Web not ready to take byte out of newspapers

by Bruce MacKenzie (BA'79, MA'81)

In the last two years, futurists have gazed into the World Wide Web and seen the death of the printed word. The power and possibilities of the Web, with its obvious advantages over ink on paper, are so seductive, it is easy to claim that the world's printing presses are headed for the scrap heap. But those predictions are premature.

The Web, because it carries words, pictures, sounds and movies in digital form, can store huge amounts of information, transmit it quickly almost anywhere in the world and, perhaps most importantly, allow readers and authors to interact with each other. There is no need for printing presses, paper, delivery trucks or the mail system. Anyone can be a publisher and any publisher can easily reach readers all over the world. For someone who is passionate about news or information, it's a compelling vision; certainly the possibilities of the digital world led me to leave traditional journalism for what are often called "the new media." But the Web, for all its promise, is a long way from realizing its potential and a long way from replacing newspapers. Before it can become a mass medium at least three conditions must be met:

1. Access must be cheap and widely available.
2. Transmission speeds must be very fast.
3. Equipment must be less like a computer and more like a television remote control. (And the screen should have resolution approaching that of printed paper, rather than looking like a cathode ray tube.)

Technical changes are occurring at varying rates, but even if these three conditions are met, the Web will not become a mass medium unless people are convinced there is a good reason for them to use it. For most readers, the reason will be what people in the Web business call "content." That's the stuff that goes between the pretty pictures: the information.

If you want to find out what is going on in Burundi this week, the Web can probably help. If you want to write a high school paper on the history of Albania or the biology of an obscure lizard,however, you're probably better to buy a good encyclopedia on CD-ROM. The information is probably on the Web, but finding it and assessing its reliability can be difficult.

One reason you can get information on Burundi is that news organizations like Reuters, CNN, Time-Warner, Southam and others have Web sites, usually for free. They, and thousands of other companies, realize the Web has the potential to deliver information cheaply and quickly to very specific groups in an increasingly fragmented world. However, all but the most foolish realize this promise may never be fulfilled. And even if it is fulfilled, there are many years of red ink between here and digital Nirvana.

The trick is finding a way to pay for the whole thing. So far, universities, governments and private companies have been footing the bill for information on everything from beetles to Baywatch. Most of the Internet purists who complain about the intrusion of commercialism onto the Web probably get their connections paid for by a university or corporation. But information costs money. Even if the Web makes transmitting and storing it relatively cheap, gathering it is still tremendously expensive. It costs more than $1 million a month to run the newsroom of a large Canadian daily newspaper. The $1 you pay for your paper in many cities barely covers the cost of getting it to your door. The rest of the bill, and all of the bill for radio and TV news, is footed by advertisers.Today, there aren't enough people on the Web to be of interest to any but the biggest advertisers and even they are not willing to invest large amounts of "experimental" dollars on Web advertising.

The Web may kill newspapers one day, but to look at its potential and assume that potential will be translated into reality is naive. There are a lot of technical hurdles to overcome and there is the even bigger cultural hurdle of a generation that likes to hold a newspaper that can be folded, shared, subdivided, torn, lost or burned. Until they are replaced by the generation who grew up on video games and TV remote control, the printed word will be with us.

When the new generation takes over, though, all bets are off.

Bruce MacKenzie is the editor of JournalExtra, The Edmonton Journal's electronic publishing department. His e-mail address is brucem@thejournal.southam.ca and the JournalExtra Web page is at http://www.southam.com/edmontonjournal/
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