All that news gives fits online Cyberspace: Traditional media outlets struggle to do their thing in the Internet Age


August 08, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Stop the mouse presses!

One of the hottest topics at this week's Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications conference in Baltimore was the fledgling online news business. Six years ago there were no newspapers on the World Wide Web -- indeed, there was hardly any Web at all. Today, more than half of U.S. newspapers publish an Internet edition, and studies show that more people are turning to the Web to read the news.

Newspapers and other traditional media outlets, journalists and scholars say, are still struggling to grasp what it means to provide news in the Internet Age -- and to figure out how to make a buck doing it.

"The industry is a place of wild confusion, going 500 miles an hour," said Hoag Levins, executive editor of Editor & Publisher's, a year-old online news industry trade publication.

Newspapers rushed online out of fear, afraid that online competitors would lure away readers or cannibalize newspapers' lucrative classified franchise. The Chicago Tribune was the first paper to go digital when it started to provide editorial content to America Online in 1992. Today, roughly 800 newspapers publish Internet editions, according to Newspaper Association of America. The Baltimore Sun began its Web site in September 1996.

"What they're struggling with is: What do people really want to do when they come online?" said Randy Bennett of the NAA's new media division.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 20 percent of Americans turn to the Net at least once a week for news, up from just 6 percent two years ago. Most respondents said they use the Internet to supplement traditional news sources. But many in the online news business expect their audience will only grow as technology changes and it becomes possible to access the Internet on their televisions.

With so many people going online to read the news, scholars are finding online news a hot -- if eclectic -- new area for their Ivory Tower inquiries: Do people like to read off a screen wider than it is tall, like a computer screen, or the other way around? Should online publications present stories as one long text block, so readers have to scroll through it, or in smaller chunks, forcing readers to click a hyperlink to see the next bit?

"Those of us who work for online newspapers are so thirsty for some guidance," said Jody Brannon, manager of news and production at, the Washington Post's Web site.

Without any rules to follow, most news organizations are making the rules as they go along. As a result, the whole notion of what a news organization is is being turned on its head. "The Web makes every medium the same, whether you're a television network, a newspaper or a radio station," said Levins. These days even online media giants like Yahoo! and America Online have their own news operations.

In cyberspace, editors try hard to drive as many eyeballs to their sites as possible and often gear the news accordingly. "On the Web, the audience is in charge," said John Barth, vice president for news at American Online.

As an example, Barth noted that on the day Ginger Spice left the British pop group Spice Girls, the New York Times splashed a picture of the singer across its electronic front page, a sacrosanct spot in the print edition usually reserved for presidents and popes.

Newspaper publishing companies are also starting to experiment with online publications that venture far beyond what the company offers in print.

The Wichita Eagle, the daily newspaper in Wichita, Kan., last year started up a Web site devoted to Beanie Babies, with news, columns and feature stories about the hot toy. The site -- called Real Beanies -- is accessible from the Web site's front page and often gets more traffic than the news.

Pub Date: 8/08/98

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