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Perspectives: Where Do We Go from Here?
Online News
by Wallys W. Conhaim
Link-Up Digital
October 1, 2002


News With a Technological Twist

For a taste of the future of news, check out the following sites, each of which has at least one futuristic element:

Online Newspaper Sites

• Boston.com [http://www.boston.com]: An early example of convergence, this Boston, Massachusetts, area Web site combines the home page of the Boston Globe with links to the home page and video clips from New England Cable News. It markets a downloadable, electronic facsimile edition that is an exact copy of the hard-copy version for a fee, providing both downloadable and wireless editions via AvantGo and AT&T PocketNet. It is also part of the National Newspaper Association’s (NAA) local news gateway, accessible from many portable devices. 

• CSMonitor.com [http://www.christiansciencemonitor.com]: The Christian Science Monitor Electronic Edition is an example of a successful combination of “fee” and “free.” The Monitor charges students, teachers, and non-newspaper subscribers $2 per month for Monitor Extra, a personalized edition and e-mail notification service. It also markets a “Treeless Edition,” an exact facsimile of the print newspaper in .PDF format, and has a PDA edition.

• CJOnline [http://www.cjonline.com]: The Topeka, Kansas, Capitol-Journal, winner of three Edgie awards, has been recognized for its legislative coverage, which includes bill tracking, audio clips, and weekly diaries of politicians, as well as for its sports coverage, which includes databases and statistical comparisons.

• HeraldNet [http://waterfront.heraldnet.com]: The Everett, Washington Herald was recognized by a 2002 Edgie in the public service category for its creation of a participatory site in which citizens could use interactive technology to illustrate their vision of a waterfront redevelopment project. The feature also includes a photo gallery and a documentary video.

• Metromix [http://www.metromix.com]: This site was chosen by its colleagues to be the best food, arts, and entertainment, or “vertical” guide. Developed by the Chicago Tribune in partnership with ChicagoSports.com, CLTV.com, WGN.com, and OpenTable.com, the latter a restaurant reservation service, the site features professional and well as reader reviews and information for tourists as well as residents.

• My San Antonio.com [http://www.mysanantonio.com]: Operated by the San Antonio Express-News and KENS-5, this site has launched a News-On-Demand streaming video “jukebox,” which allows viewers to select segments of video reports in which they are interested, and features audio Spanish lessons and quizzes.

• NewsOK.com [http://www.newsOK.com]: This is a partnership of The Oklahoman with KWTV News 9 that fully integrates text with video and audio presentations in the headline listings.

• Spokesman-Review.com [http://www.spokesmanreview.com]: The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, has an interactive team working to involve newspaper readers as sources for stories, some of which feature slide shows of photographs and audio. It has even coached citizens in writing accounts of their personal experiences for the site. The newspaper presents “Newstracks,” clusters of archive articles and background information on hot topics, and a “Teens Only” section—”for teens, by teens.”

• StarTribune.com [http://www.startribune.com]: Like many other newspapers, the StarTribune (Minneapolis) is using its Web services to generate and support active communities. It provides space in its Communities section and technical assistance for nonprofits to post organizational information. In cooperation with KTCA-TV and Minnesota Public Radio, both public broadcasters, it sponsors in-person gatherings, in which participants from around the state are linked via videoconferencing, and covers the results in its online Minnesota Citizens’ Forum section. Its Talk discussion forum covers public affairs as well as gardening, motoring, and travel, among other topics. The site includes multimedia coverage of news events, and the newspaper also publishes a customizable portable digital edition called News To Go for use with PDAs and cellular phones.

• WashingtonPost.com [http://www.washingtonpost.com]: Winner of the Edgies for best news presentation for 3 years in a row and Yahoo! Internet Life’s choice for best newspaper site of 2002, this site of The Washington Post is distinctive for its news analysis, timeliness, and multimedia coverage. Readers might want to check out “Phoenix Rising” [http://www.washingtonpost.com/
wp-srv/flash/metro/phoenix/phoenixRising.html], a multimedia feature about the attack on and rebuilding of the Pentagon, in which first-person accounts were solicited. The Post also offers a free, e-mailed personalized news and entertainment service and a variety of downloadable or wireless editions.
 

Other News Sites

• DEBKAfile [http://www.debka.com]: This fascinating (and very frightening) example of an independent, free, niche service is updated frequently. It reports intelligence, politics, and terrorism from an Israeli perspective and markets annual subscriptions to its affiliated newsletter, Debka-Net Weekly.

• U.S. News Archives on the Web [http://www.ibiblio.org/
slanews/internet/archives.html]: Maintained by volunteers from the News Division of the Special Libraries Association, this is the best place to access U.S. newspaper home pages and direct links to archives, along with listings of available archived dates and pricing.

• News Is Free [http://www.newsisfree.com]: This aggregator Web site is the site for you if you just can’t get enough news and don’t want to miss anything. It gathers current news from over 3,170 Web sites and news services, including Web logs, in many languages. Users can subscribe to such personal interest channels as wellness, education, culture, urban legends and folklore, books, celebrities, automobiles, and sports, as well as professional interests, many originating from the sites of top-quality publications. 

And, why not take a deeper look at your own local newspaper’s Web site? You’ll never know what interesting features you might find until you take the time to thoroughly familiarize yourself with it. The NAA’s NewspaperLinks gateway [http://www.newspaperlinks.com] is a good starting point.
 

Do You Go Online for News?
If so, you’ve already got a taste of … ‘the future.’

If you go online for news, you are part of a growing plurality of Americans who do so. Almost half of U.S. Internet users, 48 percent, now use the Internet for news, about the same percentage who use it for entertainment, according to a May 2002 survey by MORI Research. 

And despite the proliferation of news “content providers” on the Internet, studies show that people are increasingly turning to newspaper sites for their online news. While CNN, MSNBC, and Yahoo! News top the list, nine of the Internet’s top 20 most popular news sites are run by newspapers. 

Since anyone can now enter the information marketplace, and since there is already a panoply of new information delivery systems, we have to wonder how we will be getting our news in the future—say in 5, 10, 15 or 20 years. 

Will hard-copy newspapers and their local news-gathering horsepower still be around? Will news consumers be primarily readers or primarily viewers? 

We’re not alone in wondering what the future will bring. There has been a flurry of studies and special reports examining everything from the potential market to the technologies and the economics. The studies were conducted by the NAA [http://www.naa.org], the Online Journalism Review [http://www.ojr.org], the Media Center at the American Press Institute [http://americanpressinstitute.org/NewsFuture], the American Society of Newspaper Editors [http://www.asne.org/index.cfm], and New Directions for News [http://www.newdirectionsfornews.com], as well as numerous research firms.

The newspaper industry is contending with some worrisome trends—a decline in daily print newspaper circulation, little interest from younger audiences, transfer of loyalties among some readers to the Internet, and a recent economic downturn that has affected advertising revenue.

Signs of Change
Years ago, newspapers started experimenting with online delivery as a fringe activity, primarily as a reaction to a perceived marketplace threat. Now, online services are well integrated into the mainstream of newspaper operations and strategy, and emerging trends show us where the future is leading.

Here are some examples of these trends:

  • New fees for new kinds of services. Many newspaper sites have already begun to charge for archived articles. Some, such as The New York Times, have begun to “package” news archives and video clips on popular subjects, such as sports or authors, and charge a flat fee for each package. Barriers to charging for information are coming down. An NAA study found that at least half of those who purchased something online are also users of online news.

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  • Converging delivery systems. Our neighborhood electronics outlets already carry “smart” telephones that combine phone communications with personal information management and wireless data communications, along with hand-held personal digital assistants that can browse the Web. We can already watch television and listen to radio on our personal computers. Content providers have already begun to design services specifically for these converging media delivery systems.

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  • Multimedia “programming.” Newspapers are already teaming up with television stations to broaden their access to multimedia resources. However, the uptake of broadband, required to deliver quality multimedia content, has not been as rapid as industry experts had hoped, and broadband is expensive at both ends. Only 16 percent of U.S. households now have connections to the Net. So, newspapers are managing with existing technologies.

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  • Services for wireless and other mobile devices. Now reaching only elite markets that can pay for both retrieval device and a content service, downloadable and wireless editions of newspapers are becoming available for the Palm or Pocket PC. The industry has also developed an experimental wireless local news gateway, Lngate.com, which links users to participating newspapers, and is discussing packaging and marketing options with communications carriers.

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  • Facsimile editions. Digital replica editions read via a computer, for which subscribers pay separately, are becoming increasingly popular. These may be the forerunners of the portable digital newspaper.

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  • Independent competitors. Technology is making it possible for individual writers to post their opinions on current affairs. Web logs, some of which challenge majority media news coverage, are becoming more numerous as well as popular with Internet users. Awareness of them has grown since the 9/11 attack when Web logs proved more capable of covering and building community around rapidly changing events. Newspapers are beginning to co-opt the form by supporting Web logs written by popular columnists.


Visions of the Future
An NAA forecasting process begun in 1999 concluded that these electronic newspapers could be a bridge between print and newer delivery systems that would not only attract new readers but would avoid some of the printing and delivery costs of traditional publishing.

Among the fascinating forecasts about life in the future by luminaries whose writings were scanned for the Horizon Watch initiative, those of Roger Fidler were most closely related to newspaper futures. 

According to Fidler, a former director of new media for Knight-Ridder who now directs the Institute for CyberInformation at Kent State University, we will see the eventual complete transformation of newspapers and magazines to digital media, either through online publishing or on portable, magazine-sized “tablets.”

Newspaper “tablet” editions will incorporate audio-video clips, and digital editions will incorporate community forums enabling readers to interact with journalists and community leaders. Content will be marketed in branded “packages.” Intelligent agents will routinely find and filter cyber-information to match individual profiles.

Paul Saffo, who directs the Institute for the Future, sees the emphasis in news services moving toward context or point of view rather than on content alone. In his scenario, consumers will be willing to pay for “context engines” and individual news analysts will license their viewpoints for use in these search engines in exchange for royalties. Saffo believes people’s use of the Internet will shift from people seeking information to people “accessing other people in information-rich environments,” according to the Horizon Watch summary of his ideas.

In the scenario projected by participants in Advertising Age’s Future Forum, advertisers, marketers, and editorial services will “meet” in an open forum it calls the “consumer-driven zone.” Consumers will have complete control over the advertising messages they receive. New kinds of “infomediaries” will facilitate interaction between consumers and advertisers about products, services, and related issues.

The newspaper industry is particularly excited about the prospects for “electronic paper,” which promises to offer more in flexibility, formatting, and portability than any of the other electronic delivery devices. In development at several corporations and anticipated in the market by 2005, these foldable sheets of plastic material can be used in the same ways we use newsprint today. The exception is that it can be continually updated through wireless communications and can display video as well as audio.

Hurdles to Cross
There is still some lingering doubt about whether newspaper organizations as we know them can survive this period of vast technological transition and thus whether they will be around to play the leading roles most forecasters expect. 

Here are some of the hurdles that have to be crossed:

  • Solving the economics conundrum. The popularity of online news sites does not always translate into additional revenues, either from readers, who are reluctant to pay for what they think they can get free elsewhere, or from advertisers. Recent surveys, however, seem to indicate that online newspapers are doing much better than just a few years ago, when very few of them were actually profitable.

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  • Fee vs. free. Over 12 million consumers paid for online content in the first quarter of 2002, according to the Online Publishers Association. Year-over-year sales of news alone rose 55 percent, according to the same study, but revenues are still small. Pornography and gambling aside, about 1,700 Web sites now charge for online content, a $675 million business in 2001. While The Wall Street Journal [http://wsj.com], the pioneer in this information-for-a-fee market, was the only newspaper in the top 25 money makers, in second place after real.com, six other news providers were on the list.

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  • Cannibalization of print editions. Despite the success of online newspaper sites and the trend toward their profitability, there has been a decline in weekday readership of hard-copy newspapers among Internet users, according to a Clark, Martire and Bartolomeo study in 2000. This raises the issue of whether ad or content revenues from online sites can make up for losses from cannibalization. Local and national TV have been negatively affected by Internet use, but weekday newspapers have been affected more.


Moving Toward Synergy Between Digital and Print
Despite the challenges, we can safely assume that most newspaper Web services will not only survive but expand and become far more interesting in the future.

Today’s newspaper publishers, who are already embracing electronic publishing and interactivity with their readers, have come a long way from believing that new media are a threat to their business. In fact, many see them as an essential opportunity. The more publishers adapt to new technologies, the more they will attract younger readers who are now less involved with newspapers as with television and the Internet. That’s good news for the home consumer.

As MediaNews Group CEO W. Dean Singleton noted at a recent industry conference covered by the AP, the industry is aware that the Internet involves a “massive transfer of power” that is changing the relationship between reader and publisher. “We need to be part of this shift,” he said. “We need to be so immersed and intertwined that we are both a driver of change and a beneficiary. And we do that by accelerating and refining the synergies” between the Internet and print publishing.

Rob Curley, director of new media at the Topeka Capital-Journal, says news sites will not be something you visit but rather something you experience, requiring publishers to have all kinds of “definitive” archives, video, message boards, outside resources, and even unedited text. 
“I want to give our writers more tools to better help them tell their stories,” he wrote in a contribution to the “Future of News” section of the Online Journalism Review, “and I want to help our readers gain a better understanding of the subject because of it.... It’s all about giving everybody everything they could want to know, and letting them step into the story, but putting it all together in a very intelligently laid out, easy-to-navigate way that’s user friendly. Yes, it’s overkill ... but it’s overkill with love.”

Now, that’s something to look forward to.


Wallys W. Conhaim is a Minneapolis-based independent consultant providing research, planning and analysis in the field of interactive services.

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