Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 3 / July 1, 1994 / Page 10
by Gary Ritzenthaler (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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.]
After a short introduction to the Web, for example, everyone in the group had a fairly well-defined idea about what hypermedia was and how it was activated in simple Web documents. When we sat down to discuss how we wanted to use the facility in the Compass, though, more than one mental gear stripped, popped, and rolled out onto the table. The problem was greatest for the more experienced journalists in the group, as we struggled to discover which elements of traditional journalism were still appropriate when hypertext was added to the news experience.
Nothing was sacred; we questioned a variety of news writing fundamentals: Is the inverted pyramid still the best way to write a news story? What do summary leads contribute to a hypertext news article, as opposed to a print version of the same story? Is brevity still an absolute for the news, or does a hypertext user expect to be able to find a bit more depth?
Along the path of our development we did discover what the major stumbling points of tension were in the inclusion of hypermedia. One important factor is the '-media' element, the injection of animations, sounds and video into what was formerly a text-dominated experience. Studies in the research area of news retention have suggested that people remember news content better if the information is presented to the reader using a variety of presentation media. If this is the case, Web browsers will be one avenue to increasing the potency and usefulness of news. In combination with strong features in giving the reader background context, the multimedia aspects of Mosaic and certain other Web browsers provide news services with the potential to create news productions that effectively educate and inform the public.
A key point to remember is that the news staff of a particular publication does not have to compose every feature they might include for that issue. Web-aware reporters and editors will find an avalanche of appropriate supplementary material already available on the Web, and these resources can be included as directions for further information about a story.
In the prototype for the Compass, for example, we did a respectable job of covering the death of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain without creating a lot of original content. To give a brief report of some of the facts surrounding the suicide, we summarized an AP wire story. To give readers a sense of what people were saying, we connected readers to the MTV site, which contained more background on the event and a large collection of email reflections on the meaning (or lack of it) inherent in Cobain's death. Finally, we included a link to an educational site with a complete set of Nirvana lyrics, album covers, and other material related to the band. The resulting collection of information gave Compass readers an overview of Cobain's work and some of the circumstances surrounding his death.
(There was a great opportunity to do more with that story, of course, especially in a town with almost 40,000 college students. The timing of the story placed it during "crunch time," while we were busy making the final structural and stylistic preparations to the Compass. With a staff of seven working on those technological concerns (and a bit of "polish"), we didn't have as much time to devote to the late-breaking stories as we might have desired. In an optimal situation I also would have added some student columns about Nirvana and Cobain, put together a form to solicit reactions from our readers, and include more pictures and music clips than we were able to find at short notice. The pressures of deadlines...)
The use of global hypermedia as an integral part of a news story brings up two concerns. The first is the issue of editorial security. Whenever I make a link to another site as a supplement to some original material on my own service, I assume that those responsible for that site can be trusted to maintain the integrity of link. That assumption is a risk -- the picture of Al Gore I linked to my story last night might be a picture of the July centerfold this morning. This danger is even more important considering there is no difference for the user of my service between a link to local material and a link to supplementary sources elsewhere. The Compass team had little choice regarding this issue; we needed the content available from other sources. If I was in charge of a public service I'd probably want to be a little more careful.
On a more practical note, when I link my story to another part of the Web, I assume that all of the technology between the reader and the desired document will be functioning. At this point in the evolution of the Web that is an even bigger worry than the concern above. We were constantly changing and updating the links in our sections to reflect address changes, new additions, and links that were correct syntactically but rarely produced the requested page. Most of the servers in the world are still under construction, and without some prior arrangement there is no way to know when developments at another site will affect your publication. (One of the minor miracles of our project was that every link functioned properly the day of our final presentation.)
A related question is how to balance research time with productive time. In other words, if as an editor or publisher I want my staff to be working hard on developing great stories for the next day or week's issue, what amount of time should be spent on keeping current with new resources on the Web? Should a set amount of time be devoted each day to scanning Net newsgroups, Web announcements, and other news services? What amount of effort should be spent chasing down and verifying possible story sources? Finally, should we shoot for an optimal 'mixture' of local and global sources of information in the same way current editors balance local stories with wire stories? We debated all of these issues as we moved into discussions of content.
In practice we found that there were two possible directions, and the best method would be a combination individual to each service. The first method is to train every reporter on the staff to have a thorough understanding of the net and a proficiency in using it to do research and stay up-to-date. The sports reporter would scour the sports newsgroups, develop contacts with other net.sportswriters and keep track of sports-related announcements on the Web. The second method is to assign specialties that cross disciplines to one or more staff members, such as "net surfer", in charge of reviewing various sources of net news for information of interest to reporters and readers, "audio hound", responsible for the audio content of the news, and "graphics assistant" who would make hypertext links among the graphics and explore various sites of public domain graphics on the Internet.
One service that may help is the Stanford Netnews Service. This service is intended as an experiment in the development of information assistants, but even in its infant stages I consider it to be a tool every reporter should investigate. It searches the Internet newsgroups available at Stanford, (the same as those available almost everywhere else) and sends an email message back to a service customer with a list of Net postings that correspond to a particular information profile. The messages can be sent daily, weekly, or over any period designated by the user.
Ultimately, the right mix of news and links will depend on the staff's schedule and resources, and the habits of the readers. (One nice aspect of publishing online is that the usage habits of the service's readers will be much more obvious than with print publications. Access can be tracked, and readers will be able to quickly and easily voice their opinions and ideas via email.) It will be crucial to follow and comprehend the patterns that readers take through the information if we want to understand how the news experience will change with the addition of hypermedia.
Both the publishers and readers of today's newspapers have developed mental and material technologies that balance the complementary strategies of searching and browsing underneath most of our information gathering activities. Newspapers are already "webs of information", but we move through them differently than when we sit in front of a computer screen. In this project I learned to see information as surfaces and depths, and to appreciate the hidden directors included in every newspaper to guide the reader efficiently to the depth they desired.
The designers of online newspapers will need to study those guides and the way they work, because the depths involved are much greater and the information is more nebulous. Online newspapers will not have the luxury of the structural, material components of print newspapers to provide the framework for information. Discovering how readers move through information when they can't turn pages or grab the sports section will be one of the greatest challenges for publishers, editors, and everyone involve in the news industry of the future.