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I believe [books], and all forms of print, are dead. Finished. Over. Perhaps not in my professional lifetime, but certainly in that of the youngest people in this room....
Twenty, thirty, at the outside forty years from now, we will look back on the print media the way we look back on travel by horse and carriage or by wind-powered ship.
Those were the words of Dan Okrent, editor-at-large, Time magazine, speaking in a Hearst New Media Lecture at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University in late 1999. The title of his talk, "The Death of Print?", was a good indication of one print journalist's take on the future.
Okrent is not alone. A year and a half earlier, Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen predicted that newspapers, magazines, books — and even TV networks — "will die and be replaced with an integrated Web medium in five to ten years." (The End of Legacy Media, August 23, 1998)
Such predictions are based on two factors. One is the cost savings that can be realized by delivering information electronically. The other is the advances in technology that will make reading on screen preferable to reading a static page. In this column, I want to focus on that second point and what it means for journalists and others publishing online.
A while back, online career center Monster.com ran a commercial featuring a group of people reciting Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." In a sense, that poem's mention of two diverging roads is an accurate reflection of what's ahead for the delivery of news.
To illustrate this point, let's take a look at coverage of a recent news event, the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. For some people, just knowing the nominees for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress is all the information they need.
Traditionally, newspapers have done a good job with delivering that information, if you don't mind waiting a day. For example, the day after the announcements were made, most newspapers ran an article summarizing the nominations, and many ran a sidebar with a complete list of nominations in all categories.
For those who did not want to wait a day, many news organizations also placed that information online as soon as it was available.
While it's nice to have the information sooner rather than later, for many people there's not a great appeal in having to get to a computer, log onto an ISP, and connect to a Web site. So one major trend that we are just now starting to see is people wanting to get information on the go: in other words, mobile wireless. That's the first "path" into the woods.
The early adopters are already getting their information in this manner. Users of Palm Pilots and some models of Nokia and other cell phones can grab the latest headlines and stories while on the run. Dozens of news providers — including USA Today, The New York Times, FOX News and The Weather Channel — offer Web sites formatted especially for reading on the go. (AvantGo offers free access to these services.)
The Second Path: Rich Multimedia
This stripped-down content also makes sense for some Web surfers, who basically want the headlines and, maybe, the leads of a few top stories. To that end, some surfers have written programs that strip tables, ads, and graphics from Web sites and leave just the text (see, for example, test.angel.net/nic/salon-home.cgi for an example of a "deboned" version of Salon.com.) Other surfers have found that some news providers don't follow AvantGo's rule that requires them to block access via non-mobile devices. 
But most people who go to the trouble of firing up a PC to connect with the Web are looking for a far richer experience. And that's the second path: The path to fully realized interactive multimedia.
Way back when the Web was being born, there was tremendous excitement in the world of news over the possibilities ahead. Articles would be linked to original documents and related resources; the back story would be available with a single click of the mouse; audio, video, and animation would illustrate important points in ways that words alone cannot.
The reality — at least so far — has been a bit different. For many print news organizations, the story that ran in print gets dumped into the Web site: shovelware, as it's called. Nothing is added to take advantage of the new medium, and existing materials are often available only at a price. In that environment, there's little incentive for anyone to visit most news Web sites.
Fortunately, some news sites have begun to take seriously the Web's possibilities. Returning to the Academy Award nominations, major newspapers like the Washington Post and The New York Times (note: registration required) provide a glimpse of the future: links to previously published reviews, links to the official Web sites of the nominated films, and so on.
But the sites that are really pushing the envelope rarely come from the print world. ABCNews' Mr. Showbiz.com, for example, offers lists of all previous Academy Award winners; interactive quizzes that let you test your trivia knowledge and predict the winners; search engines that let you track down what awards a performer or director has won — and much more.
Perhaps surprisingly — especially given ABC's background — little is offered in the way of video clips. But given the inevitability of faster delivery in the coming years, it's easy to see how such visionary sites can incorporate audio and video: clips from the nominated films; sound files from interviews with the nominees; and so on.
Such rich sites promise to fundamentally change the face of journalism. But the ultimate goal of such projects adheres to the same journalistic principles that have been with us since the days of the quill pen: present information as clearly, thoroughly, and accurately as possible to help the reader make sense of the world. In that sense, the Web changes nothing. But in a large and very exciting sense, the Web will soon change everything.
Thom Lieb is an associate professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Baltimore. Among his courses is Writing for the Web. He is the author of Editing for Clear Communication and has written and edited for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and online publication. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Communication from the University of Maryland at College Park and a master's of science in Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University. You may contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Mark Frauenfelder, Just the Text, Ma'am, The Industry Standard, 12 February 2001.
Links from this article:
Dan Okrent, "The Death of Print?" Hearst New Media Lecture, 14 December 1999 http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/news/2000-12/hearst2.asp
Jakob Nielsen, "The End of Legacy Media," 23 August 1998 http://www.useit.com/alertbox/980823.html
"Deboned" Salon.com test.angel.net/nic/salon-home.cgi
The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com
The New York Times
Mr. Showbiz Goes to the Oscars http://mrshowbiz.go.com/features/oscars_2001/index.html