From the April, 1998 PC ALAMODE Magazine:
Online Newspapers:
Rocky Road to Maturity
by Linda Ash

Newspaper online sites are traveling a rocky road to maturity these days.

 Thanks to that wonderful World Wide Web, newspapers now are able to offer a complete multimedia package of news to its readers, both online and off. This method of news delivery is already making some changes in newsrooms across the country. So, how much of an impact will these newborn online sites have on their big brother, the daily newspaper, in the future?

 Quite a bit, once online earns the respect of other newspaper departments by proving that it can generate revenue as opposed to being a virtual money pit, sucking away funds that could go into those other departments.

 Now that I have your attention by talking money, let me explain the preceding sentence before moving on to how, one day, I believe online will change the way newspapers cover the news, and some of the growing pains involved in getting to that point.

 Running an online site is expensive, even if you are a small newspaper with small plans for distributing information over the Internet. Not only do you have to have the equipment and software necessary to launch your site, you need skilled personnel to design, update and maintain it if you hope to drive repeat traffic back to your site. The bigger the site, the more it will cost to keep it going and to keep it in competition with other sites.

 Where does this money come from? Right now it's coming out of company coffers. Publishers are digging deep into their pockets to keep online sites afloat until they can catch the wind and set sail on their own power. Sure, most sites have some ads on them, but don't think for a minute that those few ads are underwriting the costs of keeping that site online.

 So, why are publishers willing to shell out so much money for an online presence? Because they're looking toward the future. They know the Internet is that shot of adrenaline newspapers have been needing for years. The 'net is a way of delivering the contents of the newspaper without the confines of printing press deadlines. Also, newspaper online sites are combining the audio and video that make television news so attractive with the indepth reporting at which newspapers excel.

 Hurrah! Finally, newspapers with online sites will be able to compete with radio and television in delivering the news of the minute, rather than the news of the day before.

 But hold on a minute, we're not at that point yet.

 Online editors do not have the luxury of thinking that if they simply build a site that people will come. That site has to have enough compelling content to make readers return over and over again. Simply adding most of the contents of the newspaper will not attract local readers -- why should they go online to read something that appears in their daily newspaper? The online site needs to complement what appears in the paper by offering readers what they can't get offline: audio, video, additional photos, e ntertainment, the community news that never gets in the paper (ie. Little League scores), online-only columns, forums, chats and, most importantly, breaking news.

 Well, that takes care of the readers: give them compelling content and they will come.

 Now let's look at the newsroom. News editors work on deadlines. So do reporters and photographers. If an event happens at 10 a.m., a reporter may not turn that story in to his editor until 6 or 7 that evening. By then, however, the event has already been aired on the noon and 6 p.m. local news as well as on local radio stations. The newspaper story and accompanying art won't appear until the next morning. By then, in the eyes of a television-viewing public, that's old news.

 Online editors are usually at the mercy of the newsroom when it comes to getting local breaking news online. The problem is that, as noted above, news reporters, photographers and editors are focused on gathering the news and putting it together by the time the printing press first starts up around 11:30 p.m. Distributing news minutes after it is gathered is an idea simply so foreign to newspaper reporters that they don't even think about it, even if their newspaper has an online site.

 So, after mulling over the impact of online on the daily newspaper, I've come up with a few conclusions based on observation and a little bit of intuition.

 First of all, I believe that newspapers' grand adventure on the Web will be financially successful in the long run. Online sites will sail on their own after developing that compelling content to draw traffic. Once they have the traffic, then they'll start bringing in enough revenue to earn their keep. When that day comes, a newspaper and its online sibling will be working as a total communications company, offering their readers the best of print journalism in a print and video format.

 In the near future, I see reporters carrying tape recorders with them at all times so that online readers can actually hear what was said during an interview or at a news conference. Reporters also will tote digital cameras and laptops so they can upload the news directly onto the Web immediately following an event, giving online readers updates on breaking news.

 A new way of thinking will evolve as newspaper online sites continue to break old boundaries. The newsroom of the near future will adopt a new deadline for its reporters, photographers and editors. News happens every second, and on the Web, there's a deadline every five minutes.

 Linda Ash is New Media managing editor at the San Antonio Express-News,