The Big Problem With the Web: No Home Delivery

By: Steve Outing

By now, newspaper publishers have settled on the World Wide Web as their platform of choice. They've voted in overwhelming numbers: Of the more than 800 newspapers worldwide operating online services, about 90% of them are on the Web.

The problem, as we all know, is that publishers are having a difficult time making money with their Web services. The reasons are complex, but one of the chief impediments to success on the Web is this: There's no home delivery. By that I mean that users of a publisher's Web site must remember to visit the site each day. It's not delivered to them such that they can't forget. And consumers seem less inclined to pay for the right to access a Web site -- when they remember to -- than to pay for a product that is delivered to them.

Consider the New York Times' new Web site, which I have gotten in the habit of visiting daily as my new primary source of national, international and business news. I've simply forgotten to log on at least 2 days out of the last week, even though I like the site and find it an immensely valuable staple of my information diet. Another Web service that I pay for, Individual's Newspage, also requires that I remember to visit it. Despite the (modest) monetary commitment I make to Newspage, I still remember to visit only about 2/3 of the time.

The solution should be obvious: Make the Web come to the user. And that's what several companies have begun doing. Their new and upcoming products that support digital delivery of publications are about to transform online publishing yet again.

Digital delivery schemes currently seem to split into 2 camps:

1) Independent content aggregators: Services like FreeLoader allow Internet users to "subscribe" to Web sites. You might configure the Freeloader client application (which sits on top of the Netscape browser) to send you each day the CyberTimes section of the New York Times Web site, the front page of the Wall Street Journal site, and my daily Stop The Presses! column on Editor & Publisher Interactive, for example. Freeloader goes out on the Web and retrieves those pages, so that you don't have to click on them manually and wait for all the text and images to load. It can be programmed to retrieve the pages while you sleep; when you sit down at your PC in the morning, everything is there for you to read your pre-programmed Web sites offline without the usual wait for graphics to download.

FreeLoader is an appropriate name, since the software (which is yet to be released) grabs content from other content providers and brings it together. The service and software are free to users; the authors of FreeLoader will make their money from inserting advertising into the aggregated Web site content pulled in by FreeLoader users. (If a publisher's page contains advertising, that will be grabbed by the FreeLoader client as well, of course.)

Web sites will benefit from users of FreeLoader, since people who "subscribe" to a Web site will generate more hits on the site than if they visited only when they remember to do so. But in this model the publisher does not have control of what he sends readers, unlike the other digital delivery model.

2) Publisher-controlled digital delivery: The best example of this model is Digital Delivery, a New York City start-up that's creating digital agents for use by publishers in delivering rich-format digital editions. DD has created an electronic agent that can deliver formatted publications and Web sites to subscribers' desktops via Internet or dial-up connections. The DD agent operates in the background of a subscriber's PC, periodically delivering new issues of the subscriber's chosen publications.

As an example of how this might work, a newspaper might offer a digitally delivered edition that includes the top 10 stories of the day. DD's client software also includes a "Ticker" feature that would periodically scroll on top of the subscriber's screen the latest headlines, which the agent retrieves from the host Web site as headlines on the site are updated. Click on a scrolling headline and the full story is retrieved from the site.

DD's director of new business development, Mark Friedler, says the company is currently working with 5 of the largest U.S. and 2 international newspaper and magazine publishers on prototyping Digital Delivery editions. He views newspapers as a primary target for using the DD technology, since it will allow them to create interactive services supplemental to the print product. That rolling news ticker, for example, can provide an up-to-the-minute news feature to a once-a-day print publication, Friedler says.

Of course, DD might be best at recreating a print edition digitally. Imagine, say, the New York Times Web site delivered as an HTML document that can be read with an off-line HTML viewer (included with the DD agent) or as a PDF file read by an Acrobat viewer (also included). While many people will still prefer the true Web experience of navigating a Web site live, others will be thankful not to have to log on, then wait after clicking for each page to load on screen. Particularly for a PDF file, downloading a document is a significant time expenditure, so the DD scheme solves a significant annoyance for the end user.

DD publications can be in various formats, including HTML, Adobe Acrobat (PDF), PageMaker, Quark XPress, Postscript, etc. -- that's up to the publisher. Friedman says the majority of publishers he's contacted about DD seem to want to use HTML, since they already have devoted significant resources to publishing on the Web and want to leverage that commitment. A smaller number are experimenting with Acrobat publications delivered digitally via the DD agent.

There are several other companies working on similar projects: PointCast will launch the PointCast Network, an advertising-supported service that will deliver user-defined news via the Internet to screen savers on desktop computers. First Floor Software has a product called Smart Bookmarks, which lets users of Web browsers like Netscape organize bookmarks and monitor their favorite Web sites for new and updated information. Other products in the area of viewing the Web offline include Forefront Group's WebWhacker, CE Software's WebArranger and Specter Communications' WebWatch.

Expect to see digital delivery schemes that surmount one of the most annoying problems of the Web proliferate this year. This could be the next significant wave in interactive publishing. Even when bandwidth increases and most computer users have extremely fast connections, many publication readers will still prefer to have information delivered to their desktops than to actively go out and retrieve it.

Movin' On

Justin Kerr is leaving CaluNET (the online service of The Times in Munster, Indiana) to join Tribune Media Services in Chicago, where be will be an Internet producer with the Electronic Information Services Department of TMS.

In April, Mike Donatello will move into the position of manager of market research at the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) in Reston, Virginia. His new job will involve managing the NAA's consumer research activities, and he also will be involved in the association's new media research programs.

I got it backward

In yesterday's item about new InfiNet affiliates, I got a newspaper name wrong. It's the Duluth News-Tribune (in Minnesota).

Dealing with spammers

On the online-news Internet mailing list I operate, we've been having a problem lately with a few people "spamming" the list with advertisements and chain letters that have nothing to do with the topic of the list, online publishing. A British online-news subscriber wrote me about how he deals with these spammers (which I do not necessarily endorse):

"I know it's hard to control: I tend to reply to them with a 500K AVI file of me giving them the finger (thanks to my trusty QuickCam) and then forget it."

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