July 1997

Root Page of Article: The Web and the Paradigm of the Front Page, by Flora J. Garcia

The Fourth Medium?

Is the World Wide Web the "Fourth" Medium? Perhaps it is even more, suggests Geoffrey Baker, editor of the Southern Maine Daily Beacon. "The Web is something fundamentally different, a news medium never before seen, which offers possibilities far exceeding any other medium in history. While no one can predict the future, I believe that it is the nature of the Web--anarchic, universal, inexpensive--that will forge our newspapers in the future," Baker said in a interview, via email." The rest is all hardware. Whether we read 3D papers in VRML browsers with wraparound stereophonic holographic monitors while we control delivery with electronic body-suits, I don't know. But we'll still be reading online 'papers,' even if they have sound and video seamlessly woven in."

Current electronic pages generally depend on the use of the Netscape Web browser or Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Browsers are still the source of much discussion, as is the lack of flexibility of HTML and unwieldiness of translation from popular page design programs to HTML. Point-and-click HTML development software may provide some hope for greater sophistication and, subsequently, creativity.

For now, most pages are designed to be viewed on the slightly less than 7-inch wide window that is a Netscape default. Though these formats are taking advantage of the full depth of the screen, they do not take advantage of the full width. Since it would be poor design to make someone read type for 14 inches, there is no reason that the additional one-third of a screen could not be better used with side pictures or a column approach. In addition, traditional publication design used columns, something not seen in this survey of newspapers' Web sites.

As sites emerge and newspapers begin employing people with greater experience in multimedia, new forms for Web pages for news will emerge. The issue of a new online news employee is vital as well. Just as newspapers started to recognize the value of the visual specialist and encourage talented people to become graphic and page designers, so, too, must online efforts stop depending on copy editors and computer programmers to learn Photoshop and slap together pages.

Abandoning the format of lists and the linear nature of newspaper will be a start to improving news on the Web to achieve a new presentation. However, there are two important principles from traditional newspaper design, namely that the hierarchy given a reader is useful and that combining text and accompanying visuals (pictures and graphics) aids both in understanding and in retention. Hierarchy draws upon the index pages of the weekly news magazines and the summary pages of newspapers. The Chicago Tribune would be one example of a site efficiently using the real estate of the home page.

Another option is configurations of pull-down windows and other mechanisms that layer text. Say the hitter selects LOCAL news, a pull-down menu appears partially or completely obscuring the other options for the time being. This takes advantage of the popularity of a Windows-like interface and manages to reduce waste of precious screen real estate. The advent of improved browsers, with support for Javascript, Java, and ActiveX make options along these lines more possible. These methods would allow an on-screen version of the piles of information on our desks and coffee tables.

Whatever evolves as newspapers begin to shift design resources to their online efforts, it will be imperative that the results match and surpass the richness of the design on the rest of the Web as well in our popular culture. The implications for news delivery are huge, with sites that combine historic context and modern news, but so are the stakes. It is only with a compelling presentation that does more than the existing media are capable of doing that the future of online news can be assured. --

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