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Stanford Report, September 6, 2000

Reporters get pointers on filtering through clutter of technological changes


If you think technology is hard to keep up with, pity the poor journalist who must cover it on a daily basis. Each morning he or she must identify the latest "new new thing" and convince an editor that it is significant enough to readers' lives to warrant ink or pixels right now. If the story pitch survives neither the editorial coals nor competition with other stories, the reporter bangs cranium against computer to dislodge a new idea. If the pitch makes it past editorial "go," the reporter finds and skims background material. He or she interviews sources that may have vested interests, honesty deficits or limited abilities to communicate technical information to a general audience. Then the journalist decides what information is credible and captivating and tries to craft it into a cohesive story -- the writing is the easy part -- by his or her 6 o'clock deadline.

"Technology stories are first and foremost about change, and the rate of change is only going to increase," San Jose Mercury News Business Editor Peter Hillan told about 40 reporters who came to Stanford Aug. 3-5 to get a crash course in covering technology. The conference sponsor was the Foundation for American Communications (FACS), a nonprofit organization aimed at improving the quality of information reaching the public through the news.

The reporters represented publications as nearby as the Oakland Tribune and as far away as Iceland's daily newspaper Morgunbladid. They came from wire services such as Cox News, web publications such as Electronic News, newspaper giants such as New York Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, and smaller papers such as the Santa Maria Times.

Many of the reporters had covered technology for less than two years and wanted to learn ways to build their knowledge base quickly and find credible sources so they could spend less time translating jargon and more time asking tough questions. And, of course, they wanted to know how to spot the next hot technology.

Dean Jim Plummer of the School of Engineering recommended keeping a watchful eye on areas sure to spawn innovation: bioengineering, wireless, networking and photonics technologies. Photonics technologies, for example, manipulate light in fiberoptic cables and have potential applications in information systems, biomedical technology, chemistry and environmental monitoring.

Developing a network of reliable sources is crucial for technology reporters, said FACS President and CEO John E. Cox Jr. But reporters need to ask sources if they have financial stakes in technologies. Academics at research universities such as Stanford may have significant ties with industry. This doesn't mark them as pariah sources, participants said, but journalists need to proceed with caution, interviewing multiple sources and disclosing ties that indicate biases.

Conducting interviews face-to-face rather than over the phone or e-mail helps reporters understand the technology better. To that end, reporters at the conference took a field trip to Intel Corp. in Santa Clara and HP Labs in Palo Alto to witness the birthing process of products.

They also got a chance to hear about how technology affects the economy from John Shoven, director of Stanford's Institute for Economic Policy Research, and Howard Charney, senior vice president of Cisco Systems.

With greater understanding, reporters will be better equipped to focus on what technology means to the lives of their readers. Hillan threw a cell phone in the center of a circle of reporters and asked, "What is that?" Answers rang out: A business tool. A soccer mom's safety device. A means of changing the political atmosphere in China. A way to connect to people. A way to disconnect.

To speed reporters' progress on the learning curve, the conference featured crash courses in major technologies. For example, electrical engineering Professor Gary Baldwin of the University of California-Berkeley taught reporters some basics about digital, semiconductor, optical and memory technologies.

Nicholas Bambos, associate professor of management science and engineering and of electrical engineering at Stanford, focused on networking, calling it "an overarching theme of information technologies" to provide fast, cheap, reliable and ubiquitous connectivity. But network scalability and robustness are key to avoiding traffic jams on the information superhighway as an increasing number of users log on. Different types of networks will continue to evolve as users demand sophisticated services. Wide area networks, or WANs, for example, connect global, continental or national users. Metropolitan area networks, or MANs, on the other hand, connect citydwellers, and local area networks, or LANs, connect users in, say, campuses and homes.

Thomas Lee, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, demystified wireless, broadband, cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) technologies for the journalists. Through networking of wireline and wireless technologies, he said, people will be able to access information anywhere, anytime.

"The revolution has just begun," Lee promised. How will society cope? How will journalists cope with reporting how society copes? The future will unfold -- too rapidly -- and reveal all. But in the meantime, Lee says, count on technology to continue to both invade and empower: "Your dining experience will continue to be disrupted by ringing cell phones." SR