USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Is CueCat online journalism's next biggest thing?
Skeptics tear it up

Depending on whom you believe, Dallas Morning News editor Oscar Martinez is either working on the next big thing to rock print and online journalism or the next big-budget, high-tech flop.

His focus: bar codes.

That's right, those ugly, inch-long blocks of vertical black lines and tiny numbers, once the exclusive domain of cereal boxes and coffee cans, are at the center of the Dallas Morning News' latest effort to stay at the forefront of technology.

The Morning News recently became one of the first newspapers in the nation to print bar codes alongside selected news stories in the paper, allowing readers armed with digital swiping devices wired to their computers to instantly find additional information on the newspaper's Web site, dallasnews.com. (The Charleston Post and Courier in South Carolina was the first, offering tiny codes to the main news site in May; magazines such as Forbes, Parade and Wired also have adopted the technology.)

Morning News readers can pick up one of the free hand-held gizmos, called CueCats, at a local Radio Shack store or order one online. They must install the accompanying software and fill out an online form.

Then, once clear of the administrative hurdles, they can drag the cat-shaped scanners across bar codes in the paper and watch as related Web pages appear offering more details.

Martinez, the newspaper’s "Digital Convergence news editor," works with print editors each day to determine which dozen or so stories beg for more information and thus deserve the code treatment.

On a recent front page, a story about a congressional report on the Branch Davidian siege in Waco carried a bar code linking readers to the document’s complete text. A census story included a code leading to more demographic data. A piece about the presidential candidates' economic plans, however, ran code-less.

"We're not just doing it because we can," Martinez says of the technology. "The content drives it."

Those behind CueCats hail them a major technological development. They predict bar codes will find their way into nearly every newspaper in America, allowing millions of readers to easily find information otherwise hidden deep in the recesses of the Web.

If that were to happen, it would indeed drive many more readers to online news sites, but critics aren’t so sure that day will ever arrive.

Some observers have concerns over consumer privacy. Others simply believe readers aren’t interested. "I think that this is a nice Pet Rock for print publishers," says Vin Crosbie, managing partner of Digital Deliverance, a Connecticut-based consulting firm specializing in online publishing strategies. Crosbie is one of many industry insiders who has criticized the device on the Online-News e-mail list.

The Dallas Morning News has much to gain if the technology takes off. The newspaper's parent company, Belo, has invested nearly $37 million in the firm that developed CueCats, Dallas-based Digital Convergence.

Because Digital Convergence is preparing for an initial public offering, it's now in a quiet period, and officials there and at the newspaper declined to speak in too much detail about the early response.

They do say that since the CueCats were made available for free Sept. 1, nearly 800,000 people nationwide have picked one up and installed the software.

"I think that's quite a statement," said Peter Eschbach, Digital Convergence vice president of communications.

Morning News editors, however, won’t disclose exactly how many people are actually swiping the story codes. "What I hear is that they're generally pleased," says Belo Interactive's Gerry Barker, who manages dallasnews.com.

But a recent report in the Dallas Observer quoted an anonymous editor as saying the number of visits to scanned sites was "abysmal, much worse than expected."

Those gambling that CueCats will catch on insist that most newspaper readers simply don’t want to type in lengthy Web addresses. CueCats save readers the trouble, they argue, taking them several clicks into the Web with a single swipe. "What this does for me as a normal, everyday computer-literate consumer is to go deep into the Web without having to spend a lot of time with search engines," Eschbach says. As Barker puts it, "Why not bridge the gap between the print and the Web? We want to give you a way to expand your information experience."

Critics, however, have been having a field day with that notion. "The CueCat idea right now works on the presumption that people are going to read newspapers and magazines next to their computer keyboard," says Crosbie, the publishing strategist. "I don’t think that’s likely." Rather than use the device to swipe newspaper stories, most readers will employ the CueCats for more practical purposes, he predicts, including using them as "door stops."

Salon columnist Scott Rosenberg also questions the premise behind the technology. "Is it that hard to find a company's home page on the Web?" he writes." If a company wants a magazine ad to drive traffic to its Web site, what's more reasonable for it to expect consumers to do: Type 'www.companyname.com' into their browsers, or laboriously install the CueCat and its software and scan a bar code?"

Even Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has entered the fray, reportedly criticizing the devices on a local Dallas radio show. Beyond the debate over CueCats’ practicality is a serious concern over consumer privacy.

The Denver-based Privacy Foundation recently issued a warning about the scanners on its Web site. "The Privacy Foundation's primary concern with the CueCat software is that it attaches a unique user ID to each scanned bar code," the foundation states. "This unique ID number, along with the bar code, is then sent back to Digital Convergence Corp. computer servers. This feature could potentially allow the company to track the: CueCat scans of every consumer who registers for the service. The registration requires a user’s name, email address, and zip code; and requests answers to a list of questions about the user’s buying habits, hobbies, and Internet use."

Eschbach of Digital Convergence says the company has been working with privacy advocates to address those concerns. He notes that the next generation of CueCat software does not require users to supply their names. What’s more, he insists that the company will not track individuals but rather larger demographic groups.

"What this is set up to do is to collect aggregate data," he says. "We’re able to tell how many guys 40 to 50 years old living in zip code X swiped a particular Cue." He insists that the company has nothing to gain by invading consumers’ privacy. "Quite frankly, if our users are not comfortable with this technology, they’re not going to use the technology and we fail," he says.

Still, skeptics abound. "Yeah, sure," Crosbie retorts sarcastically. "We’ll trust you on that."

It’s too soon to say whether the technology will catch on, but the day is coming soon. A number of other newspapers plan to add bar codes in the next few months. Audio versions are coming to television. (A Belo-owned Dallas station sends a couple of audio signals out during its news shows.)

So before long, we’ll know whether the CueCat is just another Pet Rock, or if it really is, as its proponents insists, online journalism’s next big thing.