Chris Gulker column

This century's media revolution has, paradoxically, made it both easier and harder for you and I to connect.
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The Independent Culture
My, but you're getting hard to reach. By you, I mean the reader, of course. You're getting so hard to reach that 30,000 people got together in San Francisco last week to discuss the problem, at the Seybold publishing conference.

A big topic was dynamic publishing, which translates to the art of reaching people who are hard to get to, in lots of different ways.

Delivering one's thoughts to one's fellows used to be a pretty straightforward affair. I would catch you down at the pub, and we would chat. Or maybe I would scratch a few words on some paper and mail it to you.

This century's media revolution has, paradoxically, made it both easier and harder for you and I to connect.

Easier, because telegraphy, telephony, radio, film, television and especially the Internet make it simple to span the distances that separate us. Harder, because there are so many different ways to reach someone, which also means so many ways not to reach them.

In a world with hundreds of broadcast channels, thousands of publications and billions of Web pages, neither I nor most of the world's publishers can be sure of just where you will be looking when we want to get your attention, for something vital, say, like an advertisement for toe-fungus remedy.

Even a single medium, like the World Wide Web, is difficult. You might use Netscape Communicator, or Microsoft Internet Explorer, or Mosaic, or Lynx, or Arena, or Amaya, or Cello, or Chimera, or CyberDog, or MacWeb, or WinWeb, and who knows which version of which browser you favor?

You might not even be browsing the Web at all, opting instead for America Online, or CompuServe, or using other Net protocols like FTP or gopher, or push media like Pointcast and Marimba.

These days, you might not even be using a PC. You could be using a PDA, a television set or even a telephone to browse the Web.

And all these technologies have different features, and different rules for displaying content. My message could be scrambled, if it's even visible.

So, to be sure that we connect, I need to format my message in a bunch of different ways. The problem is, I don't have a lot of extra time on my hands. I barely get my column written and filed on time as it is, without having to rewrite it a half-dozen times.

Imagine how difficult things are for big-time publishers. A newspaper, for example, already struggles mightily to get hundreds of articles and photographs and graphics included in just its daily print editions.

Harried editors blanch if you even suggest they re-do each piece a half dozen different ways. But that's exactly the challenge they face, as their customers move to new ways of receiving information.

One solution is to hire more people, to handle the extra work. Print publishers have, after all, honed their practice for more than 150 years, ever since the first steam-powered rotary presses appeared in England and Germany, dropping the cost of a printed broadsheet from a couple of bucks - or quid, or samolians, depending on your vernacular - to a penny.

And that practice entailed a human-powered assembly line, with copy flowing from writer to editor to typesetter to platemaker to printing press to delivery van to news agent or doorstep. This was truly push publishing.

The drawback is that customers, particularly Web customers, aren't tripping over themselves to pay extra for Web delivery, leaving the publisher digging for the dosh to pay those extra hands.

The hard part is formatting. It's highly desirable to format the text with headlines and bylines and decks so as to make it more readable, and to mix in things like photographs and graphics that help to convey the message.

But the formatting has to be done differently in each medium. Even the computer codes for a headline are different depending on whether it is destined for print or the Web or elsewhere.

One solution is to tag each piece of content with a description of what it is, rather than what it should look like. For example, today a headline goes out with a spec for the size and style of the type, say bold, 48 point for print and

for the Web. In the future it would just say .

The formatting would happen on the fly in the displaying device, according to rules that are shipped along with the content. That way, both a television set and a Palm Pilot could display the content, with each piece proportioned to match all of the rest.

The look and feel, so important to each publisher's identity, could be preserved without becoming illegible or silly, depending on the medium. The Independent would look like The Independent, no matter where, or in what form, you chose to read it.

Even better, content could be dispatched from a central server. The content creators would only have to worry about keeping the stories and graphics current and correct. The client and server computers would handle the rest according to layout rules set by designers conversant with each medium.

Imagine: dozens of correctly formatted ways to get the latest word on controlling toe fungus!