Chicago Tribune Takes High Road on the Web

By: Steve Outing

A few weeks ago the Chicago Tribune launched the full-fledged version of its new Web site. What makes the site different from many other newspaper-inspired Web services is its commitment to the high end of the market -- meaning, it's clearly geared toward more sophisticated Internet users who have the capability and knowledge to view multimedia content using Web browser helper applications and plug-ins like Java, Shockwave and RealAudio.

The Tribune, which has operated a service called Chicago Online on America Online for several years, made a conscious decision to appeal to the high end. An online beginner might use Chicago Online, while a more sophisticated Internet user armed with a Java-enabled version of the Netscape or Explorer browsers might favor the Tribune on the Web, where she'll be able to hear real-time audio clips, view animated graphics and use other interactive applications available only to those online users who take the trouble to make sure they have the latest software (which in some cases may still be in beta testing).

Internet editor Leah Gentry, who recently moved to Chicago from the Orange County Register in California, says the Tribune site is an example of the "second wave of online journalism" -- where larger papers like the Tribune, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post are just now appearing on the Web with deep-content, feature-laden sites. These papers learned the ropes with the commercial online services -- in some cases losing money in a business model that didn't work -- but through that experience discovered what it takes to create a compelling Internet service. Their experience in building content for the online services has been ported to (and improved upon substantially for) the Web.

(Note that while the Los Angeles Times abandoned its relationship with Prodigy, and AT&T Interchange, the platform for the Washington Post's Digital Ink, was pulled out from under the Post, the Tribune's Chicago Online service on America Online continues.)

Because the Tribune still has its AOL service, it can afford to experiment. Gentry says that the new Web site was designed for computer users with at least a 14400 baud modem, using a recently minted Web browser application like Netscape or Microsoft Explorer. To take full advantage of the site, the visitor will need to configure his browser with plug-ins or helper applications (available on the Tribune site) that allow him to hear RealAudio clips and view Java- and Shockwave-created multimedia features on the site.

Gentry says each day the Web site staff (which operates separately from the Chicago Online staff) selects two to six stories for special treatment and "really good Web depth." This has included:

* RealAudio clips. The Tribune site's coverage of the Unabomber's capture included lots of audio clips, such as live reports from correspondents in the field.
* Downloadable videos. (Gentry's staff is eager to include streaming video, but is still unhappy with the performance of existing applications.)
* Java and Schockwave multimedia creations, such as a 1040 U.S. tax form that could be filled in online; an interactive grid for the Illinois state high school basketball contest, where Web viewers could predict the winners; a Michael Jordan animated graphic which demonstrates how high the basketball superstar can jump; animated graphics to illustrate the story of the comet that passed by Earth in recent weeks; and a whimsical "build your own candidate" Shockwave feature that allowed viewers to mix and match physical features of pictures of political candidates.

The site also has a nicely done television guide (the work of Tribune Media Services, which syndicates the service to other Web publishers) that requires an advanced browser to appreciate.

Gentry says the statistics for the Tribune Web site show that about three-quarters of visitors come in using the Netscape browser, with about 5% using Microsoft Explorer and 5% using Mosaic, and the rest split among other browsers. These statistics are for people visiting the Tribune's home page only, which would preclude the possibility that non-Netscape users are avoiding the site because it doesn't look good on their browsers and they leave after seeing the "front page," she says. This would appear to support the notion that the majority of visitors to the site are capable of viewing those advanced features requiring special software. In fact, Gentry says, the audio and animated graphics features of the site have been among the most-visited components of the Tribune site.

Significant traffic might be expected to come from America Online, which currently has its own Web browser that is generally acknowledged to be inferior to the others. The Tribune's solution to that is an "AOL users click here" link on the Web site, which leads to instructions on how to load Winsock and configure their PCs to use Netscape as a browser (from within AOL) rather than the AOL browser. If that's too daunting, there's still the Chicago Online area on AOL, which is a technical no-brainer.

Gentry says the Tribune staff does test the site to see how it will look on numerous browsers and tweaks pages to solve problems. All pages use ALT tags within their HTML coding as well, to support those visitors who come in using a text-only browser or with graphics-loading turned off on their graphical browser.

Despite the Tribune Web site's emphasis on "pushing the envelope" and experimenting with the latest technologies, Gentry emphasizes to her staff -- who possess a mixture of journalism and technical backgrounds -- that content must win out over technical glitz. Her mantra is "No technology out of context."

Operating on the edge can be difficult, however, and experimental technologies and beta software don't always work as planned. In a recent issue of Interactive Publishing Alert, the newsletter criticized the Tribune's site. IPA reviewer Melinda Gipson wrote, "While the Web edition lays out a sumptuous feast of news, sports, technology information, classifieds, and interactive TV listings, the site's delivery mechanisms are so buggy as to be nearly unworkable."

Such is the danger of living on the bleeding edge.

Contact: Leah Gentry,
Melinda Gipson,

Movin' On

Patti Breckenridge has been named assistant managing editor for electronic publishing at the Tampa Tribune in Florida. She replaces Bill Prewitt, who is leaving to become systems editor of the Houston Chronicle. The job includes oversight of the newspaper's Tampa Bay Online service on Prodigy and its accompanying World Wide Web site, as well as the Tribune's research and archive section. Breckenridge previously was assistant managing editor for presentation.

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