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Time to merge onto the infobahn.

BY NOW, YOU MAY BE TIRED of reading about the Information Superhighway.

But don't turn off quite yet: As the 40 or so NCEW members who attended the conference on new technologies in Miami last spring learned, some promising possibilities for editorialists lurk behind the Superhighway hype, for those with a personal computer, a modem to hook into the phone lines, communications software, and a willingness to explore the electronic byways.

Among the topics we discussed were national on-line services such as Prodigy and America Online; the potential role of news organizations operating on-line (my employer, Newsday, is about to launch an information service); and the much-written-about Internet and its manifold resources. But as the session concluded at lunch on Sunday, some of us found ourselves asking why NCEW shouldn't get involved, with an on-line service of its own for members to use.

Its potential resources:

* An up-to-the-minute database of information, accessible to all members any time. For example, when the discussion over lunch turned to the difficulty in avoiding conflicts with other groups in scheduling events, somebody suggested that an events calendar could be maintained on an NCEW bulletin board and updated any time an activity was scheduled (or some other organization's calendar became available), so all could see at any time if some proposed activity conflicted with something already planned.

For another example: Tommy Denton noted in the summer issue of Masthead that the NCEW job referral service wasn't getting much attention. What if jobs (when they do come along) or job leads were posted on the NCEW on-line bulletin board, available to be browsed whenever a member logged on? Mightn't it get more attention? All kinds of other stuff could be there, too: Directories to useful sources or services, articles or statistical information members have gleaned of more or less permanent interest to editorialists, an always-current membership roster, and other possibilities.

* A message board, serving the same function as an office message board but reaching across the country to any NCEW member who logs onto the service. Got an editorial or management headache? Post a query on the message board to solicit suggestions from others who have dealt with the same situation. After all, we gather one or two times a year to share information; with a computer bulletin board, we could be doing the same thing year round -- but in a way that's less intrusive than a phone call, and that reaches far more people, not just the one or two we might think of calling.

It also would be a place to remind people of forthcoming events and to note stuff we've come across that might interest other members.

* NCEW E-mail. If you work at a large organization, you can probably send E-mail to co-workers though the company computer system. With an NCEW bulletin board, you could send E-mail to fellow members anywhere in North America with similar convenience.

Unlike with a phone call, if the person you're seeking isn't there, the message will still be waiting. It can be a more complete message than you may find convenient to leave on an answering machine or voice mail -- more like a very handy, personal fax. Or you could automatically send a single message to every NCEW member, or as many as you need to reach, with just one operation.

* On-line meetings. Got to get together with three or four people to discuss some project or draw up a plan? Several people can meet on-line, exchange thoughts instantly in written form simply by typing into the computer and reading each others' responses, take an informal vote, and end up with a complete written record of the discussion with no extra effort.

Sound intriguing? Or do some "Yes . . . but's" come to mind? A lot of this stuff is unfamiliar to a lot of people, and so a bit daunting. Well, a lot daunting at first. Setting up such a service would require some sorting out, and developing it would take some time for members to become comfortable using it. I seem to have volunteered to start that process, working with Jim Boyd's technology committee.

And it turns out that one of the less-known national on-line services, Delphi, offers to provide just these kinds of services for groups as small as NCEW at a nominal cost to the organization. (What they are angling for, of course, is more Delphi users, who pay a modest monthly fee -- $10 to $20 for five to 20 hours use a month -- to access the service.) The more prominent national services, such as Prodigy or CompuServe, are uninterested in small groups.

Delphi has much of the stuff the other services have, useful above and beyond NCEW activities: You can read the UPI and Reuters wires, look up stuff in an on-line encyclopedia, do research (for a fee) on Dialog, send a fax, arrange to have a document translated.

And Delphi offers a big bonus -- it has the best-developed access to the Internet of any of the national services, at least at the moment. Access to the Internet can transport even a mildly curious data seeker to some quite remarkable sources of information, all over the world, at a trivial cost. That includes the White House, the Commerce Department, and various other federal agencies.

It also can find you academic experts to discuss or write about news development, or get you on an electronic mailing list to keep up with current thinking on a variety of topics, and a lot more. The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., is offering its electronic news service over the Internet.

Making full use of such resources takes some inquisitiveness and a bit of "what-the-hell-I'll-see-what's-here" exploring, but it can net you some fascinating -- yes, even useful -- stuff, and Delphi makes using it relatively easy. And it is, as they keep saying, the leading edge of the information future, or some helpful cliche.

My plan at this point is to work with Delphi to see if NCEW can establish a bulletin board service, with the goal of having something potentially available by early in 1995. (At this point, Delphi is not as user-friendly as some other on-line services, although by the end of this year that shortcoming should be corrected.)

I hope that I will have enough accomplished that, by the time of the convention, I'll have some kind of progress to report. I'll also aim to have information about how you can sign up for Delphi on a short-term trial basis, at no cost, to get acquainted. (Actually, you could do that now: Delphi ads running nationally offer five hours of on-line time, so you can try out the service and its Internet connection.)

Some of you may have memberships in other national on-line services now, although Jim Boyd's recent survey in The Masthead didn't turn up many. Those who are already on-line are using a range of different services, making it impractical for that reason alone to build on members' existing memberships.

Lots of twisty corners remain to be negotiated yet, and if you've any thoughts, insights, questions, or suggestions about any of the above please let me know. You can write me at Editorial Page, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Road, Melville NY 11774; you can call me at work at 516/843-2904; or you can reach me by E-mail from most national on-line services, via the Internet, at "PHINEAS1

Hope to hear from you on-line one of these days.

NCEW member Phineas Fiske is assistant editor of the editorial page for Newsday in Melville, N.Y.
COPYRIGHT 1994 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:benefits of information superhighway and development of on-line service for National Conference of Editorial Writers
Author:Fiske, Phineas
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 1994
Words:1260
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