March 25, 2004 – If any of the almost 200 people who emerged from the V.I. Source's professional development seminar on Friday afternoon left with unanswered questions about the Internet as a news medium, they simply must not have been listening.
Well, that, of course, is not exactly true. The Internet changes constantly. But the seminar, "E-volution: How to use the Internet effectively in your agency, organization or business," addressed the vast world of cyberspace, with technical and journalistic experts showing how to rein in this tool and put it to good use.
For the meeting at the Marriot Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort, Source publisher Shaun A. Pennington brought together as presenters Melvin Claxton, Detroit News investigative reporter and V.I. Daily News winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism; Frank Barnako, co-founder and vice president of CBS MarketWatch and internationally syndicated Internet business columnist; Jean Etsinger, V.I. Source senior editor, longtime St. Thomas journalist and former University of the Virgin Islands journalism faculty member; Evan Edwards, OnePaper system director and creator of the V.I. Source websites; and Steve Parrish, Atlantic Tele-Network vice president and computer systems optical network specialist.
In their presentations, the speakers shared their expertise on everything from how to write a brief and cogent press release to the the high cost locally of broadband access (10 to 20 times more than in the States) to the growing problem for consumers of how to manage the massive flow of information out there online today.
A short answer offered to that last concern was "to read the Source newspapers," and let its editors do the culling for you. But the broader suggestion was to make use of a number of tools available online to filter out information not of interest to the user and forward information on topics of particular interest.
Barnako talked about the "incredibly deep pockets" of information on the Internet allowing the user to do anything from reading up on the Civil War, or the Peloponnesian War, for that matter, to buying a kitchen sink or an ear trumpet on eBay. He gave some hints on how to control all that information.
Managing massive amounts of information
Poking into those deep pockets is something Barnako does every day in order to keep readers and listeners up to date on world financial changes. He said he uses several different services which do a large part of the work for him — and some of them are free.
One is Topixnet, by which users can access the news of any given region of the United States by entering a zip code. Another, Netcaptor, clears out the stuff bombarding your computer screen, filtering out pop-ups and other annoyances, and opens sites on separate tabs for fast navigating. Google News is another powerful tool, he said — offering a free service that brings you headlines every few hours on whatever specific subjects you're interested in.
And then there are the blogs. For those not in the know, blogs are not something undesirable in your front yard, but they are growing like weeds. They are the hot current craze in personal opinion pages on the Web, and they're easy to create, according to Barnako. He said it's as "simple as doing e-mail. A blog lets you talk to anyone interested in a particular subject; it's personal publishing." Anyone interested in taking up blogging can get tips — and a template — to get started at the typepad Web site.
Parrish presented a thumbnail history of the Internet from its infancy in the 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the concept's development for military use, to today's World Wide Web accessed by 250 million households.
Noting that all 250 million of them are plagued at least now and then by viruses, worms and other undesirables, Parrish shared a bit of knowledge that he prefaced by saying: "This won't make Bill Gates happy." The fact is, he said, that "using one of the older Windows programs — Windows 98 or even 95 — you are safer from viruses. They mainly attack the XP and newer versions."
Parrish cautioned against opening attachments sent by e-mail when you don't know the sender or have reason to be suspicious even if it appears that the message came from someone you know. "That's how these viruses get into your computer," he said. With nationalist issues, increased pornography and other blights, he strongly advocated using anti-virus software.
With her editorial and teaching background coming to the fore, Etsinger gave a succinct lecture on how to be succinct in writing a press release that stands a better-than-average chance of getting published. Pay attention to the basics names and titles spelled correctly, and times and places and prices verified — she said. Other recommendations: Keep it to one page while supplying all of the essential information, include some direct quotes and supply a contact for further information.
Etsinger pointed out the elemental differences to an organization of editorial coverage, advertising and publicity outreach. The subject has virtually no control over editorial coverage but near-total control over advertising content and presentation, she said, while an entity submitting a press release has control of the information provided to the media, but no control over how a news organization makes use of it.
Meetings of the minds
Pennington explained that while she and Edwards have been working closely — "joined at the brain" — for the last five years, they met face to face for the first time on Friday morning. Edwards is the principal technician for all of the digital publications on the OnePaper platform which supports the Source newspapers.
Working thousands of miles away in California, he is Pennington's lifeline to the Internet, troubleshooting as needed and currently working on a major redesign of the V.I. Source publications that will take advantage of new and emerging interactive capabilities.
Edwards, whose modest years belie his expertise, introduced himself as "completely a computer person." He added: "What I say now may not apply a year from now. Newspapers stayed the same for decades. Information was based on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis — telephone, newspapers, radio, television. Now, it's many to many. Things have changed."
He described a "day in the life of George," an Internet user who gets all sorts of information from online, both at home and at work. He checks his news services of choice in the morning, goes online throughout the day accessing information documents, using blogs, contacting friends of friends in chat forums and doing his own blogging. What emerges for George is "a network of trust," Edwards said, something that is vitally important to Internet users today as "consumers of information adding content, commenting and chatting."
A cross-section of the community teachers, students, publishers, an art gallery owner, lawyers, Realtors, government officials, representatives of not-for-profit agencies, a restaurateur, a travel agent, small business owners, corporate executives and media professionals — many of them folks who have come over the last five years to rely on the Source for information, listened intently to the deluge of information.
News they can use
Publicist Lisa Schmidt said afterward: "I know about press releases; that's my business. But the esoteric stuff, news concepts, blogs, technical things — it was awesome." And, she added, "it was heartwarming to see so many people coming out."
Jacob Spell, researcher for Sen. Roosevelt David
, said he found the information about ways to control the flow of information "very useful. I really enjoyed it."
Michael Akins, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands, said he gained a "greater appreciation of the Internet's use the information on how to write press releases was helpful."
Elton Chongasing said: "It was interesting to learn what's behind the Source, to see what the Internet is all about. It's a changing world."
Juel Anderson, Education Department public information officer, said she had learned lots to "take back to our team to help the teachers learn more about putting out a press release."
V.I. Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt said he was "happy to see the Source expanding and getting more readers." Van Beverhoudt is something of an Internet veteran, having set up his agency's own Web page, so he was already familiar with much of the information.
His brother, Arnold van Beverhoudt, regional audit manager of the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Interior Department, was impressed by the dynamic of the seminar. "The power of the press it can make so many changes in the community," he said, "and it was interesting to see what's coming and how to handle the information overload."
Lanita Kemezis, a St. Croix marketing consultant, said: "The energy, when we have energy — that's what the real conversation [here] is. It's like they say, the more we give, the more we get. Everybody in the Virgin Islands who has a heart knows this. Shaun said she was thankful to have received a gift, and she has."
Pennington in her introduction at the start of the seminar explained that the event was offered as a thank-you to Source readers and supporters, "the backbone of this venture." She briefly traced her "dream." Five years ago, she said, she was approached by Penny Feuerzeig, former Daily News executive editor, "with the seed of an idea about how I could start a newspaper with little or no money, which was exactly what I had — along with an obsolete computer."
She added: "It is my belief that I have been freely given many rewards in this life, and the last five years have been full of them. And I have been taught it is our responsibility to return those rewards. Today is a small offering from a grateful heart."
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