Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 2 / June 1, 1994 / Page 6

Pyxis Cyberea

Lessons from the Florida Compass WWW news prototype

by Gary Ritzenthaler (, Assistant Editor

[During the spring of 1994, seven students at the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications developed a prototype for a World Wide Web-based news service called the Florida Compass. While many of the lessons we learned were just new versions of guidelines already established in journalism, both these 'new versions' and the process of our re-learning might be of interest to those watching the future of the news media. This essay is part of a series of reflections on the what we learned from creating the Compass. I welcome all comments via the address above - you can read selected responses to this column here.]

June 1994 -- Defining a media community

From the Compass group's first discussions about our project, a polarity or tension became apparent as an obstacle to our progress. This wasn't a tension between group members, or a rift between our goals and the requirements of our class assignment. At issue was the definition of our target audience, the question of the scope of our news coverage. Two powerful influences were pulling our embryonic publication in opposite directions: the desire to serve our local community and the desire to attend to the global market available through the medium we chose for our experiment.

Every traditional newspaper finds its own balance between local, national and international news, between deep roots in a community and a global extension. Newspapers focus on local issues partly because of financial and practical concerns, but also because both the newspaper and the customers it serves are part of a geographic community. This attention to community is what causes people here in Gainesville, Florida to buy the Gainesville Sun instead of a national paper like USA Today.

Through the medium of the World Wide Web, however, the restrictions placed on the distribution of news disappear; readers around the world can look through a local news service as easily as readers in the service's home town. Small-town papers have the same ability to reach readers across the world as large metropolitan operations, so the polarity between serving a community and increasing market size assumes a new importance. Newspapers are built upon geographical distinctions; when those distinctions disappear, how does a news provider define and serve its audience?

The new market access available to small-circulation papers also has its dark side: the specter of increased competition. If I can access the Washington Post as easily as I get my local paper, how will my local paper be affected? What will happen to both parties when the Gainesville Sun goes head-to-head against its parent New York Times in the information service arena?

In Compass staff meetings we debated these issues. Eventually, the size of the staff and the resources available influenced our decisions as much as our views on the issues. While we developed a number of devices that would maximize the productivity of a small staff (such as automated markup of wire stories), and discussed possible ways the Compass might serve a global readership, we realized a truly international coverage would be an unattainable goal for the small staff of a student newspaper. The publication would make every attempt to be worldly, but it would sink its roots in Gainesville and the area surrounding the University of Florida. With the staff and resources of a major news chain behind us we might have been able to design a truly global news service, but the limits on our resources directed us toward a more regional approach.

Most of the World Wide Web news prototypes created to this point have arrived at similar conclusions to those we reached for the Compass: traditional structures and an emphasis on local rather than global readership. This is true for commercial services as well as academic experiments, though the commercial ventures may have had a different mix of resources and thus their developers may have followed a different path to a similar final product.

One notable exception is the Global Network Navigator, a pioneer WWW news service provided by O'Reilly and Associates, a publishing company famous for its books on Internet-related software and topics. Though still under development, the GNN has attempted from its inception to address the global market rather than the specific needs of the GNN's California hometown. While most news prototypes serve the needs of users who go to the local movie theaters and dine at local restaurants, the GNN considers the Internet itself as its community, and it mainly addresses the needs of its readers as citizens of cyberspace.

Which of these two paradigms, these two approaches to the nature of online community, is more likely to lead to readers, subscribers, success? My suspicion is that both will be possible avenues to prosperity in the media marketplace of the future. A number of academic and commercial forecasters have suggested that the media of the future will involve as much activity on the side of the consumer of news as it does on the side of the provider of that information. The news customer of the future will gather information from personalized sources as well as sources intended for a mass audience. The ends of this spectrum of activity correspond to the range of possible positions between local and global news perspectives.

On the personal end of the coming news continuum, most individuals will possess some kind of "news assistant" or "agent," a computer generated servant dedicated to the task of scouring the reaches of cyberspace for information of interest. These information seekers will be blind to nuances of style that makes one newspaper different from another; they will focus only on the relevance of the information to the user. The owner of a news assistant might customize it to prefer one news source over another, but it will not be unusual to receive several treatments of a breaking news item if the topic of those stories is important and relevant enough.

To answer the newsgathering patterns of these assistants, we might see the creation or evolution of multimedia databases/wire services, charging the owner of an agent for the amount of stories (or even bits) downloaded. (One example might be an expanded version of the current Clarinet newsgroups; another might be evolutions of present database services like DIALOG or Lexis/Nexis.) In the same way that USA Today and other national papers specialize various editions for certain sections of the country, these media enterprises would allow a customer (or a customer's agent) to create a personal newspaper from a wealth of stories.

News assistants would do an excellent job of creating an information source that is relevant to a particular individual, but by their specialized nature they would also neglect a person's desire to browse through information relevant to a community. Gathering information as part of a community is an activity performed by different methods and in the service of different goals than when we seek purely personal information. I don't always want to know about the restaurant that would best suit my tastes -- sometimes I want to see everything that's available in town. It is this ability to provide information important to geographical groups of readers that the current group of Web-based news services fulfills with distinction. Collection of community information is a service newspapers have always performed, and if they can translate that beneficial function to their online counterparts those new information sources will have a better chance of being successful.

Next month: links, hypermedia, and writing the news.

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