Until people can get online in larger numbers, the old media dominance will continue. The problem, as you know, is especially acute in countries like India, where only a sliver of society has access to PCs.

Let me ask about employment possibilities. I was a newspaper guy who couldn't print a newspaper, and I also was a radio guy who couldn't run a transmitter. Why do so many on-line news services seem to require, or desire, that their writers know HTML? What should I learn about the tech side of on-line to get into the "industry?"

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
I'm glad to see you are considering a switch -- too many people I know have been scared off by the "doubt-com" troubles.

When we started teaching new media at Columbia in the fall of 1994 (ancient history, that), you could get an online job if you could spell HTML. But in the years since then, new WYSIWYG tools have made the importance of HTML coding less important. Of course, knowing it helps. But we no longer emphasize it, using tools like Dreamweaver, Frontpage, etc.

What I would urge you to do is try setting up a personal site on a Web site that offers free space, such as homestead.com and then learn as you tweak and play.

Martlet - Victoria, Canada
Val Sears, veteran Canadian journalist, gave two pieces of advice to new journalists a couple years ago: 1) learn to type and 2) watch soap operas, 'cause that's where the cutting edge of language and ideology are. Are journalists today in touch with the people? With the fast pace of online-J, will the writers want to put in the time to "investigate" stories or will they have to/want to cater to what sells?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
Excellent observation. I also tell journalists that they should all use Ebay at least once, same thing with MP3s and Napster. I find too many journalists are cut off from the world of their consumers. They are too comfortable with the technology that they know and aren't willing to try new things. What happens then is that journalists aren't in touch.

Acha Austria
Do you think that tehelka.com did any service to Web journalism by exposing corruption through modern technology?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
For those of you not familiar with Tehelka.com, this site did a major sting operation in India and helped bring about the resignation of some government leaders caught on tape. This small, Web-only news operation nearly helped bring down a government. In a time when all you hear is bad news about online journalism, it has been a real shot in the arm for those working in it to see what a Web site can do. It proves that as long as you do quality work, you can get attention.

I have seen praise for Tehelka's work come in from around the world, not just South Asian journalists. The site is, tehelka.com. (means "sensation," in Hindi).

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
I'm curious: has anyone here stopped (mainly) reading print publications?

I have stopped reading print newspapers--prefering both the online versions (Boston Globe and New York Times) and news from sources like Yahoo.com, but I still read print magazines (Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, several specialty ones about games, environment, etc. It's easier to take a good magazine to bed with you.

Acha Austria
To answer your question, Sree, I used to subscribe to six newspapers, now I get only one, and that too only to feel the paper!

About your question on stopped reading print publications, I personally follow WSJ and Business Week, and I think they remain the best in both the print and online editions.

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
That's interesting. I find that young kids, too, are not bothering with newspapers and magazines as much as they are with online information. That's why I remain so bullish on new media. Those kids are going to grow up and be our main consumers.

As technology is evolving and getting mature, more and more places are using the same set of programs. Often it is a question of resources in terms of being able to pay for the more complicated stuff.

And how do you think news agencies have coped with the obvious temptations of targeting advertisements to customer groups etc (given the ability to target better using the Web)?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
This is a major question for news operations. It is so easy to target ads; yet consumers are ignoring those banner ads. Watch as banners evolve into more complex "rich media" ads -- sites like news.com are using more and more of them. Anything to make the viewer interested in the ads.

Which newspaper are you reading? Sorry if you have already answered. Has anyone asked for your favorite Internet sites?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
My favorite sites of the moment: I am going to cut-n-paste from my latest newsletter at sree.net/tips/2001april.html. My fave reference site: refdesk.com. I use backflip.com to run quickly through a bunch of news sites. I also do a lot of reading on the subway, using avantgo.com on my Palm.

I used to subscribe to The Economist, but now read what I can of it solely on my Palm.

Sree what are your views on violence on the Internet? I am speaking specifically here about the violent language employed by political and pressure groups, for example in matters of religion? Some deceptive sites have been set up by expansionist religious groups. Recently some Pakistani hackers have been defacing Indian sites. What can we do to make the superhighway less violent and more friendly to diversity?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
First of all, I believe the Web is -- in general -- a tolerant, diverse place. But it's the hate groups that get all the media attention. That said, there is a lot of ugliness that goes on out there. Pick any issue and you will find folks from all viewpoints making their views known. People will just learn to ignore the more hysterical ones. In the long-term, having this medium can only be a good thing all 'round. Just be careful out there!

Any recommendations re: books to read?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
Books to read re: the Net? There are couple of new ones about the Microsoft trial that have been getting some press. Also a book called AOL.com by Kara Swisher -- it's slightly dated, but explains a lot about how we have evolved to our current situation.

BTW, feel free to sign up for my monthly Web newsletter: sreetips-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Tips and tricks and new Web sites, once a month.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
That was our last question for today. Thanks to all who participated even if we couldn't field your questions due to limited time. Would you like to say something in parting, Sree?

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
It's been a pleasure to do this and hear from all of you.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Thank you, Sree, for being here today and thanks to all the participants.

Sree Sreenivasan (Guest Speaker)
Thanks for the opportunity.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
We look forward to your comments on today's chat. Please send your feedback to (words AT wordsmith.org) on how you enjoyed the chat and how we can make it better. Thank you.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Our next guest is Joseph Pickett, Executive Editor, American Heritage Dictionary. He will talk about history of the English language. This chat takes place on Apr 18, 2001. For more details, please see here. See you right here next week.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Thank you, and have a good night (or morning, afternoon, or evening, depending on where you happen to be).

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