Happy New Year! (Will It Be for Online News?)

By: Steve Outing

Yes, it’s that time again, when columnists throughout the lands gaze at the year ahead — typically with the accuracy of television meteorologists. (In other words, we scribes often miss the mark.)

While tempted to highlight my own weaknesses at predicting the future, I decided rather to call on other qualified observers of the online news industry to peer into the months ahead.

A bright year ahead …

Mike Emmett, managing editor of Total Sports and a true online news industry pioneer (dating back to his involvement in the early days of the (Raleigh, North Carolina) News & Observer’s online efforts, which became Nando.net), foresees “an unparalleled year for opportunities in online journalism. Salaries are going to go through the roof for those with both online and hard news/sports experience. We also will see an expansion of the online world, not a contraction or shakeout as my colleagues predict. I do think a correction is coming, but not for a few more years. This means more opportunities and more jobs for us all. The Web was born with quantity in mind. Next move is quality. Editing, great headlines will become more important. Look at CNN/SI if you think I am wrong. … They are actually building a newsroom with writers included.”

(Now, Emmett also predicts that Bill Gates will get divorced, marry Hillary Clinton, support her for president, then become the first First Husband of the United States. Hmmm.)

… A dim year ahead

To provide some balance, I’ll let Howard Owens have his say. Owens is president of the RV Club, a “virtual community” for recreational vehicle enthusiasts, and an online newspaper pioneer. He says: “Several news organizations, beginning in the third quarter, will pull the plug on their online news efforts. They will realize they are not making money and they never will make money. They won’t see the effort as being worthwhile. Many will scale back operations to a few select areas where they might at least be able to break even or at least remain with a foot in the water until, maybe, they could make money, or just for the status of having a Web site. A few select national news sites, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CNN, will continue to grow and make money.

“A couple of news organizations will wake up to a new way of thinking,” Owens says. “They will restructure their whole effort, drop the pretense of being an online news source and get busy building communities that integrate content, interaction and marketing. This will really piss off the old-line journalists who will see this brand of online publishing as unethical and a threat to traditional newsgathering. They won’t understand that it can be done ethically and that readers really don’t care about their traditions.”

Mixed success?

Dave Williams of the IN Jersey Web site operation owned by Gannett, sees it this way: “My prediction: Success of some online operations will doom others to failure, as managers and executives look at the success stories and demand to know why their online operation isn’t profitable. We may be reaching the end of the ‘burn rate’ as we know it.”

Economics threaten online ethics

Jack Downs, who is the U.S. newspapers “guide” for The Mining Company Web site, predicts that overall, 1998 will be a tough year for online newspapers. “Call it ‘The year we get real, or get off,’ or ‘The year we make money or make tracks,'” he says. “In my murky crystal ball I see layoffs, cutbacks, and more small- or medium-size papers going offline … at least temporarily. The irony, of course, is that more online newspapers are making more money — or at least breaking even — more quickly than any reasonable observer of a new medium would predict. But hey, who ever said newspaper shareholders and management qualified as reasonable observers. I’m not worried about layoffs, cutbacks and the occasional pulled-plug. I am concerned that the economic forces at work have the power to prostitute online journalism ethics.”

Continued slow (modem) going

Jakob Nielsen, distinguished engineer for Sun Microsystems and one of the foremost Web usability experts, says that “slow download speeds will continue to dominate the Web in 1998. In fact, I predict that they will continue to dominate in 1999 and 2000 as well.” He urges Web publishers to think in terms of “minimalist” Web design, in order to optimize the user experience and provide decent response times.

Says Nielsen, “I actually believe that some of the high-bandwidth initiatives will start paying off in 1998 and allow some users to upgrade to faster connections. It’s just that they will be dwarfed by the number of new users who will come online through analog modems. When designing a service, you have to aim for the majority of your user base, and the majority will continue to have slow access. … You will notice, by the way, that some experienced newspapers are redesigning their Web sites to focus more on download speed. The San Jose Mercury News just released a new design that was mainly aimed at increased speed. So this is not just theory; it’s hard-won experience (except that it didn’t need to be hard-won if people would simply listen to our usability study findings before they ship their initial design).”

Back to basics

Eric Peterson of Calaveras Publishing Co. in California, says: “I don’t know if it’ll happen right away, but sooner or later online newspapers will realize that most people don’t have computers which will handle flash and dash, and will get back to basics — a well-written story with a photo or two. At the same time, they’ll begin to realize that if they’re current, if they’re responsive to the needs of their readers and advertisers, and if they cross-promote their product, that they can deliver the news to readers and make a buck in the process.”

Breaking down walls

Here’s a prediction from the halls of academia, authored by John Russial, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon: “I’d bet ’98 will bring greater integration between online operations and traditional newsrooms. I see two possible motivations: a drive to keep employment costs down and a desire to make better use of the expertise available in various newsroom departments. I also think we’ll see online newspapers become more aggressive in breaking down traditional walls between news, advertising, marketing and promotion. And, I think we’ll probably see more criticism of that sort of behavior as well.”

More like a mass market

Chris Feola, director of the Media Center at the American Press Institute, offers two predictions: “First, the number of wired households (in the U.S.) will start to close in on the magic 50 percent mark in late ’98, though I don’t think it will actually be broken next year. Online news will start to act more like a mass market as it becomes one. Second, I think we’re going to start seeing a shakeout. There have been a lot of idealistic blue-sky ventures, and I think ’98 will see some of them awakening to reality. Exactly how many snobby arts and politics ‘zines do we need, anyway?”

Goodbye, Slate

Among the “fearless” predictions sent in by Paul Jones, a new media academic at the University of North Carolina, was this: “(The Internet) continues to be a discussion forum — mostly serving to keep families and small interest groups in touch — despite piles of (money) spent on trying to push the Net to net-ro-tainment. Survivors: financial sites, hard news (breaking mostly), and low-cost brochure sites. First casualty: Slate, after a stunning crash as they once more try to move to charging to view.”

It’s the transactions, stupid!

Christopher Miller, publisher of MaineStreet Communications (Maine, USA), predicts: “More personalized, customized, or tailored delivery (all the same) and more ‘integrated’ news and marketing packages associated with that — all of which is the start of a shift toward understanding and implementing the Web as a transaction medium instead of a broadcast medium.”

Beyond shovelware

Jon Bonne, senior editor for Court TV Online, believes the theme for 1998 will be integration: “Moving beyond repurposed content toward a coherent method for telling news stories online using the various media options available together in concise, easy-to-understand packages. People have been talking up a storm about this all this year, so next year it’ll likely become a focus for their efforts.” Bonne thinks that the branding trend will continue: “Pre-existing media brands will increase their growth online, along with the few new brands that have really established themselves (Yahoo!, CNET, Mr. Showbiz). But the Web-only for-profit publishing industry will face a large retrenchment, as the commercial side of the industry continues to dominate and ad revenues — tied to a recognizable brand name — really become crucial to sustaining a publishing venture. This will be boosted by items like WebTV and other crossover marketing devices, including cross-media promotion — which will really become a lynchpin for success.”

Microsoft meets its match?

Bill Densmore, president of Newshare Corp., foresees a bad year for Microsoft (which might be good for newspapers). He predicts: “Microsoft will realize that even it is not powerful enough to simultaneously take on the Justice Department, the banking, newspaper, travel, real estate and automobile industries and will narrow its focus to one or two of these areas, choosing to partner or acquire in the others. I predict Microsoft will outright purchase one or more name-brand publishing nameplates and will take subtle steps toward separating its operating-system monopoly from its other businesses to ease antitrust pressure.”

Densmore also believes that “the growth of Internet access via television will show newspaper publishers that the Internet will soon achieve ‘mass market’ status. This will force publishers to convert their Web publishing efforts from competitor-blocking, money-losing marketing operations to pay-as-you-go as evidence of obvious cannibalization of print products starts to mount. Look for new forms of advertising and sponsorship and more emphasis on cross-product subscription and transaction facilities.”

Hot: Instant messaging, multimedia e-mail

Martha Stone, a writer who covers the Internet business, expects “instant messaging” to take off in 1998, where users have a list of friends, family and business clients on a desktop window and users are alerted when their buddies arrive and exit the Internet. Further, she says: “We’ll see more multimedia e-mail delivery, now that the new browsers: IE 4.0, Netcaster and Eudora Pro, have the capability. New Century Network, for instance, has plans to push Web pages to e-mail by February.

“Regulation will be a big issue again. We’ll see (the U.S.) Congress, the (Clinton) Administration and especially the courts build the regulatory landscape. We’ll see database legislation bandied about in Congress, and other copyright issues discussed and tried in various courts. (And) we’ll see an incredible amount of business done on the Web, in the billions of dollars. E-commerce will grow exponentially,” Stone says.

More opportunities for the ‘little guy’

J.R. Wilson, publisher of Pollux Publishing, a “webzine” publisher, predicts: “Finally, after many years of waiting and broken promises, 1998 will be the year in which a low-cost but highly effective and non-intrusive form of copyright protection is made available for Web pages. The result will be an explosion of private publishing worldwide that will stun the traditional publishing industry and lay the groundwork for journalists, book and short story authors, poets, songwriters, artists and more to take their work directly to the public — individually or as part of a freelance group. The traditional publishing houses, though surprised at first, will be publicly amused and highly dismissive of this — until the next Tom Clancy, weary of rejection letters, self-publishes on the Web to popular acclaim and serious profit.”

Zoning, Internet style

Chris Johnson of Student.Net Publishing chimed in with this prediction: “I think some newspaper out there … is going to realize that online readers would love to zone their own editions of newspaper Web sites. Editors will use the same technology they’ve used to build Zip (postal) code-based city guides over the past year to offer readers the opportunity to read news from their neighborhood, from their township, from within 20 minutes of their house and their place of work. There are lots of possibilities there, and the only additional work involved is matching a story with a Zip code.”

EventOfTheDay.com

Finally, Carl Natale of Central Maine Newspapers had this prediction: “1998 will be marked by domain names created on the fly for breaking news. When the next airliner goes down, the local news organization will spring up a www.flightxxx.com site to house its coverage, survivors’ tales chat, flight box recordings in RealAudio, Shockwave crash simulations, FAA links and archive of past crash stories.

“Newspapers will not be judged by how fast they break a story but how fast the story and extra material goes on the Web. As news happens, Americans will be just as quick to turn on their computers as they are to turn on the TV and tune into CNN.”

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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