News on the Internet: Technologies and Trends
by Dr. Yuri Quintana
New Media Lab, University of Western Ontario
The news industry is currently undergoing major transformations as a result of the growing popularity of the Internet (New York Times) and innovations in Internet multimedia technologies (IEEE, PC mag.). The types of news sources available on the Internet include newspapers, news wires, cable television, news magazines, and radio stations (Notes). New technologies for the Internet include animations, direct manipulation of graphical interfaces, and real-time, on-demand audio and video. This article describes some of the technologies that are currently being used on the Internet to deliver news and covers some emerging trends and issues.
The Internet has created opportunities for widespread electronic delivery of news at a time when print delivery methods are becoming increasingly less profitable and losing readers. Vincent E. Giuliano of the Electronic Publishing Group has reported that the circulation of newspapers has declined since 1990, with the newspaper share of advertising slipping from 50 percent in 1930, to 27.6 percent in 1980, and to 23.6 percent in 1993 (Rowland). Declining readership of newspapers is also occurring, especially among those in younger age groups. Currently, only 52 percent of 18-to 24-year-olds read daily newspapers compared with 71 percent in 1967 (Wylie). The average age of readers of many of the large newspapers is older than 50, which has motivated many newspaper organizations to move toward electronic delivery methods and seek new markets (Newswire). The number of online newspapers grew from 20 in 1993, to 100 at the end of 1994, to more than 800 at the start of 1996, and more than 1,500 at the start of 1997 (Outing). The Internet can be viewed as both an opportunity and a threat to the news industry. However, not only are there technology barriers that news organizations need to overcome to deliver news electronically, but there are also problems of employee attitudes toward new technologies and resistance to change. In addition, the news industry faces the problem of trying to meet the needs of a rapidly changing target market. The number of Internet users has been debated widely, but estimates range from 10 million to 22 million Internet users and from 11 million to 17 million WWW users (New York Times). Furthermore, the expectations of the Internet community will become more diverse as more Internet users are added (Resnick).
Various approaches for electronic delivery of news are described following. Some news web sites are listed in the appendix. An extensive list of news web sites can be found in Quintana 1996c.
Some newspapers on the Web attempt to implement the look and feel of the print versions. For example, Times Fax is an eight-page excerpt of the New York Times formatted using the Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Documents encoded in PDF require the Adobe Acrobat viewer from Abobe Inc. that is available for most computing platforms. This approach preserves the look and feel of a newspaper but lacks the interactive features available on the Web.
News wire releases from Associated Press and Reuters offer headlines and full-text stories. The headlines sometimes appear with a one- or two-line description of the news item. Typically, the description is the first line in the article. These news sources are updated continually throughout the day.
News magazines such as Time, U.S. News and World Report, Business Week, and The Economist are also on the WWW. The stories in these magazines sometimes have links to the home pages of the individuals or organizations mentioned in the article. However, the links are typically not included in many news web pages, which is an example of the technology's not being fully used for the benefit of the news consumer.
Major television networks also have descriptions of their television shows, transcripts of news broadcasts, and timetables for their programs. Some major television networks on the Internet that offer news content are CBC, CBS, and NBC.
Multimedia can add dramatic effects and influence the perception of news stories. Examples of uses of multimedia news on the Internet are: photos and video re enactments of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Superbowl photos and video replays, photos of the Simpson and Goldman murder scene, audio of the verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial, and audio of Nicole Simpson's distressful voice in her 911 phone call.
Cable news networks such as CNN provide up-to-the-minute coverage of news, including video stored in Apple Inc.'s Quicktime movie format. Cable sports networks such as ESPN and the Fox Sports Network provide up-to-the-minute results on sports scores and include photos and in-depth stories.
Interactive animations such as weather patterns or stock market price tickers can be implemented with software tools such as Shockwave from Macromedia Inc. and Java from Sun Corporation. Those applications-also known as applets-can be downloaded from a WWW server and offer interactive capability similar to that found on current CD-ROM implementations. Many of these technologies can be incorporated into WWW browsers with plug-ins, which are software modules that can be defined to process particular types of files that are downloaded as part of a WWW page.
On-demand audio and video allow users to hear and see a file as it is being downloaded. With on-demand multimedia technologies, news can be continually updated, which appeals to readers of breaking stories such as sports news or conflicts in progress. Radio stations are making their broadcasts available on the Internet with on-demand audio technologies such as RealAudio or Toolvox by Voxware. Examples are CBC Radio, CBS Radio, and Prime Sports Radio.
Television stations can make their video available with on-demand video technologies such as VDO Live. CBS has a daily on-demand video of its "Up to the Minute" news broadcast. PointCast allows the continuous downloading of a multimedia news feed, and such a technology can very quickly fill the bandwidth of networks, but it may cause problems for some organizations. In addition, this type of continuous downloading may pose a threat to the Internet's capacity if it becomes widespread.
There are several ways in which news readers can interact. One approach is by sending e-mail messages to the news organization that can be made available on the news web site. Unmoderated usenet newsgroups provide greater freedom for discussion, but unfortunately most news stories posted on the WWW do not have links to relevant usenet newsgroups.
Another form of interactivity is chat. Chat consists of the interactive exchange of messages between two or more users in real time (i.e., messages are seen as soon as they are received). Text-based chat rooms can be found on some news web sites such as the Boston Globe's. Audio chat rooms are also possible with software from companies such as Quarterdeck. In some cases, users can choose to have an avatar (a graphic image or icon) to represent them in an interactive area of exchange. Avatars enable users to project a particular image to other users.
Some electronic news sources on the Internet are free, and other news sites are only partially available, requiring a fee for full access. Very few newspapers are currently making a profit from their Internet-based systems (Associated Press). One of the exceptions is the Nando Times of North Carolina, which has more than 2,500 paid subscribers who access the newspaper either on the World Wide Web or via Nando Net's bulletin board service (INES Media Concept). The Nando Times has archives of news stories, and it uses photographs and advanced multimedia effects implemented with Java extensively. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have an online fee-based version of their newspapers.
Other fee-based news services use information filtering based on keywords (Bates, Bjorner, Everett). News items that match those keywords are then sent via e-mail to the user. One of the difficulties with keyword filtering is that the words in a keyword profile may not be the same as the words in a news web page. Example: the words lawyer, barrister, and solicitor. Another issue occurs when words in the keyword profile and the web page are the same but are used in different contexts. The word table could mean a furniture table or a mathematical table. Future work in artificial intelligence may lead to at least a partial solution to the problems.
One of the major benefits of online news is that users of the Internet can gain different perspectives on news. Users are no longer dependent on their traditional sources to receive their news, but can now reach news services around the world. The global accessibility and rapid availability of news may result in differing opinions about events. Local biases in reporting may now be quickly offset with information from different sources at relatively low cost.
One recent example of bias in reporting concerns the diverse accounts of the number of people attending the Montreal rally held before the Quebec referendum of 1995 in Canada. Internet news readers were able not only to get diverse views of this story from across Canada but also to have continual updates of the referendum results, see reaction to the referendum from around the world, and gauge the reaction of financial markets.
In other cases, local governments can suppress expression by groups and individuals. An example is the British government's invocation of a broadcast ban on direct statements by representatives of Sinn Fein-the political wing of the IRA-under the Broadcast Act of 1981 and 1990. Sinn Fein has its own home page and newspaper-Phoblacht Republican News-on the Internet. The point here is not whether the British government has a right to a ban or whether Sinn Fein acted properly in setting up an Internet WWW site (which are legitimate and interesting questions), but, rather, that the Internet has both opened up new ways for groups and individuals to express themselves and provided consumers with new sources of information on which to base their opinions.
Finally, the so-called Trial of Century, namely, the O. J. Simpson case, was extensively reported and watched on television. Television has a linear format for presenting information. Even though television viewers had the option of changing channels, most channels were reporting the same information in similar formats. The World Wide Web can provide users with the freedom to choose the news stories they want see-presented in formats of their choice-and to see the news when they want. This style of news delivery has many advantages for the consumer of news, but it could represent a change and an ultimate loss of editorial control by news-providing organizations. To what extent users will be empowered to control the news they want to see and what effect this will have on society will probably be determined during the next few years.
Future news systems for the Internet will need to have flexible systems for multiple and remote authoring, as well as better methods for storing, organizing, and retrieving information. Object-oriented databases can potentially be used for flexible authoring and storage and may enable journalists to contribute news items or objects via remote Internet connections-such as from a laptop in the field-and by using hierarchical object-oriented controls for access and revision. Users can also have the ability to retrieve selected objects such as sound files, video, and text from a news database (Quintana, 1996a). Other systems (Haake, Ozsu et al.) have used SGML (ISO, 1986) and HyTime (ISO, Newcombe et al.) document-encoding formats to create object-oriented representations of news.
There is also an increasing trend in the design of user interfaces to create personalized displays of information. The Fishwrap Newspaper project (Chesnais et al.) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology allows users to create their own personalized list of news sources. The system initially selects some news sources based on a user's responses to personal questions, such as the user's hometown.
Future electronic news designs will also use intelligent agents that will keep users informed of news by browsing on behalf of users. Current filtering systems are based on keywords (Bates, Bjorner, Everett), but future systems may use knowledge-based techniques to filter information more accurately than existing methods (Quintana, 1996a). Such agents will, however, pose threats to a user's privacy and security.
Improvements in online interactive multimedia will increase the dramatic effects and impression of news and result in new forms of electronic advertising. Global expansion of online news services on the Internet will also increase the amount of news available to users from what was previously available through traditional television news sources. Understanding the effective design of online interactive multimedia (Conklin; Nielsen, 1995, 1996; Quintana, 1996b; Shneiderman) and the needs of users will be key to the success of future Internet-based news delivery systems.
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