Working in the Electronic Realm

The Masthead | 22 June 1998

Israelis mourn the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

By Joe Shea


STUART HERSH was a brave journalist and a good man. In search of a story for our young and feisty online newspaper, The American Reporter, he walked into a riot in the Israeli West Bank city of Hebron and found himself suddenly the target of a rock-throwing mob intent on a kill.


He pulled out his pistol and started firing in the air as he backed his way into a nearby Arab-owned shop, where he dragged out his Palestinian Authority AR press credentials, signed by a colonel in Yasser Arafat's organization whose name every Palestinian recognized, and the shopkeeper saved his life.


The first-person story, one of the first we ever ran, topped our daily e-mail edition and later became the subject of a long chapter in a book on Web publishing (10 Secrets for Web Success, by David Wall) that sank like a stone in a pool at night.


On the night that Yitzhak Rabin, may he rest in peace, died at the hands of an Israeli assassin, Stu was on the Internet and watching television out of the corner of his eye. Seconds after the shooting, he e-mailed me the news, and as soon as he confirmed the death of Israel's bravest general - the one who dared to make peace - I flashed it out to our subscribers around the world.


One of those was Nancy L. Jackson, a professor of journalism at American University in Cairo. She later wrote an op-ed piece for the International Herald Tribune telling readers how she'd learned of Rabin's assassination from us at 2 a.m., and hailing AR for bringing "'Front Page' urgency" back to journalism.


Her words have gone where old words go.


Frankly, I have excavated my soul for The American Reporter. I have emptied my pockets and my bank account and my weary brain and all the hours of my day on its survival. Some 200 journalists, among them a few of the best in the world, have done some part of the same. We were the first daily newspaper with original content and its own staff to start on the Internet when we began e-mail publication on April 10, 1995, and today, after the failure of more than half a dozen other attempts funded with tens of millions of dollars, we alone survive.


You've probably never heard of us.


We fought the Communications Decency Act alone in federal court in Manhattan and got it declared unconstitutional, heard our decision argued in the U.S. Supreme Court, and were affirmed by the justices a day after the landmark ruling in ACLU vs. Reno. If you heard of that battle and triumph, you've really had your ear to the ground.


We are a brave, struggling, courageous, intelligent, for-profit, general-interest daily news organization that Christopher Harper, then a Columbia University associate professor of journalism, called "the best news organization on the Web," and we have 200 subscribers, not enough money to open our own bank account, and a brave young colleague now in his grave in the dusty fields of Israel to show for it.


Our publication was the first to publish an interview with the woman who ran the day care center at the Alfred J. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City - by Bill Johnson, the former AP reporter who covered the Martin Luther King assassination stow for it as its Memphis bureau chief from the day it happened. Bill covered the Oklahoma City bombing from the day it shook his house to this morning's edition. Ireland correspondent Stephen O'Reilly scooped the world on the last IRA cease-fire, a breakthrough event that made the success of the Northern Ireland talks possible.


Stuart Hersh interviewed Yitzhak Rabin, and Andreas Harsono interviewed the Iranian foreign minister, and Wilson da Silva the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, and I wrote the first major article in an American publication on the Indonesian fires. Our Jack Breibart - former managing editor for news at the San Francisco Chronicle - broke the name of Ross Perot's choice of a running mate. Tom Rickey beat the world on the incredible stow of the up/down orientation of the universe (page one a day later in The New York Times). And our Hope Gibbs just got the first interview Cora Barry has given in a year.


The deputy foreign editor of the Xinhua News Agency was standing beside my chair in my living room when we reported exclusively (in a story by foreign affairs ace Lucy Komisar) that Chinese generals defying Beijing had reoriented nuclear-tipped missile batteries toward Taiwan during the 1996 crisis there.


And we never made a ripple in your life.


I am not bitter about these facts, but I owe it to the opportunity offered me here to tell you that scaling the wall of indifference to Internet publishing and making a dent in the American consciousness with authentic reporting here is well nigh on to impossible. I am not bitter; I am grateful. While all those other publications, including the New Century Media alliance and so many others, were struggling to compete with more visible organizations, armed with tech staffs and workstations, we were going without food and hot water and a car on a 40-meg, 10Mhz 386 with a 14.4K modem, but we were armed with loyal readers and a lot of faith.


Those readers, and many of the 200 journalists who each owns a piece of AR, came through at every juncture when all the money was gone and kept us going; they provided the financial and the moral support - the appreciation and the praise that means so much when you're struggling.


Our income still hovers around $250 a month, and it has not been growing. We have yet to pick up a phone and call you to ask if you'd like to subscribe, and we've never asked anyone at all for an ad, nor ever run but one (for a South American jungle tour that stiffed us for the dough).


What has been growing is the confidence that comes with facing a dozen major and immediate challenges to our survival, and continuing to publish important, original and polished-journalism. Where can confidence take you without money, subscribers, or advertising? What difference can it make? That's what made it necessary to tell you all this.


Find our Web site, if you can, and note our coverage of the world to which the Internet has linked us. We cover daily each of the 20 to 30 terrorist incidents around the world through the distinguished Pinkerton report; all the biggest business deals in Asia, through Asia Pulse; every story of note in Slovenia, Eastern and Central Europe, and Russia through special arrangement with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


This week, we've got in-depth analysis of critical problems in Indonesia, Colombia, Albania, and North Korea from Stratfor's Global Intelligence Update.


Our columns are about fatherhood (My Gabriella, by Simon & Schuster executive Andrew Giangola), Internet freedoms (Free the Net!, by O'Reilly & Associates editor Amy Oram), and Internet frauds (Net Watch, by San Francisco-based fraud expert Mark Taylor). Randy Holhut reams out the phonies in politics and public life, while Joyce Marcel (Momentum) limns pop culture.


Elinor Mosher writes from Paradise, Nova Scotia, and Constance Daley from St. Simons Island, Ga., on anything they want, and John Pittman takes us into his lively home in the Poconos each week. You get a solid book review and a great CD review and fabulous theater reviews, none of which you've read elsewhere.


Our 200 paid subscribers (AR costs $100 a year, and then a penny a word to republish articles), after all, are amplified by our online content partnership with Nando.net, whose comprehensive news site books about seven million hits a day.

In short, we've got a winner over here on the online side; so, I'm not bitter, I'm waiting.


You see, publishing a daily newspaper on the Internet opens wide the greatest human enterprise in the history of civilization: the charting of our own destiny. No longer are the great media of communication in the sole control of the wealthy and the powerful, and no longer are you and I and all of you on every shore and city of this planet hopelessly estranged, the captives of only that information those former controllers ordained. Instead, we are meeting ourselves in a thousand dimensions of a new world, and together we are creating it.


Bitter? Not a bit. I am the luckiest editor alive.


Joe Shea is editor-in-chief of The American Reporter.

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