When Ball State sought funding ($25,000 of which came in the form of a grant from the Discovery Group, a local foundation made up of community women) to support its interactive endeavor, it didn't need a fistful of studies, even though studies are readily available.
It's clear that we're spending as much time in front of the computer as we are in front of the TV. Adults spend about 14 hours a week watching the tube and another 14 online, compared with the 11 hours they spent watching TV and the 10 they spent online two years ago, according to JupiterResearch, which analyzes Internet use. College-age consumers average about 10 hours a week online, two hours more than they spend watching TV. Many students interviewed for this story said that they didn't have a TV in their dorm room but that they couldn't function without a laptop.
"I kind of passively watch the news," says Austin Arnett, a senior computer science major who is part of the interactive team. "Often I'm trying to catch the first 30 seconds, to get teasers. If anything interests me, I'll go to Google News and be done with it."
Suzanne Plesha, assistant director and communications officer of the Center for Media Design, the campus-based, independent-research think tank that used portions of a $20 million grant to help fund this pursuit, says the question is how to make things more appealing for truly digital natives, or young media consumers.
"They are so engrossed in all this," she says. "They have totally different flight patterns surrounding digital usage. We're the immigrants who are popping into the digital world midway through life. When we make judgments of what will be appealing to these populations, we're wrong most of the time. They're working at the ground level. They know what they want, where it's going. They know the ticker thing was bothering them. And they were going to find the solution."
Of course, not everyone is so sure that the solution of interactivity is better, even right here at Ball State. While Steve Bell, a professor at Ball State and the longtime ABC anchor who filed the first live satellite report from Vietnam, applauds interactivity ("It's just another media revolution I'll have to live through," he quips), he has his concerns.
"If you're not careful, the audience will set the whole agenda," he warns. "People are only getting what they want. Well, you don't go to the doctor to only hear what you want. You don't go to a lawyer to only hear what you want. The role of the journalist has always been to not only provide people what they want and need but provide people with what they didn't know they wanted. But you, as the professional, determine they do need to know about it. And if you present it in the right way, they will come to know and appreciate this editorial service you're providing for them."
To others, like Mark Glaser, who writes extensively about how the Internet affects media, the biggest shift can be seen in the mind-set of the journalist.
“There’s the old way of your being the bringer of the truth. You’re the one who said this is the way it is — whether you go on TV and say it or you write it,” says Glaser. “I think what’s happening now is it’s being democratized. The journalist has to think more like, ‘This is how I see it, this is what I’ve come up with, what do you think, what can you add to this?’ It’s more of a collaboration and less of ‘this is the answer.’ There are a lot of answers, and it’s about coming up with what the best one is. It’s kind of scary for a lot of people to deal with that.”
Glaser applauds Ball State but wonders if viewers actually prefer TV to be a one-way experience. Pollard doesn’t think they do. He was at CNN during what he calls its Chicken Little news days, “when no one knew what we were doing.” It simply wasn’t what everyone was used to.
None of this fazes the Ball State instructors. They have the blessing of their dean, Roger Lavery, who is overseeing a new $21 million facility that will expand the college’s reach. Lavery said having a product in hand is enough to douse doubters.
Watching as students buzzed around him during a visit to the TV studio, Bell looked both proud and perplexed.
“Frankly, this is way beyond me,” says Bell, who retired a few weeks after this interview. “I have no idea how it’s going to play out. The simple fact is, we can’t stop the viewer from being involved. It’s happening, whether we like it or not.”