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Digital, on-line multimedia technology is changing the nature of news

by Wade Rowland

© Wade Rowland

It took the harrowing ordeal of a little girl down a well and then a war in the Persian Gulf to get the world to sit up and take notice of CNN.

Now, the bombing in Oklahoma City has snapped into focus the nature of the medium that's going to replace cable news networks as the place where journalism is redefining itself.

Three hours after the explosion the Internet and the big American on-line service providers found themselves in the news business in a big way. American On Line, Prodigy and Compuserve all worked rapidly to provide subscribers with the latest information on the blast, forums for discussion and links into Oklahoma City bulletin boards.

Internet providers in Oklahoma City went a step further, presenting live video from local television and photos from the city's newspapers. Lists of survivors and their whereabouts were posted long before they were available from other sources.

It was all a bit primitive, a little amateurish, but it was there.

"Watching what happened on-line in this case convinces me we're looking a a fourth medium, a new kind of newsroom," said Ann Brill, director of the digital Missourian, part of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

That fourth medium is digital, on-line multimedia, and it's going to change the nature of news.

The evolutionary path to on-line multimedia news is well-charted: in the beginning there was the printing press, then the pamphlet, then the newspaper and the wire services, then radio news making a big impact in WW 2 and then television news surging to the forefront with political conventions and assassinations, then cable specialty news channels with wall-to-wall live coverage of everything, then distribution of TV news services on direct-to-home satellite.

These familiar technologies for delivering the news have one attribute in common - they deliver what they want to deliver, and they deliver the same package to everyone on their route. What you get is not necessarily what you need or want, but as a customer, you have only one choice: take it or leave it.

Would you accept that from your grocer?

The coming of the digital, on line era in communications has rewritten that equation to put the customer in the driver's seat. You get to decide what's news and what isn't and the system delivers what you ask it to; nothing more, nothing less.Very soon, on line services will be available on the broadband fibre optic pile lines being installed by the nation's telephone and cable companies and when that happens it will make current on-line services look about as sophisticated as a couple of coffee cans and a piece of string.

Broadband, interactive, multimedia news is a real mouthful that badly needs a more manageable handle like "TV news" or "the press". A more manageable name may be "Infopike News".

It's multimedia because it provides information in the form of text and sound and video; it is interactive in the sense that the user can make choices about both content and presentation; and because it is broadband, access to both text and video will be lightning fast, there's plenty of space in the pipe for a hefty return path should you want to interact or contribute content, and there's enough capacity to ensure high-definition picture quality. It can be delivered to any video display device backed up with a modicum of computing power, such as a PC with a video card or a television with a "smart box" decoder/navigator.

Even from a simple technical point of view, infopike news is different enough in degree from conventional news media to be different in kind. The new relationship it sets up between content provider and end user makes it revolutionary.

It can be difficult to picture at first. It helps to start with something familiar.

Imagine conventional television news this way: at a certain time each evening you're strapped in a chair in a particular room and someone fortyish and semi-attractive sits down in front of you and begins reading bits and pieces from a newspaper in a sonorous voice.

Your mouth has been taped shut so that you can't communicate to say "speed up" or "slow down", or "I already know that", or "who cares?", or "what was that again?". No matter how much news there is on any given day, the reader reads for precisely the same amount of time, editing on the fly to be sure to finish on time. Periodically, he or she pauses to shout commercial messages at you.

That's television news: it is linear, time-constrained, rigidly structured, non-interactive, viewed by appointment only.

Now imagine that there is no reader, that the newspaper is in your hands to do with as you wish, whenever you want for as long as you want; to read from back to front, or starting in the middle, or every second page, or just the sports section, or just the career ads. Nobody shouts commercial messages at you, but if you're interested in the latest lap-top computer or mountain bike, the product information is there to be seen.

It's a very thick newspaper; in fact, a whole library of papers, cross referenced and indexed so you can dig behind any news story for background information, earlier stories, related reports and the kind of research data the reporter used.

Now you're getting close to imagining what's coming on infopike news, which is non-linear, random access, interactive and available on demand.

Finally, imagine that the newspaper knows your likes and dislikes in terms of content and layout, size and scope of coverage. It puts your favourite writers and columnists on page one, along with the cryptic crossword you like to do. It knows you have a special interests in Latin American politics and Americas Cup racing and always plays those stories prominently when they turn up. It gives you a brief headline summary which you can delve into and expand as you wish. It even searches the ads and shows you the ones you're interested in, if you ask it to. (Eventually, it will learn from your usage patterns and becomes better at its job as time goes by.) It is your own personal edition of the newspaper, updated continuously, 24 hours a day.

That's infopike news with a "smart agent". It is not science fiction: it will hit the market in in late 1995 or early 1996 in New England, Florida and the American southwest, and in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia.

New Brunswick Tel is deeply committed to having such a news service on the air by December 1995, and it would be available province-wide. Working along with NB Tel is MediaLinx, a creature of BCE and the Stentor group of phone companies. MediaLinx is also committed to having infopike news available this year in city-wide test markets in Quebec and Ontario. London and Oakville are both under consideration for those tests. Informed opinion puts nation-wide rollout just five years down the road.

It's tempting to think of multimedia as an evolution of television rather than a completely new medium because it is presented to the user on a video display terminal ... a TV screen. In reality, though, broadband, interactive multimedia has more in common with the newspaper than with television.

Newspapers have been around for a long time and will be with us for a long time to come, because they have a lot of virtues as news sources.

They can expand and contract in size to accommodate news volume, they are "interactive" to the extent that they permit random access - you can open them up and read from any page and you can reread information, and they of course allow you to read as much or as little of a story as you wish. Newspapers are portable (perhaps their biggest strategic asset), and you can preserve parts of them for future reference simply by ripping out the desired page or article.

They also have a lot of obvious handicaps.

They can't transmit sound or show moving pictures. They can't present events live, as they're happening. They're out of date as soon as they leave the presses and can't be freshened until another edition is printed. Distribution is something of a problem in that it's both time-sensitive and labour-intensive and that makes it discouragingly costly in all but densely populated areas.

TV news can of course show pictures and transmit sound and it can go to events "live". These strengths long ago made television the leading source of news and information for people throughout the developed world. But television news has its drawbacks as well.

Television's trump card in news and information, its ability to present moving pictures, has by the law of unintended consequences become a kind of Achilles heel. In a competitive environment the ability to present pictures creates a need to present pictures, with the result that pictures drive the production and editorial agendas.

Furthermore, on television news:

  • the length of individual items, and components such as sound bites within the items, is established not so much by inherent value or interest as by the need to cover a wide range of news in a relatively short time, usually 30 minutes or less, whereas time has little or no editorial significance in the world of interactive multimedia;

  • there is a highly exclusionary story selection process, made necessary once again by finite time limits within which "the news" must be presented ­ television newscasts provide their audience with only a tiny fraction of the material available to them each day;

  • stories are presented in linear fashion according to a "lineup" designed to engage and maintain audience interest in the program through pacing and internal relationships among stories. The lineup tends unavoidably to give added weight to the top one or two stories in the newscast and it determines to some degree which stories are covered as full reports, as voice-over pictures or as on-camera copy reads;

  • whether or not video is available to support a story plays an important role in determining both its positioning within the newscast and the length of time devoted to it, and therefore the implied importance attached to it.

In television news, time constraints and the imperatives of pictures play leading roles in setting the editorial agenda. Neither has much to do with the fundamental goals of journalism.

At the top of the list is the fact of having to deal with a universe of raw material that encompasses, potentially, everything that's available to both television and print news outlets, as well as any number of video and print archives. In fact, there is no practical limit to the amount of information a broadband multimedia outlet can have on tap.

And while infopike news services will initially have to rely on existing news sources and services, it won't be long before a host of providers spring up to serve the special needs of the non-linear, interactive news outlet, where, it has been astutely observed, "the message is the message".

The trick for infopike news developers is to make all of this information as easily accessible as it would be in a newspaper. That sounds ambitious, but when you think about it, it takes a bit of time to figure out how to find your way around any good-sized newspaper, especially if you're looking for specialized information. You can easily spend several minutes trying to find the foreign exchange rates or the index to the classified ads. Sports box scores can be a challenge to locate in any paper you're not familiar with. Or try to find the news from Canada in any of the big American dailies. Newspapers recognize that access is an important issue for them and most go through periodic redesigns aimed at making them easier to navigate and easier to read.

But, the question of how to find things may not be as important as what to look for. Without an editor or anchor to guide him, how is the user to know what's important?

To anyone who's accustomed to having news served up in the predigested form of a television newscast, a news service in which everything is randomly accessible may seem hopelessly complicated. So, some form of organizing and prioritizing system has to be provided.

It is not difficult to imagine a combination of software search engine or "smart agent" and story coding system that would be as competent as most human editors and producers when it comes to prioritizing general interest news, and it would certainly provide much superior service in areas of your own special interests.

But it will be at least two or three years before such agents are widely available and in the meantime several other approaches to assist the user are in development.

One current plan is to borrow the headline news format from cable television as a means of establishing navigation waypoints for the user. When you select infopike news on your television or personal computer, you would be greeted by a conventional anchor reading a conventional, brief summary of current news headlines.

The wrinkle made possible by infopike technology is, no matter when you access the service, you'll always get the top of the newscast. That's because it won't be live: rather, it will consist of prepackaged, up-to-the-minute story modules stored on the hard drives of a media server.

Also on the screen, in the model being developed by Time-Warner and others, is the newscast rundown in newspaper headline style. It might list ten stories in all, an editor's idea of the ten most significant events of the day to that moment. As the anchor reads each story, the corresponding headline in the rundown is highlighted. To get more information on a story, you click on the headline (or select its number with your TV remote control) and that takes you immediately to a menu of what's available on that subject. It might include television reports from the major domestic networks as well as reports from ITN or BBC or other foreign news services. It may also include a variety of text sources from wire services to newspaper reports and columns.

A range of icons along the side or at the bottom of the screen will allow you to search for information by key word, or select other news features such as your local weather report or any of a myriad of special services (in sub-menus) such as stock market reports, club listings, video Hansard, sports specialties, special weather services, restaurant menus ... the list of possibilities is virtually endless.

In the computer environment it should be possible before too long to purchase software from third-party vendors which will allow you to custom-tailor the display features and search options to suit your preferences in the same way as you'll program your agent to search for content that interests you.

The thought that we'll all be able to compile our own newscasts is a frightening prospect for some journalists, politicians and power brokers. Their reservations are generally expressed in elaborate circumlocutions, but they boil down to a conviction that the average bloke isn't smart enough to be left with the responsibility for deciding what's news and what isn't. It is a transparently self-serving point of view.

What is truly dangerous is allowing a handful of national media outlets, spin doctors and special interest lobbyists to make those decisions on the citizens' behalf and, in effect, set the national political agenda in the process.

Manipulating three or four national television newscasts and perhaps a couple of major daily newspapers is not an easy task and one that requires expert abilities. But history has ample evidence that it can be done, and it is child's play compared to influencing several million newscasts assembled by individuals and their software smart agents.

Of even greater significance, potentially, is the fact that the infopike will be capable of providing any number of on line forums where citizens can meet and discuss, in real time and on video if they wish, the news of the day.

Given its implications, it's safe to predict that infopike news will have its share of birth pangs and that there will be obstacles both spurious and real to overcome before it fulfils its destiny as a leading medium of news and information. But you can bet the ranch on the fact that it is coming, and it won't be long before we're wondering how we ever got along without it.

© 1995 Wade Rowland

The above article was originally published in the April 30, 1995 edition of the Toronto Star newspaper.

WARNING: This site and its contents, text and graphics are copyright © 1995-2001 Blue Cat Design. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


photo of Wade Rowland Wade Rowland is one of Canada's most respected literary journalists. He has worked for the Winnipeg Free Press, the Toronto Telegram and both national Canadian television networks: CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and the CTV Television Network. Rowland writes and lectures extensively on the new media, ethical issues, and science and technology.

Rowland is the author of a dozen other books including Spirit of the Web, a popular history of communications technologies that was selected as Required Reading for 1997 by The Globe and Mail. Other recent books by Wade Rowland include "Ockham's Razor", published April 1999 by Key Porter Books, and "Galileo's Mistake: The Archaeology of a Myth" published October 2001 by Thomas Allen Publishers. He lives with his family near Port Hope and is a principal in the Internet-based corporation, Blue Cat Design.

Read bio of Wade Rowland.

Wade Rowland is available for lectures and readings. He can be contacted at the Blue Cat Design offices.

Learn about Wade Rowland's latest book Galileo's Mistake

Buy the quality paperback release of "Spirit of the Web" online. Read an excerpt.

Buy "Ockham's Razor" online at: Chapters/Indigo Bookstores. Read an excerpt.

Buy "Galileo's Mistake" online at: Chapters/Indigo Bookstores. Read an excerpt.

Other articles written by Wade Rowland:

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