The Bulwarks of Journalism Go Online

News junkies are always looking for a quick quality fix of the latest world events. These are not couch potatoes mesmerized by O.J. and Geraldo, but hard-core mainliners who get pissed when they miss the start of CNN Headline News and don't want to wait 27 minutes for the top story -- the type who get nauseated when staying at a hotel whose idea of a complimentary morning paper is USA Today rather than the Wall Street Journal. For news junkies, the train has arrived, and it's a beta-test maglev soaring above the rails at 300 miles per hour. With a phone jack and five minutes with Netscape, you can rocket to your choice of newspaper derivatives and even, yea verily, CNN. And the local news and views of 53 nations are available as fast as the modem can move them, from Brazil's Agencia Estado to South Africa's Guardian. A few mouse clicks pops you to hundreds of city- and regionally based publications, plus many specialized E-rags dishing up everything from the latest Hollywood gossip to B&D erotica. Then there are the Detroit Journal, Irish X-Press, and San Francisco Free Press, alternative papers in cyberspace put out by striking writers and editors. The Net has forced itself into the smoke-filled rooms of old-line print powerhouses like Dow Jones, the New York Times, and Times-Mirror. They're all struggling with what to present, how to present it, and how to make a buck off of it. Rather than stuffing the full contents of a hard-copy version online, most are developing derivative products for the brave new Net world, cribbing presentation ideas and material from their America Online or Prodigy projects. It's not altruism or sparkling innovation that's motivating these stodgy traditionalists. The bottom line is protecting current subscription numbers and opening up clip-ping archives as a revenue source. Anyone who has had to deal with those huge green index books, microfilm, and stacks of magazines at the local library won't think twice at popping off a couple of bucks for electronic searches and reprints. Consider the symbiotic relationship between Reuters New Media and the Yahoo! search list. Reuters supplies news stories hot off the wire. No fancy graphics, no pictures -- just plain, simple, quickly downloaded text. In ex-change, they can get an exact count of which stories are read the most, while Yahoo!, a Web site configured as a Net-wide table of contents, gets added value since more readers equals higher prices for advertising. On the other hand, the New York Times, with its four different locations on the Net, reflects the confusion of the old line. The FAX Web site converts the six-page condensed version of the Times normally delivered by fax into the Adobe Acrobat document format, but one has to download a freely available reader weighing a hefty 1.5 MB before viewing or printing out the file. It's okay, but the 200K download per issue is annoying on anything less than a leased-line connection. The Times Web site is still under construction but promises to be fully Web-surfable, while a couple of sites for the New York Times Syndicate project are being planned. USA Today's Web offering is enough to drive the most patient McPaper fan crazy. While some graphics and pictures are preserved between print and electronic forms, plain text is dumped on default gray backgrounds, with clickable links in stock blue -- McNetPaper feels more like "Johnny's first Web site" than a professional publication. Trying to "read" it is not a straightforward scrolling process but point-and-click Chinese water torture; clicking on a section or title puts up a paragraph-sized summary and another hotlink to bring up the full text. USA Today's Web site is currently free, with plans to move it to a subscription service somewhere down the road. Lots of luck. McPaper's site can't hold a candle against CNN Headline News. Updated several times a day, with breaking stories plugged in as they happen, CNN has killer content. (Still color photos a la McPaper don't hold a candle to downloadable video clips of NATO warplanes rolling in on Serb ammo dumps and, more importantly, the designers understand multimedia and Web layout.) The site painlessly sneaks in hyperlinks for sound and video clips if you want them, but doesn't force them down your throat. Those who don't grab 'em because their computers are too wimpy aren't really missing anything because the basic page layout looks good, reads easily, and doesn't lean on multimedia as the be-all and end-all. Hopefully, we'll never have to pay for access, but if we do, this one will be worth it if they keep the quality up. Is the traditional paper marked for death? Hardly. Radio didn't kill the printing press, and TV certainly didn't kill off either of them. Nor is paper, despite the annoyances of inky fingers and recycling bins, dependent on batteries or a power cord. Besides, there are the very practical problems of coupons (you may like the idea of printing off as many coupons as you want, but the grocery store won't) and birdcage lining. What we will see is coexistence. Electronic versions will act as complements to the traditional newspaper and provide on-the-go readers with a more targeted, focused way to get news without the extra noise of grocery store or shoe ads. And we'll have the opportunity to check out the hometown rags in cyberspace, even if they are two hours or two thousand miles away.

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