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Internet and Satellite TV Change News Media, News Delivery

Satellite television and the expanding power of the Internet are not only changing the way news is delivered, but also the perception of what news is and the way journalists do their jobs. These changes are having a profound impact on the news business while at the same time providing societies with more information that can help strengthen freedom, democracy and human rights. VOA's Bill Rodgers has more in this report.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf coast in 2005, devastating New Orleans and wrecking havoc elsewhere in Louisiana and Mississippi, the Knight Ridder news service sprang into action to support one of its subscriber newspapers. Now owned by the McClatchy newspaper chain, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau helped the storm-devastated Biloxi Sun Herald in Mississippi get its content on line.

Jim Van Nostrand, who is now senior editor for McClatchy Interactive, describes what happened. "We used audio and video and user-generated content to great effect there. People were able to upload their photos of their houses, upload photos of their neighborhoods, they were able to use message boards to talk neighbors to ask: 'hey, have you seen my mother or my uncle or my brother?'. I would say at least half of the content that we posted for Hurricane Katrina was stuff you wouldn't see in print. Message boards, audio, video that sort of thing."

The power of the Internet is increasingly transforming the way newspapers deliver their product -- the kind of product they deliver -- and their relationship with readers.

Van Nostrand adds, "It allows our readers to interact with us as they've never interacted before. It used to be the old model was: 'we publish the story, people read it', that is a one-way communications system. Now people can participate in our reporting, they can send us questions, they can send us comments, they can help shape our coverage."

But with American newspaper circulation declining by as much as two percent a year, the Internet may be a double-edged sword. This is posing some tough challenges, according to Jeffrey Dvorkin of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. "We know that as circulation figures decline, as fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers in the United States and even watching or listening to mainstream television and radio, news organizations are trying to think where is the audience going. A lot of the audience, certainly the younger audience, is going to the internet."

And content on the internet can sometimes generate news and affect government policies. The news media last year reported on a Malaysian video clip circulating on the internet showing police mistreatment of a nude ethnic Chinese woman under detention in Kuala Lumpur. This incident of police abuse had international repercussions, causing Malaysia's home minister to launch an investigation as China expressed its displeasure.

Such rapid spread of information via the internet -- and also by satellite television -- is having a profound impact on societies. American University journalism professor Christopher Simpson says one effect is to strengthen human rights.

"There are a number of trends associated with this. One of them is, at least, a potentially a greater strength for human rights movements, non-governmental groups that type of thing to use the tools that are available to both capture information about peoples' lives and to broadcast or transmit that information. That means that the silence that surrounds extreme poverty, for example, can be broken more easily than before. The silence that tends to surround police brutality, called by whatever name, tends to be easier to break than previously."

This is why the Internet is censored in places like China, and reception of satellite television is banned by repressive countries. Yet - as the recent launches of Al-Jazeera International and "France 24" demonstrates -- there appears to be a growing global appetite for satellite television services broadcasting news and information.

This expansion of information delivery is a healthy development, says professor Simpson, because it can help foster democracy. "The raw material of democracy, of freedom, of power is that people understand what is going on around them. They understand what their society is doing, they understand what their rulers are doing. So in order for that to happen at all, they must have information and they must have accurate information."

While accurate information is the goal, not everything being broadcast or on the Internet is accurate. There are also concerns also that the quality of the news product may be adversely affected as journalists face growing pressures to rush their material onto websites. The public editor of the New York Times recently raised this question, wondering whether speed can be balanced with completeness.

In the end, traditional media such as newspapers are likely to adapt and survive these technological changes. What is not likely to change is the power of the written word, according to McClatchy's Jim Van Nostrand. "For all of the things that the internet offers, it is still a medium of the written word. That's not going to go away. You still need reporters to go out and ask questions and interview people and tell stories. The internet gives us other tools to tell those stories but the written word isn't going to go away."

And as long as this is true, the growing proliferation of ideas and information will continue.