Journalists on the Internet: Report From London

By: Steve Outing

I’m taking a couple more days off from writing this column. In my absence, I’m reprinting below the first of two summaries of the NetMedia 96 conference held at City University in London last week. This conference, organized by Milverton Wallace, is dedicated to how journalists are using the Internet. This report was written by Darren Ingram, and is republished here with permission.

Report of day 1 of NetMedia 96

LONDON, UK — Delegates from around the world gathered together last week for one of the largest conferences dedicated to the use of the Internet within the media. During the first day of the NetMedia 96 conference in London, delegates heard how the Internet and electronic communications have made an impact on the publishing world at large.

Launching the event, Rod Allen, director of the journalism department at City University, said that there is a transition in the ‘use’ of media with television viewing and book reading being affected through the use of computers for games playing, research and latterly Internet use. The electronic media and interactive publishing sectors will play an ever-greater part of the user’s time as developments and integration take place.

Richard Withey, director of new media at News International, hit straight out about the so-called effectiveness of the Internet’s WWW by saying that it does not illustrate anything except the “…ability of otherwise savvy companies to burn money.”

Established media companies are struggling to embrace the new media, changing their internal procedures and operations in order to keep up with the ‘new media kids’ who are suddenly empowered to become global publishers without the expense of traditional publishing infrastructure. The transition in media technology is moving faster than any other previous transition — for example, from printing to radio and from radio to television.

Seasoned Net-watchers are already having trouble in keeping up with the latest developments on a weekly basis! Communications through e-mail, high-speed networking and multimedia will help form the next generation of media and the signs show that the established media companies will move to keep up with these changes. The changes in business will continue to take effect and substantially change companies of all shapes and sizes, with the technology often acting as a leveler.

Withey argued that online media is the great leveler and that so far media companies have largely survived and indeed flourished through product differentiation. “It is difficult to differentiate products in the online environment — or at least it is so far,” said Withey. “In watching how media companies have reacted to the threat and opportunity of digital over a number of years, the analogy that springs to mind is that of the very first football match played by the junior school boys. Commonly, they will gather together in a herd and consistently run after the ball wherever it is, without any thoughts of strategic position, tactics or waiting for the ball to come to them.”

The future, according to Withey, is many-fold. Firstly after a period of heavy consolidation, global positioning, merger and demerger between players, there will be a stable environment in which to publish by this time. Within the marketplace there will a range of smaller media players filling every available niche and exploiting every last vestige of new technology. Technology will permit teleworking amongst many staff where operational needs dictate and a cluster of virtual communities will be formed to help bridge the gap between actuality and virtuality … although Withey is confident that the English pub will not go virtual … remaining an important cornerstone — especially for journalists.

Technology drives media evolution

Judy Gibbons, director of Microsoft Corp’s Microsoft Network, spoke about the way to to re-figure the mass media in cyberspace. Gibbons acknowledged that this growth has been made through the existence of the PC and the Internet and that technological advances have also allowed new media to be used through better screen displays, storage, audio/video playback and more advanced software.

However, network bandwidth is going to be the issue for the future and companies such as Microsoft say they are generating their next-generation ‘presentations’ using 14.4kbit/s data transmission — and this is likely to be the bandwidth limit until higher-speed services become affordable and practical for the user at large in the future.

New developments on the Internet are providing greater capabilities to bring similar persons together on a global basis. Gibbons said that the Internet’s growth will also be fueled by the emergence of new notebook PCs — primarily intelligent communications devices — which can send e-mail, fax and even voicemail messages. In time even a ‘Purse PC’ could be introduced.

In terms of the medium, Gibbons says that we are still in an early experimentation phase with a long way to go. As time is becoming an ever-precious commodity the challenge for online content vendors is to make sure they can attract and keep the passing viewer. Gibbons does not believe that this new media will affect existing media and, in fact, views it as complementary offering. “New media represents new challenges and skills — you need people who are good writers, graphic designers, software developers, producers … plus some really good marketing and the real challenge is then creative use.” With new technology, publishing companies inevitably need a new newsroom.

Jan Boucek of Dow-Jones has recently been charged with doing just that for the global media and wire service giant. Dow Jones is a company that is already straddling all forms of media, attempting to maximize editorial resources on a global basis and produce timely, informative products in a variety of formats. Today’s journalists need changing skills and the newsroom needs to keep track of this.

According to Boucek, when designing the newsroom for today, build it for two or three years ahead of your real requirements — or even more. In terms of communications, networking and computing facilities, try to double the capacity of what you need, making it easier to upgrade and expand without causing problems for the existing operation.

A number of interesting points were raised during Boucek’s presentation which sometimes defy existing ‘operating rules and trends.’

* Attempt to locate the business units and divisions within the same premises to provide cohesion and tight integration, as you don’t know when they will be next working together.

* Make sure there is space to expand each operation without putting a strain on the facilities and the key resources — namely the staff.

* Standardize on the equipment being used and make sure that they have the same software, operating configurations and suchlike, otherwise you will probably spend more time reconfiguring and fine-tuning separate systems.

* Make sure that the system is backed up with technical support to reduce downtime to a minimum. … And despite what the accountants will say, make sure that the machines are technically up-to-date or it will be very hard and expensive to play catch-up later.

Train your staff

Barbara Hansen, database editor for USA Today, said that it was important to provide in-house training for reporters before letting them loose online … and they will reap the benefits from coaching through their subsequent professional works.

Hansen advises that it is best to place the Internet-connected machines in the center of the newsroom on standalone units and encourage their use within the work cycle. Determine whether training will be mandatory — USA Today doesn’t do this — and encourage people to advantage from this. Training is to become more important with many organizations starting to cut away their non-Net news distribution or place a significant delay between electronic and non-electronic information availability.

Reader habits through online services are different too, noted Steve Yelvington, managing editor of Star Tribune Online in the USA. For over a year the Trib has been publishing a free-to-use online and news service on the WWW — a replacement for a former proprietary service. Immediacy, utility and interactivity are the three keywords for electronic publishing success, according to Yelvington. “The online environment is not an electronic printing press you crank up once a day,” said Yelvington. “It is like television for its immediacy. Busy news sites will often keep track with the TV and radio services (with the update of news). We’ve had to gear our operations for the quick turnaround of breaking news. We often have a different picture from the news that appears in the newspaper. Like news-radio, we place a higher value on the fresh breaking news and we update our service throughout the day to reflect this.”

Yelvington noted that when the Trib has been caught napping and been late with the news, its users have chided it. “They expect action. We don’t have to be as shallow as radio and television,” said Yelvington. Interestingly, the primary attraction for visitors to the Trib site is the classified advertising section — and then specifically employment! User levels are far ahead of news, sport and even the entertainment features.

This is not gloom for the newshounds, however, as research has also found that hard news works while soft news doesn’t, that local news works very well while national news doesn’t, although national news can work if the Trib is timely with its carriage due to a loyal user base who check out the site first. Yelvington says that the future for online news will not be an instant profit opportunity for years to come, although it is slowly beginning to make its mark. With a greater body of user mass things can only get better … and maybe the competition will get weeded out.

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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