My best friend in the whole wide world just bought Space Invaders for his brand new Atari 2600. The game is so cool. He saved up all the money he got from delivering the weekend newspaper just to buy it. Me, I couldn’t do a paper route. Gettin’ up in the morning—before the street lights even turned off—to stuff all those inserts together: the movie sections, the travel sections, the comics, and the news. No way. It’d take him half an hour to do that, then he’d lug the papers from house to house. And in the winter he’d freeze his ink-covered fingers off. My buddy would hafta take each bulky newspaper from his bag and carefully put it inside 43 different screen doors. Now that he’s got Space Invaders, he’s gonna quit. It’s just way too much work.
His leaving was a smart move, because in 1983, the great paperboy phaseout began. The recession 10 years later, combined with a shrinking readership and skyrocketing newsprint costs, and—like the paperboys a decade earlier—journalists were laid off. In a six-month period leading up to September 1994, Canadian newspapers lost nearly 130,000 readers. Society was changing at a rapid pace, and newspapers were asking for a time commitment their readers could no longer give them. They’d become increasingly irrelevant to a generation that grew up with home computers and television. To stem their plummeting readership, the major dailies began to redesign themselves. In the early nineties, many papers—like Canada’s biggest, The Toronto Star—began running shorter articles with full-colour illustrations on their clearly designed pages. But these changes seemed ineffective against the exodus. Perhaps, newspaper publishers thought, there was something to all those column inches given to the “Information Superhighways.” There was almost no additional cost to publishing electronically and it was an untapped audience. By early 1994, American newspapers started moving online. Canadian papers followed suit almost a year later. Did they know what they were getting into? Jon Katz, Wired magazine’s media editor, doesn’t think so, and he wrote “Online or Not, Newspapers Suck” to explain why. The 1994 article has become the unofficial manifesto for critics of Web-based newspapers. “With few exceptions,” he wrote of online newspapers, “they seem to be just what they are, expensive hedges against onrushing technology with little rationale of their own.” But a lot can change on the World Wide Web in three years—after all, that’s almost half its embryonic life.
With elaborate graphics, clickable image-maps and its own Internet software kit, The Toronto Star moved on the Web on March 30, 1996. Like hundreds of other North American newspapers already on the Net, the Star (www.thestar.com) transferred almost every section of its paper online: News, Entertainment, Life, Wheels and the money-making Classifieds, among others. Each of the stories appeared exactly as it did in the newsprint version, but without the discipline of column rules. Unformatted, these stories spilled across the page like a typographer’s nightmare.
While many online newspapers have this problem, it’s one that is easily solved with simple formatting. Given that the Star has been online for almost a year, it’s surprising that the site still has such disorderly pages. Even more surprising is that the Star has apparently disregarded the Net-culture’s emphasis on user-friendly interaction. The best way to get a Star employee’s e-mail address is not through the Web site—as one might think—but rather to phone the person and ask for it. And even then, I had difficulty actually contracting someone, anyone, to talk about the site. After months of trying both voicemail and e-mail, I finally was able to speak with someone at the Star’s parent company: Michael Pieri, the operating director of Torstar Electronic Publishing. He did mention—in a very brief interview— that the paper does plan changes for its Web site, but wouldn’t specify what they were.
Unfortunately, my experience is a common one for online newspaper readers across North America, as J.D. Lasica noted in a November 1996 article for the American Journalism Review. “Anyone who has ever called a newsroom,” he wrote, “only to be shuffled from one gruff or impatient voice to the next, knows full well the message we in the news media project. Inaccessibility. Aloofness. Remoteness.”
The Toronto Star site operates, it would appear, within a closed system—much like the print version, where reader feedback exists exclusively as letters to the editor. By contrast, successful online publications allow people to interact with one another and the site by encouraging readers to comment on stories and the threads they create. Interaction on the Web can range from simple e-mail-based comment forms to full-scale discussion forums.
In mid-February, I managed to track down Mike Erlindson, a Web-site producer for the Star. His e-mail responses to my questions about the site’s future arrived mere hours after I sent them. “We would like to have more information about our readers,” he wrote. “Except registration and search engines.” These additions would allow the site to be personalized according to readers’ individual preferences, and let them immediately search for the information they want. But the Star’s site is still a long way from creating a sense of community for its readers. The paper’s online edition tries to overcome these shortcomings with news. And the site’s 100 or so articles are presumably what made the Star the 25th best news source on the Web, at least according to the 32,000 people who responded to an electronic straw poll conducted in December 1996 by the American Journalism Review at its Web site.
Unlike the Star, The Globe and Mail’s Web site, called GLOBEnet (www.theglobeandmail.com), devotes an entire section to public discussion of current articles and issues. The National Issues Forum provides an area for readers to debate topical GLOBEnet articles. The forum is one of the site’s top five areas, according to Derrick Cho, the marketing manager of interactive services at the Globe. This interaction is an effective way for online newspapers to develop an entirely new base of readers—and avoid criticism from people like Katz. Publications that merely move their content online and augment it with a few links have earned the derision of new media critics. About that, Cho agrees with people like Katz. “That’s repurposing of material,” Cho says, “and that’s not our intent. What we’re trying to do is figure out a way to enhance our content—make it more interactive—to take advantage of what the Internet does and what it’s all about.” And GLOBEnet’s begun that with its WebExtra section, featuring articles and columns produced especially for online reading. Additions like this have helped draw over 10,000 visitors a day to the site. While not as extensive as online American newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post—which feature comprehensive stories and sidebars with related links—GLOBEnet is working hard to create an informative and interactive site. In the rush to slap a URL on their flag, some newspapers have missed the point. Too often, online newspapers dump stories from the printed page to the Web page, creating sites derisively known as “shovelware.” Interaction on these passive sties is limited to sending e-mail to the Webmaster or filling out a questionnaire. Without original online content or even a discussion forum, these sites risk becoming stale, attracting only the occasional reader. And most advertizers ignore a publication—be it physically or digitally printed—without a solid audience.
As newspapers slowly feel their way around the Net, others are attracting advertizing dollars, and readers, by cornering the online news market. Though varied, these news services all offer the news you want, when you want it. A successful model is the California-based news service PointCast. Launched in February of last year, it carries content from Reuters, AccuWeather, Pathfinder (which hosts magazines like Time and Money) as well as stories from the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times. Within seven months, The Globe and Mail’s New Media Centre had acquired the Canadian distribution rights an launched PointCast Canada (www.pointcast.ca). This service also carries content from GLOBEnet, Canadian Corporate News and Canada NewsWire. By mid-February, the Canadian version had almost 150,000—registered users.
What makes the PointCast model different is the application. Operating independent of the Web, it can be set—like an alarm clock—to automatically update the news. PointCast “wake up,” logs onto your Internet service provider, downloads your information, then logs off, all in about five minutes. No more dialing into your provider, searching for the right Web address and eating up online time while jumping from link to link looking for a story of interest. Instead, PointCast pushes its content by replacing those flying toasters with a screen saver that displays the news. Click on a headline and Point Cast serves the story up. What has really caught people’s attention, however, is the service-’s marriage of content to advertizing. Twenty percent of PointCast’s application is devoted to playing TV-like commercials. Jennifer Stewart, the marketing manager for PointCast Canada, says the user is hooked because PointCast offers compelling content. “Once you’ve got the viewers hooked,” she says, “then they’re going to be seeing the ads that are running there. It’s just another way for advertizers to communicate their message.”
PointCast may be the most publicized news service online, but it’s not alone. The popular Net search utility Yahoo! listed 34 at the beginning of 1997—including its own version, My Yahoo! Like Yahoo!, most serious new media companies have their own personalized news services. IBM has a business-oriented service called infoSage, while Microsoft has partnered with NBC to offer MSNBC. Yet another online news service is CRAYON (www.crayon.net). During a boring class, Pennsylvania college student Jeff Boulter decided to create a site that allowed people to assemble their own online newspaper, CRAYON, which has been around since March 1995, creates a Web page with customized links to various news services. American newspapers have also begun to get into personalized news business. The Los Angeles Times has a service called Hunter; “the golden news retriever” is known as an intelligent agent, and can be found at www.latimes.com/HOME/hunter.htm. The amount of customizable information offered by Hunter is so high that it’s only a matter of time—and initiative—before other papers start mirroring it. Others, like Netscape Communication’s In-Box Direct, send news stories to your e-mail box as they happen. Without a mail program that filters may e-mail, though, I found that In-Box Direct quickly overwhelmed me with news.
The tremendous variety of online news services challenges the papers’ traditionally loyal readers. Newspapers must re-establish their identity online. But monopolies can’t exist on the Net, so every Web site is on relatively equal footing. To attract the readers, a site must have a solid content, be user-friendly and be willing to create an environment that is not only suitable to the medium, but one that offers a degree of interactivity. Robin Rowland, who teaches computer-assisted reporting at Ryerson and writes for CBC Newsworld’s Web site, thinks it will be difficult for newspapers to survive online. Newspaper publishers must be willing to invest in their online ventures. “It takes money and you need a broad spectrum of staff people. I don’t see that happening here yet,” he said in December 1996. Three months later some sites are showing signs of life. The Edmonton Journal (www.southam.com/edmontonjournal) offers a wide variety of content, and now has a few people working on the site. But even GLOBEnet, one of Canada’s leading online newspapers, is operating in an administrative limbo. For example, while Cho’s job is focussed on the site, he also deals with new media throughout The Globe and Mail’s various companies. “We don’t have a dedicated unit that works on the site specifically,” Cho says. Erlindson, looking at the American model, thinks that “all major Canadian media players will have dedicated online reporting staffs within the next five years.” The Star has no plans for such a staff. After all, as Erlindson wrote, “This is all contingent on the bottom line.”
Yet another challenge for online newspapers is keeping the reader’s attention. “All over the screen you have your buttons to click and there are hypertext links,” says Evan Solomon, the editor of Canada’s new media magazine, Shift (see page 52). “Imagine reading a book and all over the margins were: ’Close the book here.’ ’Skip to page 40.’ ’Check out another page now!’ Start bombarding your reader with ways out and there’s not a lot to encourage the reader to stick around.”
Reading on the Net is a different—and sometimes difficult—experience. Too many bright blue, underlined words linking to other pages are as distracting as screens full one-sentence paragraphs. Once again design plays a key role. The New York TImes’ Web site, for example, avoids overwhelming its reader by placing relevant links at the end of the story. Like many new-media journalists, the Star’s Net columnist, K.K. Campbell, feels that those links can be put to good use; after all, the Web was woven from the fibres of the academic and research communities. Since moving Toronto’s eye WEEKLY onto the Web in March ’94—making Canada’s first publication online—Campbell has written tens of thousands of words both for and about the Net. “You can have a 600-word story at the top and then under it have all kinds of information,” he says. “So the research and information is richer. It’s a lot more work, though, so I can see that journalists may not want to do it. But as an information consumer, that’s why I love. That’s why I love the Web.” And there lies the attraction of online news services. When services like PointCast bring together dozens of related articles from a wide range of sources, the user is presented with a virtual library of information from a variety of perspectives. Along with more information, relevant video and audio clips can be added to stories to fully utilize the Web’s potential. The Chicago Tribune has done this on a few occasions, most notably in the July 1996 story “Code Blue: Survival in the Sky,” which used interactive animations and the browser plug-in RealAudio to play sound clips. As bandwidth increases, allowing for high-speed access, these multimedia stories will blur the line between TV and print reporters.
Ironically, newspapers on the Web have a unique chance to return to their roots, to their community base. Discussion forums can eliminate the barrier between the readers and the newspaper in a way printed op-ed pages could never do, and free access to archived stories can transform the online newspaper into a community encyclopaedia. And this, according to Erlindson, is what the Star’s online readers want. For example, the Star’s Web site could act as a database for readers concerned about the unsafe trucks on Ontario’s highways. The user could then search for every story printed about that issue. While some papers, like the Journal, do offer this service, many contemplating this service want to change a subscription fee to use their online archives.
Campbell and other new media pundits think newspapers should provide the basic news stories free, then charge a small fee as the user reads more detailed layers of the story. This idea of “micro-billing” lets the reader access a certain level of free information, while providing a solid revenue stream for an online newspaper that offers quality content. A similar model made Netscape a multibillion-dollar company overnight—it gave away its browser on the Web, then charged for additional Net software, like Web services. “Online newspapers should do a similar sort of thing,” says Campbell, “but newspapers aren’t doing it.” Instead, they’re trying to impose a print-based economic model onto the Internet. Witness the contracts from publishing companies like Thomson demanding the rights for freelancers’ articles. Or the subscription fee charged by The Wall Street Journal’s Web site. Or the “downsizing” of Southam’s new media division: the Conrad Black-owned company fired or laid off 26 employees, leaving only 13. Like many publishers, Southam’s parent company, Hollinger, is hesitant to invest in online ventures right now. Though Marianne Godwin, the vice-president of strategy and corporate development at Hollinger, see new media as a solid business opportunity, she says, “We have to date, and rightly so, limited the amount of resources in terms of time and money invested on electronic services. Once the time is right, we are streamlined and flexible enough to take further advantage of what technology has to offer.” Waiting for high-speed access to build, in the words of Godwin, “exciting, interactive Web sites” may mean online newspapers losing their readers to pioneering new media companies who have kept up with the ever-evolving Web.
Already, newspapers in Canada are losing valuable ground in new media. American online newspapers have created engrossing sites, rich with information that attracts readers and advertizers. Other services like PointCast have established themselves as global leaders in the personalized news market with versions in the U.S., Canada Japan and, soon, Korea. And now non-traditional media companies like Microsoft and IBM have become content providers. Bill Gates’ company has dedicated $400 million a year to its editorial content, including the partnership with NBC that created MSNBC, an online news service like CNN. Michael Kinsley’s online magazine, Slate, is operated by Microsoft, as is a chain of community-based, online newspapers called Sidewalk, being launched in the first half of 1997. The software giant’s goal on the Net is to create the kind of Web sites people want to visit. “Those information technology companies are doing something,” Campbell says, whereas too many Canada’s online newspapers report to repurposed material.
Solomon is more forgiving, saying that one of the problems is that technology evolves faster than the media can keep up with it. But he thinks they will catch up. “It’s pretty early to say,” he says, “that what we see in the next five, 10 years, will be what we see in the next 20.” Canadian online newspapers can’t wait that long. They must change with the Net, where new developments appear faster than Starbucks coffee shops. Newspapers have a responsibility to their community, and online, that’s the ever-evolving Net-culture. The best way for a newspaper to become a hitless site is to remain static, expecting readers will go out of their way to visit it. Most won’t. They’ll check lists of the top 10 news sources on the Net and go to those non-Canadian sites. Or they’ll wait for the news to come to them.
Successful online news services supply their readers with content, as opposed to expecting users to “pull” it from them. Many new media companies are moving toward this idea of “pushing.” And it’s a trend that will continue as this new medium evolves into the next century. “As we watch where the Web is going,” says Andrew Leonard, a former Web culture critic for HotWired, “it seems to be catering to the ’slippers’ [users of pushing] and away from the ’zoomers’ [Web users like pulling content].” And it is one that several American papers have already tapped into: witness Web agents like Hunter, and the San Jose Mercury Times’s NewsHound service, which was launched in 1994. Unless Canadian papers quickly respond to these U.S. services—as GLOBEnet has with PointCast—they may find their market share already taken by the likes of Microsoft and the large American dailies. It’s like the early fifties, when Canadian TV stations finally got on the air, only to find their viewers already hooked on U.S. shows. In fact, the poll placing the Star as the Web’s 25th best news source listed CNN Interactive as number one.
The cable news giant’s Web site combines “pushing” with an early example of what Net-watchers call “The Convergence.” CNN Interactive offers soundbites and streamed—or compressed—video, along with written articles. Once high-speed transmission devices like cable modems are common, “The Convergence” will allow the Net to carry live, broadcast-quality video and audio along with the traditional hypertext-based Web pages. It’s part of what lies behind media merges like that of Rogers and Maclean Hunter, and Time-Warner’s purchase of CNN. When “The Convergence” finally happens, the Web could explode beyond the hype and into the everyday world of the VCR. And one small click was taken this past Christmas when the first generation of NCs—cheap network computers, like WebTV, that allow Net access through a television—were released. As millions of new users descend upon the Net, Canadian newspapers must revolutionize themselves online, or watch the risk-taking new media companies attract their readers and their advertizers.
Besides, it’s too late to rehire those paperboys.