Are newspapers on the Net missing the point?

Jack Schofield in London

Once, the easiest way to put news on the radio was to get someone to read it from a newspaper. The easiest way to put it on television was to film a radio newsreader. That’s not how things work today, except on the World Wide Web, where the standard approach is still to take a printed magazine or newspaper and put it online.

At its worst it is called “shovelware”, and it sometimes works well, but is it the best we can do? Steve Yelvington, managing editor of an American newspaper Web site, the Star Tribune Online, suggests not. At this month’s NetMedia conference at City University, London, he said: “I think the electronic environment gives us the chance to combine the substance of a metropolitan newspaper with the timeliness of a radio station and the visual appeal of television.”

However, even he admits that “right now that the number one attraction of Star Tribune Online isn’t the fine-quality journalism, or the cool animated graphics, or the brilliant photography. It’s the classified ads. They consistently outdraw sports, politics, the arts and crime.”

The main debate on the nature of Web publishing is, of course, taking place online. Steven Johnson’s FEED, a Web-zine with no paper equivalent, started a dialogue about it last month, while HotWired—- Wired magazine’s online sister—- added a “brain tennis” match last week.

The debate has been stimulated by Michael Kinsley, who is taking part in FEED’s dialogue. Kinsley is a well-known media figure who has worked for the Economist, edited the New Republic magazine, and appeared regularly on the CNN cable news network. He is also the editor of Microsoft’s new magazine, Slate, which is interesting simply because it cocks a snook at current thinking about Web publishing.

The essence of Web publishing can be summed up in two words: multimedia and hypertext. Multimedia means that, unlike a printed magazine or newspaper, a Web publication can use sounds, animated graphics and digital video clips. Hypertext means that online articles do not have to be presented or read in the traditional, linear fashion: readers can click on highlighted links to get background information, jump to a different part of an article, or be transported to a different Web site altogether.

But in most respects, Slate follows the format of a traditional magazine—- it even has page numbers. Instead of reading it online, you can download a version that is designed to be printed out. Instead of articles being split into chunks, Slate has some very long texts, which means lots of scrolling.

The accepted wisdom of the Web is that readers will not pay for online publications, and while Slate is still free, that is only because the payment system will not be ready until November. Yelvington says: “The big and terrifying question about going online” is “how can we make money?”

Two years ago, a content company could make money by contracting with a subscription-based online service such as America OnLine or CompuServe. Today we are in a transition state; the Web is not mature enough to support a reader-revenue business model, and advertising is just beginning to develop.

“At the Star Tribune we’re providing our news and information free on the Web so that we can develop the critical mass needed to make advertising work. Charging users for news at this point would only serve to kill the advertising effort.”

But all this investment in a medium “without clear prospects for revenue” could, says Erik Meyer of Newslink, be a formula for disaster.

Disaster seems likely if only because publishers, advertisers, journalists and readers all have different views. Advertisers want millions of “eyeballs” that Web publishers are unable to deliver. Journalists want to be freed from the need to fill holes round advertisements, and they want to be creative with multimedia and hypertext, but many readers just want fast facts without the fuss.

Often the glitzy graphics are added out of fear and ignorance. Publishers are scared they will not look trendy enough on the Web unless they exploit the latest fashion tricks such as animated graphics, or mis-features like Netscape’s frames. Unfortunately, this also works against visionaries like Brock Meeks, who runs CyberWire Despatch, and who thinks the Web’s future lies in multimedia reporting.

At NetMedia, Meeks admitted that “even a 30-second QuickTime video is straining the boundaries of what an online reader will endure in terms of downloading time—- and, in fact, most won’t”.

What will hold the reader’s attention, he says, is a good story. “You should never skimp on being a solid reporter, but if you can’t tell a story, then you won’t last long in cyberspace. There is just too much `out here’ to compete with otherwise. Internet users are skittish: if you don’t grab their attention, they are gone and don’t come back.”

Joe Shea, founder and editor of an Internet-only newspaper called the American Reporter, agrees. He says the paper’s presentation has moved “away from hyperlinks, away from HTML, away from anything but the immediacy of good reporting and good writing. Our readers seem to like this approach. They get straight, no-nonsense, no-frills journalism, and because we have only one graphic, they get it very quickly—- the time to load our page is extremely short compared to graphics-laden pages.”

Meeks and Shea are among cyberspace’s best-known reporters. Both started on newspapers: Meeks works as chief Washington correspondent for Wired magazine and HotWired and produces CyberWire Despatch in his own time. He is bullish—- “I’ve built my reputation, my brand. I’m here, I’m doing it, and I’m thriving”—- but CyberWire Despatch now appears infrequently, and it isn’t making him rich.

Shea, meanwhile, is fighting for survival. He started the American Reporter with other journalists when the Milwaukee Journal closed down. It was an attempt to exploit the “economies of cyberspace”, but in spite of some journalistic coups, it only brings in about $200 per month. Shea is behind in the rent on his tiny bungalow, and has turned off the heat and hot water. He does not have a car or a television set, either.

Following a syndication deal, the American Reporter’s income is about to jump to $1 000 a month. Shea says “that is still far below anything realistic” but most Web publications probably bring in even less.

In the longer term, things may not get much better. Meyer points out two uncomfortable facts. First, the most popular online “newspapers”, on votes cast at the Newslink site, have been CNN Interactive and CNET Central, both of which are produced by cable TV companies, not newspapers. For TV broadcasters, news is something that changes every hour or perhaps every half hour, not once a day or once a week.

And second, online newspapers and magazines are much less attractive to advertisers than what Meyer calls the “big-hit, no-content services” such as search engines (Alta Vista) and meta-indexes (Yahoo). Why would, say, Netscape or Microsoft want to advertise in an online newspaper? Their own Web pages attract far more visitors than the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.

Because newspapers “own” the news business on paper, they tend to assume they can transfer that ownership to the net. That may not be the case. The next generation of media barons could easily come from different industries. And one of them may well be Bill Gates.

The Mail & Guardian’s Web site can be reached at //www.mg.co.za/mg

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