An Alternative Newspaper View of Cyberspace

By: Steve Outing

Independent-minded U.S. alternative newspapers are meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, this week, for the annual conference of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), and interactive technology is on a lot of attendees' minds. I've been attending this event along with about 400 people from among AAN's more than 100 member newspapers. (The conference runs through Saturday).

Online publishing and the Internet seem to be the hottest topic. A publisher of one of the larger alternative papers told me that although the industry faces a number of challenges, such as the high price of newsprint and its effect on AAN members, "all anyone wants to talk about here" is the Internet.

It's more than talk, of course. Alternative newspapers are embracing electronic publishing, as you'd expect for a media segment that has a relatively young audience. About half of the more than 100 North American alternative newsweeklies currently operate online, according to AAN executive director Richard Karpel; many more are likely to go online this year.

To see what this industry is doing online, visit AAN's brand new Web site at The site, designed by Andrew Sullivan of eLine Productions in San Francisco (who also did the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Web site), includes coverage of the Salt Lake City convention; check it out if you want more than this brief report. (Due to another commitment, I have to miss Friday's sessions).

Before giving my own presentation yesterday, I had the opportunity to listen in on a couple of the interactive publishing sessions:

Web design tips

In a session on Web design for alternative papers, Braxton Jarratt, director of electronic publishing for New Times Inc. (the largest U.S. alternative newspaper company, with six titles), reinforced the need to design pages that are quick to appear on a user's computer screen. The home page of his site for the Phoenix New Times is not allowed to be larger than 50K and includes no more than 10 separate images, he says. Inside pages have stricter guidelines: a maximum of 30K for all text and images, and no more than six separate images.

Jarratt says that until bandwidth is abundant and plentiful to the majority of Internet users -- not likely for some time -- bandwidth conservation must be at the forefront of Web design. An excellent technique that allows graphics-rich pages without slowing down the user experience is to reuse graphics on "inside" pages, so that images cached by the user's browser can be re-displayed and new ones don't have to be pulled over the Web.

"It's all about digital bandwidth," says Andrew Sullivan, who also was on the panel. He suggests taking extra care with graphics and photos, reducing them to the smallest possible size without degrading the image. Using Photoshop, Sullivan says he reduces the bit depth for images down to the point where the image breaks apart, then backs off one step and uses that bit depth to resample the image. This information can then be used as a setting when batch-processing many images.

Jarratt says he's found that graphics and photos look best viewed in Netscape when the pallete in Photoshop is set to 216 colors instead of the standard 256, so he changes the default palette. This has the added benefit of reducing image file size slightly as well. He also checks many of his pages on a slower PC with a 14.4 modem to see what the viewing experience is like for the typical PC user.

Both panelists say they like to work with raw HTML to code pages, although Jarratt says his staff finds an application called WWW Weaver to be useful in coding pages. Sullivan says at his shop everyone uses BBEdit as a text editor. "I'm a big fan of manual tagging," he says, because it offers the greatest control. Both Web designers have found that HTML editing applications are inadequate, primarily because they become outdated quickly as new HTML features are added by the Web browser companies. Jarratt says he's bullish on products like Netscape Navigator Gold, because it is a Web page authoring tool produced by the same company that's driving the HTML standards; it's more likely to keep pace with evolving HTML standards while other software companies will lag behind.

Use Java, Shockwave, et al with care

Since alternative newspapers tend to take more chances than traditional papers, you might expect them to lead the way in playing with the latest Web "toys": Java applets, Shockwave, etc. Actually, among this group of alternative newspaper Webmasters, there was much skepticism about loading up their sites with glitzy animated Java applets that require a high level of sophistication among Web users.

Richard Bottoms, Internet designer of the NUVO newsweekly in Indianapolis, Indiana, says he's been experimenting by putting some Java animated graphics on his site. However, Java is still troublesome in that running the applets can cause some users' slower PCs to crash. You've got to offer an alternative in straight HTML if you're going to put up something in Java, he says.

Jarratt of New Times says he doesn't use Java at all on his sites because it's still too buggy. For animated graphics, he prefers using animated GIFs, which don't require programming, aren't browser dependent and use modest client machine resources. He's extremely skeptical of new, glitzy Web technologies like Shockwave because he doesn't believe the value of what they can create balances the effort to create them. Besides, some of these technologies are likely to fade quickly; it only makes sense to put in the effort to using some glitzy new Web technology if you're sure that it will become a standard. (RealAudio probably fits into this category. The jury is still out on Java.)

Sullivan also expressed distrust of Java applets, due to the potential of misuse. "I don't like the concept of executables," he says, because they represent the possibility of major security holes. Some hackers will try to create Java applets that crash users' PCs "for sport," he fears.

Table of contents online -- Not

Sullivan urged alternative newspaper Web designers to "look beyond the table of contents paradigm." A contents page as the opening screen of a newspaper Web site doesn't make sense, because the content of your newspapers recreated online is not what computer users want. He advocates having your Web site focus on five or six of readers' most popular topics and create Web sites within your Web site to accommodate the communities of people who will inhabit and use these areas -- putting particular emphasis on make the areas truly interactive and not just "shovelware."

One of those topics, for alternative papers, should be sex, he says. On the Bay Guardian site the most popular online feature is the Nude Beaches area, which has been enhanced as a result. Watch your user logs and "let that information speak to you," Sullivan suggests.

More on Monday

Please check back here on Monday, when I'll have one more report from the AAN convention.

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