'Tales of The Valley'

By: Steve Outing

One of the best things to come out of the People section of the San Francisco Chronicle was Armistead Maupin's "Tales of The City," a ground-breaking newspaper fictional serial that later turned into a best-selling novel and a highly-acclaimed television mini-series. In the late 1970s, Chronicle readers eagerly awaited each installment of this novel-in-progress. It turned out to be one of the most popular features run by the newspaper, and a great circulation builder.

Tales of The City was the kind of quirky newspaper experiment that's not often found these days, at least in U.S. newspapers, many of whom tend to take themselves seriously and (pardon the generalization) have become homogenized due in part to ownership by national media chains.

I'll give credit, then, to the San Jose Mercury News (a chain newspaper owned by Knight-Ridder), which has embarked on an online serial project that's in the best tradition of Armistead Maupin, Charles Dickens, et al -- but with an online twist.

The Mercury's Pat Dillon, a columnist and editor for the paper, has written a novel about the life and times of Silicon Valley, California, called "Last Best Thing." Installments of the novel run in the printed newspaper on Sundays and Wednesdays, and there is an innovative online component on Mercury Center Web. To get the full experience of the serial, reading the print chapters is not enough.

Last Best Thing, which chronicles the foibles of a fictional Silicon Valley company and its executives and employees, "is distilled from the cultures, issues and personality of Silicon Valley," according to the Mercury's promotional pronouncements. While meant to be a fun read, it is based on the serious notion of what makes Silicon Valley tick, and is a mixture of fact and fiction.

The really fun parts of the serial are found online. On the Mercury's Web site are the "private files of the boss, J.P. McCorwin -- 50 percent visionary, 50 percent demagogue, 50 percent ice pick." Web visitors are invited to rade email with characters like "Baba RAM DOS, a pony-tailed French narchist; Jason Something-Or-Other, the pizza-powered computer spy; and RoseD, a corporate cybersex dominatrix." They can even "become employees" of the fictional corporation. You'll find fake home pages for companies in the novel, online internal documents, FAQs (frequently asked questions), etc.

Readers have a role in shaping the novel by taking part in a company discussion area. For example, online visitors are invited to help name the fictional company, the results of which will show up later in the serial.

Mercury Center managing editor Bruce Koon says that while the serial is meant to be fun, it also includes a serious look at the issues and personalities shaping Silicon Valley. Intersperced in the online novel are links to non-fictional news and trend coverage of California's technology mecca.

Such serial novels -- while certainly not new to the newspaper world (Charles Dicken's' "Oliver Twist" was originally serialized) -- are ideal for the online environment. For World Wide Web publishers, serials are a great technique for getting readers to come back day after day -- which is difficult in an electronic publishing environment that requires readers to come to the publisher rather than the publisher delivering content directly to the consumer.

The rub, of course, is that the writing has to be incredibly good to attract the kind of following that authors like Maupin found. Now, with an online component to a serialized novel, a new kind of creativity is required. It's now not enough just to write an outstanding work of fiction.

Do check out Last Best Thing. It's viewable by anyone, since it is not behind Mercury Center's subscription wall. (The site's premium content is available only to paying subscribers6.)

Contact: Pat Dillon, pdwolf@aol.com
Bruce Koon, BKoon@aol.com

April fools!

April 1 brought on the usual April Fools practical jokes, including one by the the Lake and Valley Clarion, a weekly newspaper in New York. Publisher Corrin Strong reports:

"Our paper has done a special dummy front page every April 1 called The Blarion. It is printed on the back cover upside down, so if you flip the paper over it looks legit. This year we topped all records for fooling people by announcing that The Clarion was ceasing print publication and going exclusively online with the new ClariOnline! To make things easy for our readers we offered free modems to all subscribers, but no cash refunds on subscriptions. The reaction was irate, to say the least."

Strong's spoof is on the Web at http://www.clarioncall.com/ht328a.html.

Contact: corrin@clarioncall.com

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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com


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