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STARR REPORT MAY PROVE TO BE KEY IN MEDIA EVOLUTION A huge, steamy document tests traditional editing limits, processes.

Despite the fact that most of us here at NewsInc. are editorial types, we have shied away from covering journalism-oriented stories in this business-oriented publication. But the release of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's massive report on the relationship between President Clinton and an intern named Monica is too big a story to ignore.

As an editor at a daily newspaper, I handled probably more than my fair share of big news stories. At the time, they didn't seem bad, but in retrospect, they probably should have turned my stomach. When you're in the middle of a story like the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, or the murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, you don't stop to think about the human toll -- you think about getting the next edition out the door.

Whether your stomach turned or not with the release of the Starr Report, you have to acknowledge that daily newspapers were confronted with an interesting situation. They knew that the Internet -- whether their own sites or others' -- could and would scoop them on something that would in the past have always been a newspaper story. As recently as 36 months ago, distributing to the public a huge amount of text such as the Starr Report would have been the exclusive province of the daily newspaper.

No longer. The Internet provided the public with direct access to the entire Starr Report -- all the sexual specifics and innuendo intact.

As correspondent and columnist Christopher J. Feola outlines on Page 7, the release of the Starr Report on the Internet is the first time traditional media -- whether newspapers, magazines, TV or radio -- have been usurped in their role as the gatekeeper.

When the public has access to the raw documents, what role do the former gatekeepers play? This time around, it appears that newspapers (whether on the Web or in print) were mere enablers -- they too reproduced the entire report, warts and all. It is, of course, open to debate whether as many newspapers would have reproduced the Starr Report had there not been an Internet -- but then, there are few aspects of the Starr Report that aren't open to debate. Nonetheless, at least 36 dailies did reproduce the entire 113,570-word document in total, which was a massive undertaking.

The process of getting the Starr Report distributed turned out to be one of those operational and logistical problems to which newspapers are keenly attuned. As detailed inside by Senior Editor Pete Wetmore, newspapers harnessed the resources to which they have been accustomed -- the Associated Press, computers and, ironically, the Internet itself -- to get the Starr Report into print quickly and efficiently. The AP -- something of a whipping boy in the industry (and mine is one of the bigger whips) -- characteristically used ingenuity to get the report out to as many newspapers as possible.

Some papers had to completely reconfigure their presses to handle the 18-or-so broadsheet pages the entire Starr Report text encompassed. This then required support for advertising and creative services to provide "plugger" and stand-by ads for the space created to even out sections.

And while some papers reacted quickly, getting the Friday-released report into their Saturday editions, others decided that a little extra time was necessary for design and editing issues (it turns out there were repeated blocks of copy in the official distribution), but that decision then opened up a whole other can of worms by publishing in the traditionally higher-circulation Sunday paper.

No, dealing with the release of the Starr Report was not just a journalistic decision; it was a business decision as well. Whether the business aspect that was affected was operations or costs -- or newspapers' first step in the post-Internet world -- it was a real aspect that will influence the business of the newspaper business for decades to come.

-- David M. Cole
COPYRIGHT 1998 The Cole Group
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Sep 28, 1998
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