Network: Newspapers fail the screen test

Hypertext linking of articles is too much trouble for UK newspapers
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It's almost five years since the first newspapers launched their websites. The Electronic Telegraph, The Guardian, The Scotsman, and our own Independent have ventured into the cyberspace with a seemingly simple mission: to get the news to us quicker, using real-time updates. Editors promised to keep us better informed, thanks to hypertext, which enabled journalists to cross-reference relevant articles.

I also distinctly remember talk of helping us readers to make our voices heard via e-mail feedback, which was meant to be published in real time. Some of the bravest souls on the editorial teams even talked about providing readers with their own space on bulletin boards, to let them talk things out among themselves and thus bring back the concept of a real community newspaper.

Since the Internet was a new medium, we were all holding our breath, waiting for the cool things that newspapers could create, over and above reformatting their print editions. Great expectations accompanied the launch of every online newspaper, and careers were to be made in the brave new world of interactive publishing.

Many system breakdowns and budget overruns later, where exactly are we with those visionary plans? If we examine the first objective of getting us the news in real time, then I must say that it hasn't quite worked out that way.

A test was the Glenn Hoddle debacle last week, where the news about his sacking broke at 7.21pm, and it was only The Guardian that let us know within 10 minutes. All the other newspaper sites were only displaying the news the next morning. As this was pretty much the most important news that day, lack of real-time coverage shows that the concept is beyond the capabilities of most UK online newspapers.

The second goal was to make us better informed by providing news in the context of cross-referenced articles, using hypertext links to people, facts, locations or companies mentioned in an article. A fine example of such "smarter" news is found on www.news.com or www.zdnet.com, where every article is edited to include links to relevant external or internal documents. News.com also provides "related links" to a selection of articles from archives going back several months, providing the reader with an in-depth picture of the topic.

Obviously, hypertext linking of articles is too much trouble for UK newspapers. One must seriously wonder why our newspapers even bother to publish electronic versions, if hypertext links are not going to be provided in the body of the piece, and HTML tagging is not actually used in the way the articles are presented.

The third goal of interactive newspapers was to help readers to be heard and contribute their views through e-mail. The e-mail response was to be published in real time and thus enhance the spirit of community. How do our papers score here? In general, not too good, as most limit their efforts to providing an e-mail address to the editor who then may or may not choose to publish them in the next day's edition. This is a one-sided form of communication, but it's easier to manage than a real-time bulletin board where all the comments and opinions of the readers are published instantaneously, thus allowing the readers to contribute to the content of the paper. A great example is again news.com, where each of the articles has a big Talk Back button, leading to the shared conversation area where all the messages from the readers appear in real time.

True, there is a Talk section in The Guardian, but you have to go to a separate area to enter it, by which time I usually forget what my comment was about and end up quitting the site. A real-time bulletin board exists on The Scotsman, but skews the interactive communication toward the techies, as it only appears on the technical section. The same goes for The Independent Online.

However, the Scotsman scores for the use of cool tools that exploit the interactive nature of the Net. My favourite is the Family Notice section, which has space for obituaries or wedding announcements. It would be even more useful to have e-mail links, so friends and relations could send a message directly to the family or person. There is also a live webcam showing Princes Street in Edinburgh, which indicates the traffic levels and parking space (or rather lack of it), very handy if you're planning to go shopping.

Finally, newspapers evolved from bits of paper nailed to a tree next to the busiest market stall. Thus traditional newspapers are marketplaces, but their interactive equivalents here in the UK seem to shy away from a bit of trading excitement. On the San Jose Mercury News site in California, you can buy and sell used cars, get a new house in Palo Alto, or rent a TV cheaply. Here in the UK, in contrast, online classifieds are often out of date and, more importantly, placed on separate sites that are not always easy to find.

All in all it adds up to a poor showing by UK newspapers, considering the talent, not to mention the budgets, being poured into electronic publishing. Lack of real-time delivery, disregard for hypertext, and a reluctance to give the reader a voice over and above a simple poll, are all good reasons to rely on the Americans for true interactive newspapers, at least for the time being.

Mail your views on online newspapers to eva@never.com

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