Publisher's Face the
Realities of The Web

Editorial by Dirck Halstead


I recently attended "Webfest 2000," a forum presented by the National Press Club,  featuring a panel discussion on the problems and promise of online journalism. This month's issue of the Columbia Journalism Review contains a section devoted to this subject. 

The thread running through these discussions is that major media publications and networks are trying to hop on the digital bandwagon. It is also clear that they are having major problems figuring out what their mission should be, and reeling from the expense. 

The cost of producing a daily online publication is enormous. For newspapers, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, the money needed to produce a website - that can stand alone - has been a shock to their systems. All of them have been forced to move from a daily deadline to a minute by minute one. They realize they can1t simply re-purpose material from their printed editions and be competitive in the online arena. Instead, they have to ask reporters to stay on top of their stories. 

Now, rather than being held responsible for what lands on a reader1s doorstep in Washington, The Post has to field calls from a frantic correspondent in Beijing at 3am in the morning, because he1s getting called by Chinese officials about a misquote they've just seen in the online edition. 

A single photograph on the front of the metro section, is turned into a multimedia essay on the website. 
That's great, but picking one picture is a totally different editorial task than putting together a multimedia essay including audio, and in many cases video as well. 

The strain has been far greater among the newsmagazines. They are being forced to turn out a site which needs continual updating, with far less resources than those of their daily newspaper competition. The sickening reality for the magazines is that they are confronted with having to modify their operations from being a weekly to a "24-7" publication. A Time vice president described their Web operation as giving "new meaning to the words 'black hole.'" 

Henry Luce was very clear in his mission statement when he proposed Time magazine. It would be a weekly digest of news from around the world. It was a simple and brilliant idea then. It should still work now.  But instead, after such disastrous missteps as bundling all Time Inc. brands into a site called "Pathfinder," they decided to create "Time Daily." The red flags should have gone up. Time has never been a "daily." They bit off more than they could chew. 

The competition in this area is enormous. MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angles Times, The Chicago Tribune, are all hemorrhaging money trying to compete in an arena they never anticipated entering.

The frustration for these brands is the difficulty in holding onto loyal reader bases. The simple fact is that the
sites change too quickly for the average reader to keep up with them. MSNBC online changes its front page 30 times a day. Major features, involving huge amounts of work, appear and disappear in one news cycle. Then, there1s the horror of realizing that all those words and pictures will sooner or later have to be turned into video as the Web goes
broadband. 

It's going to be interesting to see how the media giants handle these challenges. The best single quote that may apply here is by screenwriter William Goldman, talking about the motion picture industry: "Nobody knows anything!"


Here Comes "The Feed"

I just received an email from Tom Burton, a photographer (and Platypus) who works for the Orlando Sentinel. He reports that his newspaper, owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Company which also owns the Los Angeles Times, is investing in a concept called "The Feedroom." It's an interactive, broadband Internet product that will provide news, photos, and video on demand.

Well, here it comes - the start of the paradigm shift.

What this means is that publishers are about to change the fundamental way their product - information - is delivered. "On demand" is the key phrase here. It means the precious commodities - the words, video, and pictures that are archived can be served up in portions the reader or customer wants. 

Stop thinking in terms of a newspaper, magazine or television station. Instead, think of a huge wire service that's available to anyone. "Mix and match" content that can be used in any form. The idea of "The Feedroom" has been knocking around journalist circles for the past few months. The term has generally been used in the pejorative sense (i.e. "The Feed") to describe how people will get their news from a mega-source that lives in cyberspace (but has bank accounts in Chicago and the Bahamas).

It's vitally important that freelance photographers, artists, filmmakers and writers understand what electronic rights they may be signing away. It's not really about what Time magazine, for example, plans to do with
the pictures on their website "Time Daily," that's inconsequential. The rights are necessary in order for these publishers to slice, dice, and mix your photographs and video in any combination they choose, then feed the results to their mega-servers where your material can be accessed for eternity. 

Dirck Halstead