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Five hundred and fifty years since Gutenberg first began work on that Bible, the printing press is under its worst threat since television. The good news is it's never been a better time to be a newspaper publisher. The bad news is you need to adapt or die.
New media encroaches on all old media territory. Suddenly--before you can say "Yahoo!"--newspapers find themselves competing with the CNNs and Matt Drudges of the world. All that's fit to print is now all that's free to hyperlink.
In Malaysia, The Star was the first out the gate when it launched a Web edition in June 1995. Since then, firmly entrenched print players such as the Utusan Group, the New Straits Times Group and smaller Chinese newspapers have jumped onto the online bandwagon.
But in the four years since, progress can only be described as excruciatingly slow. Most newspapers still cannibalize their print stories to turn into byte chunks with little, if any, exclusive content for the Net reader. Advertisers aren't biting onto e-commerce tie-ups either. And editors and journalists have yet to figure out their new globalized roles.
As an example, the New Straits Times (NST) recently launched a monthly Business Computing pullout, to complement its twice-weekly technology pullout, Computimes, neither of which, ironically, is available online.
The NST plans to roll out another pullout called Travel Times soon, suggesting that publishers and advertisers still prefer proven print circulation instead of muddling through page views and click-through rates.
But there are rumblings on the horizon. Yahoo!, ZDNet and Lycos are flexing their muscles in Asia. With brand name recognition and guaranteed eyeballs, they have the means to carve out a significant slice of the ad pie. The alarm bells ringing for local newspapers is to quickly shake hands, stand aside, or burnish their online offerings.
Of the present lot, the Utusan Group seems to have the most aggressive Internet strategy. The newspaper via its subsidiaries Utusan Multimedia and Netspace Learning has built up parallel ventures in Internet access reselling, Web hosting, interactive learning systems and CD-ROM production.
Its flagship site Utusan Online uploads at 1am, long before the print edition hits the newsstands, and often carries pictures, which possibly explains why it claims 15 to 18 million hits and four million page views monthly.
"We wanted to be the first. It helps promote the print edition and indeed our circulation has gone up rather than the other way around," says online editor Faridah Hitam.
Other local publishers and editors still cling to the notion that if they publish online ahead of their print edition they may give "scoops" away to competitors, or that readers may stop buying the paper altogether.
Faridah admits advertising revenues have been miniscule compared to print but going online has broadened its audience globally and the email feedback has been encouraging.
Utusan Online's cyber journey has had some hiccups though. It previously attempted to mirror its Malay content in German, Spanish, French and Japanese. Maintaining translators eventually proved too costly. The newspaper's English alter ego Utusan Express , however, survived the cutbacks and this was significant in that Utusan has no daily print edition in English.
"I foresee a time when the publication will become more conspicuous and may even be spun off," says Faridah, who has three staff for the English version and relies on wires for additional content.
The Star originally went online to expand the paper's community role and build up brand awareness. "Those abroad could get news from back home without having to wait. We also hoped online readers would be 'ambassadors' to non-Malaysian friends," says veteran newsman Davin Arul who pioneered the project with colleague Gilbert Yap.
Advertising for the online edition has grown tenfold from 1996 to 1999, although Davin concedes that the bulk of ads is still in print. "Online newspapers won't last long if they rely on just banner ads and classifieds to survive. We need to become mediaries for our advertisers to their clients," he adds.
Davin is currently vice president of I.Star Sdn Bhd, a newly formed subsidiary of the paper, which may play that mediary role. Last month, I.Star signed a deal with Canadian company Eduverse.com offering free English lessons on the Net and displaying ads while the students are learning.
Davin hints that the tie-up is only the beginning of a series that may see the paper selling advertisers' products directly for them. However, he does not advocate the path some U.S. newspapers have taken in building Web sites free for companies in exchange for a percentage of profits from the product or services offered online.
"Web development can be really time consuming and eat up human resources. What we could do instead is to partner with a Web developer to handle all this work. The way of the Web is to go out and form all these little partnerships and links and add them all up to a lot," he says.
In the U.S., old media players have linked up with new online brands, or banded together for Web initiatives to stave off competition. Classifiedwarehouse.com, for instance, is a unified database that combines classifieds content of hundreds of newspapers to keep readers from diverting to free cyber classifieds or eBay-styled auction sites.
A centralized online news archive may work the same way, retaining individual branding by hyperlinking it back to the originating newspaper for every archived story.
But a skeptical Davin believes political and corporate differences are too divisive for such cooperation to be replicated in Malaysia. Both Utusan and Star are pursuing individual fee-based archival systems.
"More exclusive content never hurts but I prefer to concentrate on timeliness rather than frills like audio and video. Local bandwidth is still not at the stage where such multimedia capabilities can be appreciated on the Web, and I don't see it getting that way for at least two years," says Davin.
Internet readers have also come to demand fast-breaking news, real-time stock quotes, updates on sports events, and community content closer to home.
According to Davin, the Star Online may be posting live news updates by next year or 2001. "The desire is for the online edition to cover an event as it breaks, and for the print edition to carry the added value such as analyses, reactions and perhaps even a follow-up," he adds.
He, however, concedes that newspapers may be slow to get this off the ground, mainly because they are not editorially attuned to Net time. "It's a mindset issue. The inertia is caused by years of doing things one way and being reluctant to shift to a new way. That change can come only with education and exposure. Papers should provide more surfing stations in newsrooms to make editors and journalists appreciate the power of the medium and the reach it gives them."
Davin notes that the online medium has already turned up the heat on the local press, though. "People now have instant access to thousands of new sources affecting their own little corners of the world. Newspapers must learn to read the trend of their readers' wants and needs more than ever, and realize that the era of spinach journalism --"Read this, it's good for you"--is long dead, even in developing countries. People are a lot smarter and better informed than their leaders give them credit for."
Not everyone should be a publisher or reporter a la Matt Drudge though. "Look at the kind of unsubstantiated nonsense that flies around the Net. Newspapers, for whatever their faults, have a set of standards and practices that prevent most malpractice or abuse from seeing print. Individuals are not bound by such constraints and ethics. Some people will stop at nothing to get their message across, whether or not it is the truth," says Davin.
Another area drawing concern in journalism circles is how the Internet blurs the line between what is news and what is paid content.
Wall Street Journal Interactive managing editor Rich Jaroslovsky says he is optimistic that editorial integrity will win in the long run. "People aren't fools and they will eventually understand and devalue sites that feed them paid content masquerading as real news," notes Jaroslovsky who is also president of the Online News Association , set up this year mainly to promote editorial integrity on the Net.
He adds, however, that it may take a long while for consumers to develop this kind of "digital literacy" to distinguish the difference. "Precisely because the line can be so blurry, news people need to go to extra lengths online to make sure we observe the line clearly."
Although English is the predominant language of news content, the next century may see a rise in content in other languages, particularly in Asia. Jaroslovsky believes the medium will become more culturally and linguistically diverse because the rate of growth of Net users outside the English-speaking world is on the rise.
"It must change because the alternative to a diverse and widely accessible Net is the creation of classes of information-haves and information-have-nots, with serious attendant economic consequences," he adds.
Will newspapers always be free on the Internet? "I think there will always be a mix. Many of them will be free, but some of them--especially those that add high-quality, premium, proprietary news and information--will be paid," says Jaroslovsky.
He believes news content will be akin to television in the U.S. where there are both ad-supported, free, over-the-air channels, and premium subscription channels. "Free sites will remain a prime source of news though, if only because the barriers to entry are so low on the Web," he concludes.
History has shown that no new medium has killed the other off. Radio and TV continue to thrive despite the coming of the Internet. In the case of the Internet versus the newspaper, the jury is still out.
"The newspaper industry needs to become a significant player in the Internet information business -- instead of continuing to trot along slowly, feebly trying to catch the bullet train speeding down the tracks, " says Editor & Publisher online columnist Steve Outing in a recent column.
Getting on board may be the first step. Either way, cautious old media publishers and editors can rest assured they're in for one hell of a ride.
(Published in CNET Asia, Oct 08,1999)
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