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Monday, November 5, 2001
Lead Article

News on Net: Redefining media

The way news is presented on the Internet is giving a new depth and richness to journalism. Kuljit Bains gets a feel of the experience.

THE Internet, they say, is the biggest thing to happen to journalism since the invention of the printing press. While the Press itself in India may have yet to realise the potential the Net holds, the audience, though limited at present, is already overwhelmed by the depth and richness of receiving news on it.

Why is the Internet something so revolutionary? Because it has all the possibilities of various conventional media like print and television, with many limitations removed. While news over the Net continues to be available to a reader in editorially decided formats, it is also possible to make it available in the form an individual reader may want. This is making the reader king, and journalists facilitators.

But what the first-time visitor to a news site is hit by is the depth of coverage that can be provided by multimedia features of computers and the Internet. Each story can be backed by a host of other stories, data, graphic description and even videos, all available conveniently a click away from the main story.

This new delivery medium has, expectedly, kicked up quite a few hot issues, which only lend credence to the fact that there is something revolutionary happening. Before going into the issues, lets first take a look at what the new medium is about, given all its advantages.

 


THE EDGE

To begin with, news over the Internet is real time, which means it can deliver news the moment it happens, or at the earliest a reporter can file his copy. This is a major advantage over the print medium, and it comes at a marginal extra cost. While TV too has the advantage of being in real time, it needs a huge investment and, more importantly to the reader, it does not deliver at the time and the pace a reader wants, like the print does. The Internet, on the other hand, can deliver in real time and yet be available in "shifted time" to suit a reader’s convenience. Go to a PC and check on whatever is the latest whenever you want, you’ll never be late for the "bulletin"—read and re-read if you like, and also check the archived stories conveniently available.

One major feature of the Internet is the hyperlinking. This feature of providing links can and increasingly is being exploited by news sites to add the "depth" to content. The current war in Afghanistan has highlighted these advantages afresh. A typical attack story would, first, be available as it develops. Secondly, it may have links to stories on previous attacks, their outcome, maps describing the assault, 3-D images of the weapon systems used, an official statement on the Pentagon site and refugee statistics on a UN site . . . . Thus, the story is backed by a kind of library of its own, and this is only one of the many such stories on the site.

This interactivity can go a lot further with the reader responding immediately to what he reads. This he can do to the Editor through e-mail, as in print’s "letters to Editor," or even to the writers as many sites provide their e-mail addresses. On certain major developing issues sites even start discussion boards on which a reader can post her opinion and also read others’ views. Thus you have a small community developing around an editorially directed line. Real-time opinion polls can add yet another dimension to interactivity.

Major limitations the print medium and TV have are space and time, respectively. On the Internet, a writer may not limit the depth of his piece for want of column space or airtime (Though a reader’s attention span will always have to be kept in mind!)

One important deviation from conventional media is that the reader is not limited to an editorially pre-decided format of a news package as in a newspaper or a TV bulletin. On several advanced news sites you can create an identity and specify your interests and each day receive news packaged according to your profile or have the Web page laid out accordingly.

The fact that publishing on the Net is relatively cheaper has given the power to publish to even small special-interest groups like religious communities, ethnic groups, gays, etc. This means access to a greater variety of news and opinion for the reader. There are also specific-interest news sites on topics like sports or technology that can go into greater depth than a general news site.

The best part of it all is that a reader is not limited to one news source as with the morning newspaper, but can access sources from the world over daily, adding a variety and richness to the experience with more points of view. But at the same time, the reader may not lose his preferred news source while on the move — he can go to the Web site of his favourite newspaper whenever he has time and wherever you might be.

Given the sea change in the manner in which news is delivered and the new possibilities that have been opened to journalism, there are plenty of apprehensions cropping up regarding the shape the industry might take.

THE ISSUES

The foremost question being asked is: "If news on the Web is all that good, will the newspaper as we know it die?" While no one’s seen the future, a reasonable answer would be "No." One obvious reason is the much greater spread of the print medium among the masses. Second, news delivered on the Internet is received mostly on a computer terminal, which is not something convenient or casual and cannot be tucked away in the back pocket. While this situation will surely last for the coming couple of years, technology and its ever-lowering cost can overcome both the hurdles at some point in the future. So right now, your paper is staying, in the long run . . . maybe.

A lot of Web-savvy news surfers say they go straight to the news they want and have all their news mailers, delivered to them by news sites, with content packaged according to their tastes. So you may have people preferring cricket reports and the latest on Salman Khan’s scandals to news on Afghanistan. Essentially, it is people putting together their own front page. While this trend is yet to catch on in India, it has some Western journalists worrying, "Where does the role of the news mediator called Editor go?" If the reader decides on his own what news he wants first and which he doesn’t want at all, then what do the all Editors do? While Editors can take heart in the fact that there will always be a whole lot of people who will continue to have faith in their judgement and want news first "tasted" by them, journalism will also have to come to terms with the situation that the reader will be developing a judgement of his own and get what he wants rather than what an Editor thinks he should get.

Running Internet editions costs money. The revenues straight off the Web editions are not forthcoming in great amounts. Then is it a burden or an asset for media organisations to have these digital versions? One, we have to accept that the Internet as a medium is here to stay, expense or not; second, we have to remember newspapers are not "dotcom" sites, they are brick and mortar companies that serve an age-old need for news and people faithfully visit their sites. Doesn’t this sound like conventional circulation where people want your product, i.e. news and opinion, only that it is delivered on different platter? The need is for media managers to stop looking at the Internet as a mere extension of the print or broadcast, and realise that it is the main driver of (mass) communications in the new century. They only need is to focus on new models of making money. Many newspapers have been making money, selling data about their registered readers. Online advertising, while not much, is also not zero, and as the online community grows, so will the online ad budgets.

Many newspapers have used their online editions gainfully for the print editions too. While the print editions have good content, they direct readers to their online editions for multimedia inputs, adding value to their print stories and, in the process, gaining esteem. One experience of The New York Times has brought out a significant phenomenon: nearly half of their registered online readers reported that they had never seen their print version. The NYT also reported print circulation gains in the thousands through their Web site. This meant that the newspaper was being introduced to a whole new market, which could be exploited.

THE FUTURE

On the technology front, new devices will make accessing news more convenient with small hand-held things coming up —WAP-enabled cell phones is one primitive example of that, with much smarter gadgets expected in future. E-ink, an enterprise funded by Hearst and Motorola, is working on a technology that will give you a kind of rubbery sheet that resembles a conventional newspaper but is actually an unattached electronic device. It would display the latest news "pages" downloaded from the Internet. So you have something that has the look and feel of a newspaper, and yet has the power of the Internet. The advances will also mean greater numbers having access to the Net, making it a medium of the masses, which, in turn, will mean more viability for the news sites.

As far as business is concerned, big organisations’ sites will gain the most as they will be able to exploit the multimedia advantages more due to the cost factor. At the same time, localised, specific-interest sites will also gain owing to their niche markets. The losers will be mid-sized general-news sites, for they will have nothing unique to offer. Geographical limitations like in the delivery of newspapers to far-off places do not have a role in this case. Competition, hitherto not seen, could come from companies in physically distant places.

Journalism itself will surely undergo a change. The extensive interactivity possible with readers and the customisation of news packaging possible will make them participants in the editorial process. Journalists themselves have the Internet as a great resource for digging out background information for their stories, making them richer (Though cases of possible plagiarism might become an issue).

With the convergence of various concepts like telephone, television, Internet, print publications, entertainment devices, journalism may become just a part of a global media and communications system. As one media observer has noted, the concept of "media"will come to mean a "place" where we get news, entertainment, education, communication, and money. Sounds exciting.

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