Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 4 / August 1, 1994 / Page 9

Pyxis Cyberea: Discovering content in a new medium

Lessons from the Florida Compass WWW news prototype

by Gary Ritzenthaler (, Assistant Editor CMC Magazine

[During the spring of 1994, seven students at the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications developed a prototype for a World Wide Web-based news service called the Florida Compass. While many of the lessons we learned were just new versions of guidelines already established in journalism, both these 'new versions' and the process of our re-learning might be of interest to those watching the future of the news media. This essay is the third in a series of reflections on the what we learned from creating the Compass. I welcome all comments via the address above - you can read selected responses to this column here.]

Discovering content in a new media

I've been looking at old newsreels with a new interest lately.

I've found a new fascination with early television programs, and I've been reading some old history of journalism textbooks purely for pleasure. I've even signed up for a class in the history of journalism this fall. I've found an appreciation for the old stories and anecdotes about the history of journalism, and an excitement about the people who innovated in media and the decisions and mistakes they made. What might be more important is my belief that this excitement can be infectious.

I'd like to use this column to pass on my secret, since it springs from my experience as team leader of the Compass project. I'm not sure about all students studying the media, but I've found that students who work on the development of news projects for the World Wide Web are a bit more receptive to the legends of journalism history. They're more attentive to the past because they can relate to problems the pioneers of earlier mass media faced in their search to find useful, interesting, stimulating content--quality information to light and decorate the mostly barren landscape of a new medium.

The early winners in the fields of print, radio, film, and television succeeded in part because they created the best bridge between old and new, the best combination of the productive elements of existing media and the intriguing possibilities offered by the new technology. In the last few years, media technology has progressed again, adding a new chapter to the mass communication textbooks of the future. The growing market of Internet news consumers can expect that information will be delivered to them in ways never before possible, but the kinds of information these people want will stay the same.

The lessons of past media successes and failures are there; I believe that students who study them closely will be the most successful content innovators for the mass/personal media of tomorrow.

The Compass development team faced the problem of lack of content early in the construction of our prototype. Since the product we developed was the result of a class assignment, (not a venture formally allied with any traditional news medium available in the UF College of Journalism and Communications), we began and ended the project without any established sources of content. Like the pioneers of earlier media, we had two fundamental options for the creation of Compass material: In the course of our work we tried several activities devoted to finding good material in these two possible directions.

Content Development Projects

Lacking any formal source of news content to fill up the publication, the development team explored a number of ideas intended to give the prototype the look of a news service as well our required demonstration of an original structure. The simplest solution was material written by the Compass team itself. Each member of the group chose a particular type of headline news (i.e. national, international, etc.) and a particular topical section such as sports, technology, or entertainment. In between planning and implementing structural and design elements, we wrote a number of news briefs summarized from various print and online sources. A few group members also contributed longer pieces they had written.

In addition to our sampling of stories, a few local writers outside the development group became interested in the idea of writing stories for the Web, so we invited them to submit stories in an informal way for the Compass prototype. This besides providing us with more material, the work of outside journalists gave the team a look at how student writers with some experience in traditional newswriting would respond to the challenges of the new medium. Most were initially apprehensive about learning HTML but with few exceptions they found their fears to be overstated. Almost all of the student journalists who produced a story for the prototype learned the fundamentals of HTML and worked through elements of the Compass' story development process in an afternoon.

Although the development staff authored a small amount of content for the prototype and guest writers produced a bit more, the staff knew that given our other development tasks we wouldn't be able to fill out the paper in time for our presentation. We also knew that even though we didn't have a formal news feed available, the future staff of the Compass probably would. (The UF College of Journalism and Communications receives the Reuters newswire service for use in classes; we assumed the wire would be made available (with some restrictions) to the final online news service as well.) Our technical specialist Vic Cook began work early in the development timeline on a computer program "script" to automatically mark up wire service stories into HTML. This facility was completed ahead of schedule, giving us the ability to include a nearly unlimited amount of stories from the wire into our publication.

We were sensitive to the obvious copyright issues involved in simply translating Reuters stories onto the Net, however, so we didn't implement the script into our presentation project available on the World Wide Web. We felt it was smarter and less of a hassle to wait until the legal and administrative issues were resolved. In order to test the markup script, though, as well as to provide some more 'official-looking' content for the issue, we ran the script with a batch of week-old stories and included them in the prototype. This allowed us to demonstrate the function of automatic markup without providing a full, free news feed from a commercial wire service to the numerous users of the World Wide Web.

The easy procedure for including database indexing and searching controls into World Wide Web servers and browsers suggests that the use of various news databases will be an important part of the Web customer's news-gathering experience. Future users of WWW-based news services will be able to search archives of that publication as well as special databases related to a particular story. Several campuses already offer the ability to search AP or other wire service databases through Mosaic or other Web browsers; in time this feature may expand into the Net in a more organized fashion if wire services devise appropriate means of charging for their products.

One final result of our search for content blossomed into a project almost as involved as the Compass itself. During the course of our development effort, I had the opportunity to talk about our news prototype with a few students taking an undergraduate news reporting class at UF. There was the usual groaning about how difficult the reporting class was and how hard it was to get motivated to write a new story for every class. Mindful of the amount of space we had available in our online edition, I asked them if they thought they would be more motivated if their stories were published on the Internet for a potential audience of 20 million people. They agreed the potential for publishing online would do a lot to energize their efforts.

I thought about that conversation a lot over the next few days, and the idea of using the Internet to provide a new publishing forum for journalism students made a lot of sense to me. Given a pool of 60 stories a week, for example, all written by students in an undergraduate reporting or news writing class, (two stories a week by thirty students), I considered a situation where only a conservative ten percent were truly publishable. This was a small number of stories, but it was still a trickle of steady stories for a content-starved publication. I decided to come up with a plan for the exchange of stories from reporting and news writing classes into the online news services we had planned.

As I was drawing my ideas into concrete form, I had a related conversation in which someone wondered aloud if other online publications around the net were having the same problems finding content for their projects. At this point, of course, the light bulb went on and I conceived of the idea of getting all these publications together with the many student writers in journalism and writing classes around the world. I formalized my idea and wrote it up, only to find that others had already had the same idea.

Fortunately we were able to integrate our work together into a common project, an endeavor we call the Global Student Newswire.

Over the summer the GSN has progressed from a simple concept for the exchange of stories to a collection of activities that involves many of the tools of the Internet, and other subject areas in addition to news reporting and writing classes.

I'm hoping the project will gain even more momentum in the fall; anyone interested in getting involved should look over the documents provided by the link above and to email me or any of the GSN staff with questions or comments. We'd welcome all new ideas and contributions.

Interactivity as content

It was ironic, given the many ideas we explored for developing content, that one method of creating quality content we didn't try was one that has proven successful for many existing online services: audience participation. Audience participation in online services can take many forms, from chats and guest forums to reader-run services and programs and ultimately to reader creation of news reports themselves. Customers enjoy their online experience more if they can become involved, so audience participation provides a "bonus" in customer relations in addition to the creation of usable material for the product.

Our reasons for not including reader interaction and participation in our prototype were mainly technological. Forms-based technology allows users to submit comments and ideas via their WWW browsers, but at the time of our prototype this capability was still in development and unavailable on the Windows platform. The capability of forms adds new dimensions to the options for Web news products, but it does so at the expense of alienating users of character-based browsers like Lynx. Developers of future news services will need to weigh the trade-offs and strike a balance in the creation of their products.

In addition to our difficulties incorporating forms, the capability for user "chat" is still unavailable via Mosaic or other browsers, though one could customize a server/browser combination to start one of the many available chat clients from an HTML document. Chat clients and other interactive programs need not be incorporated into the Web browser physically to be effective, however. With a bit of organization, users of a particular news service could agree to meet at a certain time on a particular Internet Relay Chat channel to discuss a current events topic or to come up with ways the service might be improved. For our prototype, this kind of organization just didn't seem feasible given the burden of our other tasks. If I was involved in a commercial Web-based news service with a growing clientele, though, over time I'd want to make as much of user interaction as I could without overshadowing the other aspects of the service. The history of the media is a history of bringing people together; technologies that provide this benefit should be high on the list of priorities for innovators.

Defining the proper content

Even if content is plentiful, there are other considerations. Like early experiments in radio broadcasting, many news services on the World Wide Web are the result of explorations by print newspapers and local groups of technology innovators. As complementary or supplementary projects allied with print publications, the content delivered by World Wide Web news services depends on the function the editors of both publications have in mind for the new media product. Since the vast majority of Web-based services are free of charge, the editors of WWW news services (especially those run by commercial newspapers) need to strike a balance between giving enough relevant news and services to make the new media product valuable and giving away too much of the company's "bread and butter" for free.

Commercial news organizations have answered this challenge in a number of ways. NandO.Net, a Web-based online service run by the Raleigh News and Observer, the company compensates for a relatively small amount of straight-text news with a wealth of other options and entertainments. The Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, on the other hand, has explored the best way to present news in the new medium at the expense of the development of complementary services.

Student newspapers have different objectives, since they aren't entirely driven by the same forces that influence commercial experiments.

In fact, for some student-run newspapers, the question seems to be how much to deviate from the printed version rather than how much to adhere to it. With a bit more freedom to experiment, student WWW newspapers have tried a number of different design and structural ideas but most have stayed fairly conservative and close-to-home in terms of content.

(I suggest Jonathan Bell's list, Campus Newspapers on the Internet as a reference for those who wish to review student WWW news experiments.)

I think it's important to distinguish between commercial and campus-based news projects when looking at content because the desire to restrain a Web-based news project in certain ways to keep it from being too competitive with a print edition is a much stronger influence at a commercial project than it would be at a campus-based service. This is especially true in the cases where the (print) student newspaper is distributed free of charge to the local student community. Many of the organizational and economic mechanisms would remain the same, for example, if the students at UF suddenly demanded a WWW version of our local Independent Alligator instead of the print version distributed today.

There are other influences, of course; people read and use a newspaper in scores of different ways, and only a few of those ways are currently served by a technology based on computers and phone lines. Print newspapers won't be replaced, they'll be complemented (again) by another form of information/news/entertainment with its own strengths and weaknesses. The World Wide Web is a new medium and the key innovations will be those that exploit the potential of the technology. Still, those planning or developing World Wide Web projects might want to take some time out to look again at a few old newsreels.

Gary's previous columns about the Compass project appeared in June and July in CMC Magazine.

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