After Friday's online stampede to read Kenneth Starr's allegations against President Clinton, many weekend newspapers arrived on doorsteps bulging with the same detailed report 24 hours after its release.
But before deciding to print it, many editors grappled with difficult issues ranging from the sexually explicit nature of the document to the considerable cost of reproducing the 445-page report. Some newspapers ran only excerpts of the document.
Such reservations didn't really apply to newspaper Web sites, however. When it came to the Net, the genie already was out of the bottle--the House itself had posted the report.
"Once it was out there, there was no point in making it hard for people to get," said James Bettinger, a former newspaper editor who is now deputy director of the John S. Knight Fellowship program at Stanford University.
"It probably spurred some newspapers to print full versions when they might not otherwise have. You always exercise judgment about what you put in the newspaper," he said. "The biggest problem editors may have faced is how to handle the sexually explicit acts in their news stories."
Jon Katz, a media critic for Rolling Stone and a First Amendment Center scholar at the Freedom Forum, agrees that the Net broke the ice. "If it had not been for the Net, we would have only seen 20 percent of that report. Newspapers would have never printed all this material--they would have been afraid of shocking people," he said.
Yet some editors say the Net didn't force their hand--the historic nature of the document did. Moreover, although the Net encourages public disclosure, editors argue that it doesn't completely democratize the dissemination of information, as more people still have access to a newsstand or TV than a computer.
"Even in our community some people don't have access to the Net, and reading a long document online can be difficult," said Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the Silicon Valley-based Mercury News, which warned readers in an open letter about the nature of the report.
In fact, say some, the Net's advantages as a publishing medium--you could get it faster, for free, in its entirety--actually made them consider abstaining from running the full report in the paper.
For instance, the editors of the Arizona Daily Star chose to run the entire report in 34 pages of the paper and on the Web. "We decided before we saw [the report] to run it," said managing editor Bobbie Jo Buel. "But one question we had was, 'Do we really need to spend the money to print this if it's online?'"
Some Daily Star print readers complained about its content, a reaction matched elsewhere in the country. "We put it on the Web site right away and it didn't receive as much of a negative reaction as the newspaper [printing]," she noted. "It does say something about the different standards of the Net."
Certainly the Net has been out in front throughout the White House sex scandal. From the gossip-filled Drudge Report's kick-starting the story to Clinton-Lewinsky chat rooms and bulletin boards, the online world has been the place to put information out there and get people talking.
Caught behind the curve when the story broke, normally cautious newspapers sometimes ran unsubstantiated reports in an effort to keep up with the pace. On the other hand, eight months later when Starr's report arrived, journalists--online and off--were able to step in and provide analysis.
"Letting me read the report on the bus is not the best way newspapers can contribute," said Sally Lehrman of the Society of Professional Journalists. "The Net needs to force newspapers to do what they do best--to interpret the news and put it into context."
Katz, a known Net cheerleader, agrees. "Even though we could read the report ourselves, we needed help understanding what it meant."
"[Starr's report] legitimized the Net as a means of distribution of civic information," Katz continued. "The very idea of this paternal censorship by newspapers was obliterated. At that moment, journalism changed for good."
Overall, posting raw information on the Net may help newspapers and other media rekindle the public's trust and interest because the public was able to judge not only the report itself but also the validity of the media's findings.
"I think one of the greatest moments in American journalism, in my era, was when newspapers published the Pentagon papers," said Rob Morse, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, referring to the landmark disclosure of a secret government report on Vietnam. Its 1971 publication in the face of legal challenge is widely considered to have redefined established standards of freedom of the press and the public interest.
"Having to follow the Internet's [lead now] is actually a good thing for newspapers," Morse said. "The public has a right to see it."