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College Sports in the Realm of Bonesville

Friday, November 4, 2005

By Danny Whitford
Publisher & Editor

This is not your father's Internet

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As they say, the only constant is change.

In the publishing industry, the change has been on an epic scale in recent years, thanks in part to what may be the most democratic technology ever invented — the Internet.

Circulation for newspapers is on the decline and experts expect no reversal of that trend.

"Newspapers as we have known them are dying," writes Clarence Jones in the 2005 edition of Winning with the News Media, a regularly updated volume now in its eighth revision that reviewers have called the "bible" on news media relations.

Jones ominously notes in a chapter titled "Will the Last One Here Please Turn Off the Press?" that while the number of households in America has increased by 88 percent since 1970, total newspaper circulation has eroded during that span.

Inversely stated, the statistics cited by Jones equate to a precipitous reduction in target coverage by newspapers of almost 50 percent.

It may not be a coincidence that nationally-reported scandals involving fabricated circulation figures have coincided with the increasing pressure on newspaper executives to halt the slide. Among the consequences: The Audit Bureau of Circulations launched investigations into the fuzzy math employed by a couple of the nation's biggest newspaper companies.

Meanwhile, the Web has undergone its own massive shift, evolving over the last decade from an electronic cult medium populated primarily by pocket-protector types to a near-ubiquitous platform for news, information, entertainment and commerce.

According to Jones, the percentage of people turning to the Internet as a news source soared by 1,450 percent between 1996 and 2004. The end of that growth, it appears, is nowhere in sight.

The offshoot from what amounts to a cultural shift is a reallocation of advertising expenditures toward electronic mediums, a top Wall Street firm indicated earlier this week. Goldman Sachs, in a report on newspaper publishing, cited particularly weak sales in the national and retail ad categories.

Ironically, it was a newspaper — The Chicago Tribune — that carried a report last week citing an industry guru as saying that "newspapers are at a tipping point." Rishad Tobaccowala, chief innovation officer for Publicis Groupe, told the paper that as "the least visually engaging and least youth oriented" of all mediums, newspapers are poorly positioned for growth.

Tobaccowala predicted that online media will continue to take more readership and more ad dollars from newspapers.

When the predecessor to the network that has evolved into such a dire threat to newspapers was conceived, industry giants such as Hearst, Gannett and The New York Times Company could not have possibly foreseen what was to unfold.

The Internet traces its roots to ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), a government-supported undertaking dreamed up in the 1960's as a means of interconnecting that era's cumbersome and sparsely-scattered computers over telecommunications lines. Among the hoped-for objectives was to enable cold-war era scientists to more efficiently collaborate on weapons design and other defense projects.

Figuring out a way to send a cross-country colleague an instant message with an accompanying smiley-face wasn't even a blip on the forward-looking radar at a time when the engineers at Rand Corporation, Stanford, UCLA, MIT and other elite ARPANET-connected research centers were soberly engaged in the life-and-death arms race against the old Soviet Union.

The networking concepts spawned by ARPANET were so profound in the new avenues they opened, it was inevitable that what began as a national security initiative of the highest order would eventually morph into a global communications revolution that is still underway.

So, what is the world coming to as a result?

Clearly, it is coming to more choices when it comes to sources of credible news and information.

Recent history has shown that independent online publications staffed by accountable reporters with solid sources are often more candid and thorough in fleshing out a story than the old-world media. This has been demonstrated a number of times on both the national and local levels:

Case in point No. 1 (national reporting): It was a Web blog run by reputable sleuths that quickly exposed the flaws in the sensationalized and since-discredited reports put out during last year's presidential election campaign by one of the nation's most high-profile news organizations about the national guard background of one of the candidates.

Case in point No. 2 (local reporting): While none of the region's conventional news outlets — probably out of fear of being blackballed — reported the extent of a former East Carolina athletic director's culpability in exacerbating the public relations damage from what came to be known as the Friday Night Fiasco, weighed the legal action that was threatened against it by the AD and elected to report the facts.

Yes, retaliation soon came for in the form of having its press credentials revoked. But those credentials quickly came back where they belonged when an influential third party associated with the university intervened as a mediator and the AD did not refute any aspect of the reports.

Truth is what consumers of the news want more than anything else. Whether the topic in which you're interested is global politics, a budget bill in the state legislature, a local city ordinance or the latest skinny on your favorite sports team, the Internet can help you come closer to ferreting out the "whole truth" than was possible in the past.

On the other hand, if you want to not only search for the truth, but also dig over, under and around it, there's a different layer of Web destinations where mere facts seldom put a damper on camaraderie, entertainment and good old-fashioned sports talk. Pirate partisans have the good fortune of enjoying one of the country's best such college sports-related meeting places,, a public message board operated by ECU alum Randy Evans.

"The Boneyard," as the forum is affectionately called by its regulars, has become ECU's de facto clearing house for rumors, speculation, off-the-cuff pot-shots and arm-chair quarterbacking, intermixed with posts on random topics from semi-anonymous authors. It has also become the center ring where the keyboard jockeys former ECU coach Steve Logan once labeled the "Lunatic Fringe" lock horns in wild and wooly verbal shootouts.

It's not uncommon for a member of the Boneyard to float genuine breaking news — usually unattributed to an identified source — ahead of and the area's traditional media organs. It's the gleaning of these concrete tidbits from the continuous threads of digital gossip that presents a challenge to the naive reader.

Evans, who runs Boneyard Banter in his spare time, does yeoman's work in trying to maintain decorum, integrity and order on the site, but sometimes the sheer variety and volume of the raw exchanges is enough to overwhelm even the most nimble fact-checker. The golden rule for the reader is to scrutinize each item for the purpose of differentiating between straight information, hearsay, speculation, innuendo and opinion.

Taken in its proper context, the Boneyard is the ultimate virtual sports bar patronized by a vast army of denizens of the digital world with one interest in common — the ECU Pirates. And the forum has measurable tangible qualities, too — many of its members banded together recently to commit thousands of dollars to current ECU AD Terry Holland's "Circle of Excellence" campaign.

In effect, the Internet has spurred the biggest leap forward in the flow of information since mechanically-printed Bibles began rolling off the Gutenberg Press about 550 years ago. Whether your daily media craving is for truth, entertainment or a spirited online donnybrook, there's a destination to satisfy your appetite as close as your computer.

Still, the conventional newspaper will maintain an important presence as long as its portability advantages and "toilet buddy" status hold out — a period that might be shorter than you think. Fundamental R&D is underway at Intel, Microsoft and other companies that is expected to eventually result in super-thin tablet computers and even wirelessly-connected electronic "paper" embedded with integrated circuits.

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02/23/2007 01:38:05 AM

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