Back to the Future: How Industry Predictions Fared in '96

By: Steve Outing

At the beginning of this year I was foolhardy enough to publish in this column some predictions for the year 1996. It's only fair that I look back at those educated guesses at what the top trends in the interactive publishing industry would be. So, with humility, here goes:

~ Newspapers will continue to introduce online services at a furious pace. The nearly 700 newspapers operating online worldwide as 1996 begins will increase to about 2,000 by the end of 1996, as newspaper chains put all of their properties online simultaneously -- rather than limit online ventures to a handful of papers operating on an experimental basis.
The Online Newspapers Database & Directory of Editor & Publisher Interactive lists more than 1,600 online newspapers worldwide but this number may be low. Some newspaper Web sites are so new they haven?t made the list yet; some listed individual sites actually contain multiple newspapers; and foreign-language interactive newspapers are more difficult to track in a timely manner. Nearly all large daily papers in the U.S. and Europe have Web sites, and a wave of medium sized papers came online this year, particularly in the U.S. Chains like Knight-Ridder and Southam (Canada) have given all of their papers Web sites, and more and more small papers established online presences in 1996.

~ Classified advertising online will advance to a new level, with new technology solutions introduced that will simplify getting classified liners from print into HTML; automatically convert display ads for online display; provide automated "agent" features that allow consumers to set up agent searches to have ads meeting specified criteria emailed to them; and offer more intelligent search engines. Also, NCN -- and others -- will establish networks allowing consumers to search distant newspapers' classified sections (for a fee) from within a local newspaper's online service.
Electronic classifieds technology advanced significantly in 1996, with a number of options becoming available to newspapers. Numerous turnkey electronic classifieds systems are now on the market, and national classifieds networks offer access to advanced systems in exchange for running a paper's ads on the network (with a split of ad revenues). This sector of the interactive publishing industry heated up so much during 1996 -- with many non-newspaper competitors entering the classifieds space and threatening newspapers' long-held choke hold on the business -- that I wrote the Online Classifieds Report for Editor & Publisher, which is a "survival guide" for publishers worried about how technology will impact their classifieds franchise. As for NCN, it has yet to develop any sort of classifieds strategy.

~ The European newspaper industry will catch up with the pace of American newspapers in launching new online ventures, and European initiatives will be announced for the World Wide Web that bring together content from multiple newspapers.
Europe remains behind the U.S. in pace of newspaper interactive publishing, but as I learned at this year's Interactive Publishing conference in Zurich, publishers are committed to exploring cyberspace opportunities and there is considerably more activity than one year ago. For instance, 500 or so regional newspapers in the UK have banded together to form AdHunter, a consolidated press classifieds Web service to be launched in 1997.

~ A growing number of newspapers will report making money from their online ventures -- particularly those such as Mercury Center that have been operating for at least a couple years and have learned many lessons during their time online.
Profit of any significant nature continues to be in the distance for newspaper Web sites. This year, newspaper sites relied on banner advertising as their top revenue generator, followed by Internet access revenues. Classifieds show promise, but weren't a significant money-maker this year; next year should be different.

~ More newspapers will experiment with charging for some or most of their content. Knight-Ridder Newspapers will lead the way with its model based on Mercury Center, which charges a modest subscription fee to see full content of the site but still includes much free content to keep non-paying computer users visiting the site.
Knight-Ridder continues to play around with its Web site subscription strategy. While some of its Web sites are free access, others "draw the curtain" at certain premium content. (All require subscription fees for archive access.) At the San Jose Mercury News site, there's much to be had for free before a subscription is required; visitors who don't choose to pay don't go away feeling like they got nothing of value. The San Antonio Express-News continues to charge a subscription fee for access to anything beyond its Web site's home page, bucking the industry trend. (I'll admit to being surprised that they've stuck with such a strategy.)

~ More newspapers will create online equivalents of the Comics Page, such as those by Mercury Center Web and Philadelphia Online. Also, more online interactive crossword puzzle applications will appear.
Online comics are more common now because the syndicates are setting up mechanisms to allow newspapers to publish them on the Web. Universal Press Syndicate this year introduced uClick, which publishes comics online while restricting access to those Internet users who come in through a newspaper's Web site. Crosswords? They're not a notable online newspaper item, but they are more common today than a year ago.

~ Nearly all newspapers currently operating on the major online services will launch a Web service, if they haven't already. While a handful will abandon their major online service alliances entirely in favor of the Web, most will choose to operate dual services, citing the different audiences reached by each service.
The Web has won, clearly. Newspaper presences on the commercial proprietary online services are few today, whereas nearly every newspaper that is online is on the Web.

~ The Atlanta Constitution-Journal will make a big splash -- and pull in significant advertising dollars -- with its free Summer Olympics Web site. (The Olympics take place in Atlanta this year.)
The Olympics indeed was a major event for news Web sites. It and other major news events (such as the crash of TWA Flight 800 and the '96 presidential election) demonstrated how attractive is the Web medium to a large audience when major news breaks.

~ More newspapers will become Internet service providers (ISPs) -- continuing the trend seen in 1995 -- but nearly all of them will do so by partnering with outside Internet providers. Very few will opt to become ISPs independently, and those that do over time will drop out of that business as the demands of providing customer service and competition from new and larger ISPs overwhelm them.
Newspaper company-owned ISP InfiNet continued to co-market access services with newspapers, sharing fees with the local publishers. But few newspaper companies look at the ISP business as lucrative, now that everyone from America Online to Microsoft to MCI to AT&T to the regional telephone companies are getting into the business.

~ Well known journalists will be named to head up high-profile online news ventures, as cyberspace journalism gains more credibility within the profession (and public) during 1996. (ElectionLine, for example, will be directed by Evans Witt, a long-time political editor and writer for The Associated Press.)
There's no doubt that online news ventures have more respect within the larger media community than a year ago. A frequent magazine cover boy was Michael Kinsley, who joined Microsoft to edit its online magazine, Slate. More prominent journalists are moving to cyberspace, and that trend will continue.

~ Media hype about the Internet will turn into a backlash, with reporters frequently writing of complaints about the slowness of accessing Internet sites and expressing unfounded fears that the Internet is about to crash under the weight of its own popularity.
I think I got this one right. But the Internet has not collapsed yet, though speed and lack of bandwidth remains the most troubling roadblock to the Internet reaching mass market status.

In all, this little exercise just shows that I'm no genius when it comes to predicting the future. With an industry as fast-moving as the Internet, anyone who professes the ability to accurately predict where it will go is fooling themselves, as well as the public.


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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

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


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