Looking Back on 1997 Forecast: Ugh!

By: Steve Outing

Since it's the end of the year, it's only fair that I take responsibility for predictions that I wrote at the beginning of the year. In what is somewhat of a tradition among columnists, I did in January 1997 write a "look at the year ahead" column, in which I compiled a "wish list" of things I would like to see occur in the interactive media world during the year.

One reader, Gordon Borrell, vice president of new media for Landmark Publishing Group of Norfolk, Virginia, happened to look back at that old column recently. He commented, "Though the year's not over yet, I think we can offer a fair assessment that the Internet fairy, for the most part, sprinkled about 2 bytes of fairy dust on you and about 10 megabytes of digital dung."

In the spirit of not taking my prognostications too seriously, here's a look at how my wishes for the industry fared this year.

Faster access; more bandwidth

If you're in one of the few areas of the U.S. (and even fewer in other parts of the world) that have ultra-fast cable modem service available, count yourself very lucky. I thought back then that we would be closer to having fast access in most major markets. The cable industry has been rolling out cable modem access at a glacial pace, sadly. Even slower are telephone company efforts at making ADSL service available to consumers. (ADSL is the telcos' answer to cable modems, offering fast access over twisted-pair phone wires and, like cable modem service, an always-on connection to the Internet.) Until the bandwidth shortage is eased, interactive publishing ventures will continue to be handicapped.

Balance between content and technology

I wished that during 1997, the interactive news publishing industry would find a better balance between technology and content. In the industry's early days, many of its practitioners focused on the technology, with quality of content taking a back seat. I think we've passed that point. We can point to numerous Internet content initiatives that are substantial. Journalists -- not just technologists -- are now at home on the Internet. We've struck a balance between adopting new technology and practicing solid journalism, with technology and seasoned journalists working side by side.

All journalists should have e-mail addresses

Here's another wish that will have to wait for the coming year to come true. News organizations continue to give more working journalists e-mail accounts and Web access. But it's far from universal, and some newspapers, in particular, can't hand out Internet access and e-mail accounts because they remain wedded to proprietary editing systems. Those that have forged ahead include the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, which not only gives all staffers e-mail accounts and Internet access, but also puts e-mail addresses on all print bylined stories. The results of this experiment have proven to be positive; writers have not been overwhelmed by e-mail from the public, and most report satisfaction at receiving more reader feedback and story ideas.

More Internet-based reporting

I think this wish largely came true. Many traditional news organizations now are producing more online-only journalism. And, like the Dallas Morning News when it broke a major Oklahoma City bombing trial story on its Web site rather than in print, more news organizations are publishing first on the online medium; print sometimes takes a back seat when print deadlines aren't sufficient to publish a fast-breaking story. Increasingly, newspaper Web site managers tell me that they no longer hold back stories waiting for print deadlines.

Less U.S. dominance over Internet

I wished that the U.S. would lose some of its dominance over the Internet medium, with other nations catching up. Alas, while the Internet is a hot topic in many other countries -- especially in Europe and countries like Australia -- American companies remain at the forefront of Internet publishing developments, and American consumers remain far ahead of people elsewhere in the world in terms of Internet usage. Many countries remain hobbled because of surcharged local phone calls, which will always be an impediment to growth in Internet usage. Only when the cash meter is not ticking do consumers feel free to stay online for many hours a month.

A wish for WebTV's success

Many people view WebTV, the box that sits atop your TV set and delivers Internet access, as a way to bring the Internet to the masses -- those who for many reasons are not likely to use a computer to get online. I am among those who wished for success for the Internet-on-TV concept, for it will go far in "floating all boats" of Internet publishers and content providers. WebTV and its competitors are off to a slow start, but WebTV's acquisition by Microsoft this year is a good sign for the promise that WebTV will boost the entire Internet content industry.

Portable digital tablets

I wished for significant progress with portable digital tablets, which hold the promise of providing consumers with "digital paper" that they can carry around with them -- receiving subscriptions to news and information services, and replacing traditional print publication subscriptions. No, we didn't see much visible activity in 1997, and they continue to look to be years away. We'll probably be wishing for digital tablets for many more years. In fact, a research research report on the future of paper (which I reported on in this column just last week) projects that digital tablets won't be in mainstream use until 2010.

Realizing the classifieds threat

I wished that more newspaper publishers would wake up to the fact that classifieds is the component of their business that is most at risk by the success of the Internet -- and do something about it. I think it's fair to say that most publishers now grasp the severity of the threat to their classifieds franchise. Many saw online city guides launch in their markets, which likely will evolve to hurt newspaper ad revenues. Everyone watched the success of companies like Classifieds2000, which through a series of alliances is emerging as a major player in the classifieds business -- impacting local markets in an increasingly serious way. There's still much to be done to bring newspapers' strengths in the classifieds market into the electronic world. As Gordon Borrell wrote to me in his assessment of my predictions, "I believe the industry did rub its collective eyes and wake up in 1997, though right now we may just be brushing our teeth and deciding what to wear to the war."

Newspaper Web advertising

I wished that advertisers would look beyond the big numbers being offered by search engine companies like Yahoo!, Excite, et al, and realize that online newspaper services -- when aggregated via organizations like New Century Network and Real Media -- represent a high-value online ad venue. I can't report great progress on this front. Here's Borrell's comment on that one: "Ho-boy, you must have just swallowed the martini olive on New Year's Eve when you wrote this one. Please don't wish for this again. False hope is a bad thing. Advertisers go with things that work. For now, remember this: The words 'aggregated' and 'newspaper' are collectively an oxymoron and don't belong in the same sentence." I won't go that far, and remain optimistic that in time, newspapers will learn that working together more is the best way to fight back the cyber competition.

Seeking a better crystal ball

Looking through a crystal ball -- particularly a digital one -- is difficult, especially when trying to divine the course of the fast-moving Internet environment. I liked Borrell's comment to me about future gazing: "My 'crystal ball' is a dented glass marble in my desk drawer. I found that looking through it, everything's upside down. People coming at me are very small. If they move left, it looks like they're moving right. If they jump up, it looks like they're going down. I have about as much luck predicting things by looking through my marble as I do figuring out what happens next on the Internet."

Can you do better?

I would like to hear your predictions for what 1998 holds in store for the interactive publishing industry. Please send me your prognostications, and I will select the best ones for publication in an upcoming column. Just send me e-mail at steve@planetarynews.com, and include your name, title and organization/company. Please keep your predictions as brief as possible. Thanks!


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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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