Times they are a changin'

 

THE statistics tell it all. At the end of 1994, there were about 100 newspapers throughout the world with online projects. The figure today, according to online media specialist Steve Outing, is 800 and rising.

Newspaper, caught in a pincer movement between steeply rising costs, increasing price sensitivity and generally declining readerships, have long sought a solution to their long term ills. In the early 1980s many millions were spent on fanciful concepts like videotext, but though the theories of online delivery were roughly right, the technology was much too immature, unreliable, slow and, worst of all, mirrored none of the virtues of a newspaper such as contextualised and hierarchical presentation.

The idea of electronic or online delivery of news information did not perish, however. And when online services such as America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe started to grow rapidly in the US in the early 1990s, they looked to the established news providers for quality information. The newspapers generally responded enthusiastically: here was a platform for experimenting with online delivery while minimising their financial exposure.

However, though major titles such as the Los Angeles Times and New York limes went online in this manner, many began to question the strategy. Newspapers had gone from being publishers to being just one of many features on a service. "We are now just a shop in somebody's else's mall," as it was said at the time. And the returns, especially for the less powerful newspapers, was pitifully small. Such were the constraints imposed by the style and features of the various services that the newspapers also lost their, distinctive look - in effect their branding. There had to be a better way.

Conferences came and went and so did an ever more imaginative range of proposals. For example, this writer remembers a conference run by the international newspaper research organisation IFRA in Munich some years ago, when hundreds of leading executives sat transfixed as Roger Fiddler, head of the US newspaper giant Knight Ridder's development facility in Boulder, Colorado, explained how the time was nigh for the printed word which would be replaced by an electronic tablet.

It was a persuasive presentation, but one loaded with menace for the executives who between them, had invested huge sums in printing facilities. Questions were requested. Mr Ted Crosbie, a sagacious member of the Cork Examiner's ruling family, congratulated Mr Fiddler and then asked (with due deference to Americanese) if he could swat bugs with the tablet. As his comment was translated around the hall one could almost hear the sighs of relief. The printed newspaper is a mighty flexible friend.

But if the end of the printed newspaper is not yet at hand, most industry observers now believe the time is right to produce an online product. The growth of home PCs with communications equipment, the demystifying of computing generally and the phenomenal interest in the online world have created a climate when it would be downright negligent of any newspaper to ignore the winds of change.

The technology which has prompted the new rush to go online is the Internet and its graphical offshoot, the World Wide Web. The Web, as it is fondly known, is a particular friend of newspapers as it allows them to play to their strengths of presentation and context. In late 1994, when The Irish Times went live with its Web site, there were fewer than 50 newspapers in the world with Web editions. Today, well over 90 per cent of 800 or so newspapers with online projects have a Web site.

In recent weeks some of the really big hitters have come online. The New York limes finally launched its site at Christmas, followed quickly by the London Times. The momentum for online publishing seems irrepressible, but there is as yet no clear strategy for revenue, an issue further complicated by the absence of any definitively secure transaction software. Both of the above publications have adopted fundamentally different approaches to the issue of fee or free.

Richard Withey, director of new media at News International, plans that the site, featuring extensive versions of the Times and Sunday Times, will remain free, as befitting the so called free culture of the Internet. He sees the main potential for revenue in online advertising and premium services such as online archives and personal editions. He is careful to point out that though the site is currently free, this might change in the future.

The New York Times On The Web is more bullish in its approach. It has adopted a four pronged strategy to raise revenue. Top of the list is subscription fees. International subscribers will pay $35 a month while there will be a different rate structure for US residents. Those who already get the NYT delivered to their homes will get access to the online edition as an added bonus. Advertising is also being targeted as a major source of revenue, as are a range of premium services such as archives and, finally, transaction fees for goods sold via its site.

The problem, as Steve Outing said in his online column, is that "no one has come up with a newspaper online service so compelling that computer users - who already pay an access fee to an Internet provider or one of the major online services - flock to it in numbers even approaching six digits. But this is where I think the New York Times has a shot of succeeding. It is one of the few newspapers that can get away with charging for its content on the Web and succeed where others fail."

Other niche publications are also thinking along the same lines, but it is an issue which will only be resolved by experience. This is what newspapers are attempting to do: to gain valuable information on a new platform while, at the same time, protecting their core market. Most newspaper managements could do without the hassle of further publication complications, particularly in a technical world of which they have little knowledge, but they cannot afford to ignore a platform where none of the old economics of production apply. The catchcry has become "If we don't do it, somebody else will." ,And they will. A recent survey of Web news sites revealed were organisations other than newspapers, such as cable news network CNN with one of the most impressive sites.

However, there is some way to go and many believe that the model of transferring the printed newspaper to the Web with some minor embellishments is but a very short term solution. The online product will have to grow a personality of its own with content and services to match. It will have to be more interactive, be able to react fast to breaking news and to give its clients what they want, when they want it and how they want it.

As Peter Winter, chief executive officer of New Century Network, an umbrella online development company formed by nine leading US newspaper groups, told a conference in Zurich in November: "The first thing I did when I became interim CEO of New Century Network was to forever ban the phrase online newspaper. It is a bankrupt concept. It is highly fallacious and it is very dangerous to think in those terms. Replicating electronically what you do in print is a bit like taking a video camera to a Broadway play and imagining you are in the business of television production. This is a new medium."