USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





The Emperor Has Beautiful Clothes

This is the text of a speech that OJR Executive Editor Larry Pryor gave at the Society for News Design's Annual Workshop & Exhibition, held in Philadelphia, September 7, 1998

In the six months that the Online Journalism Review has been publishing, our job has been to assess the quality of content on the Internet. Our conclusion: Much of the Web's content, with notable exceptions, lacks substance -- it does not have a deep impact on one's life. A session on the Web is like eating a meal that still leaves one hungry.

What content am I talking about? I divide content on the Internet into four categories: interactive elements, documents, non-news and news.

Interactive Elements

First, the interactive parts of the Net: e-mail, chat, lists, newsletters, forums and, now, e-commerce -- including on Intranets and Extranets. This is the true power of the Net today. These applications have the capacity to form virtual communities, promote discourse and foster electronic trade worldwide.

Documents

Another broad area of content consists of documents -- those stored at government agencies, universities, libraries, research centers and court systems. These are mostly reports, records, transcripts, manuscripts and legal filings. They tend to be one-dimensional, but can be highly valuable and newsworthy and give the Net its vast breadth and depth.

Few government agencies offer time-saving transactions or value-added information. And most document repositories are marginally useful, unimaginative and uninspired. To make matters worse, much of the content in this category is haphazardly and randomly catalogued.

A quick visit to the Securities and Exchange Commission's site will get the point across. Many Net documents reside in unsorted, unlabeled electronic filing drawers, awaiting the day that someone will get serious about cleaning up.

Non-News

A third category of Net content might be designated as non-news. This takes in the bulk of Web sites, the ones that deal with hobbies, politics, jobs, ideology (including hate and bigotry), cult beliefs and corporate messages, i.e. propaganda. And, of course, sex and erotica, which is estimated to account for 40% of Web information transfers.

Special interests have staked out this territory. If you need to find your dog's astrology sign or an appraisal of 'Mein Kampf,' it could be considered useful. But most of this Web content is either abhorrent, whacko, one-sided or so narrowly cast as to be irrelevant and a time-waster.

That free marketplace of ideas, say Web boosters, makes the cyberspace the last refuge for free thought. Anyone can become a publisher. All voices have value.

Such a condition may have once existed on the Net, but I would argue that the laissez-faire argument is now largely a myth. Thanks to uncaring interests of many stripes, the Web has now become so complex, cluttered and disorganized that quality sites -- when they exist -- must compete for attention from the bottom of a digital dump. Good content on the Web gets buried.

Tim Berners-Lee, one of the Net's Founding Fathers, said last week that the Web has grown too complex. He compared it to a colossal, unindexed book.

This chaos has terrible consequences for Web content. A publishing entrepreneur can break through the clutter by carefully tailoring a product to a consumer market. Even then, the best chance for success and recognition rests in being provocative, trading in rumor and gossip or by playing to the search engines.

Search Engines

The way search engines and browsers are now engineered, programmed and used compounds the problem. They define our information choices for us in fundamental ways.

Netscape and Microsoft seem hell-bent to convert their browsers into mini-search engines and the opportunities for hidden marketing deals to drive traffic seem ominous. Portals further contribute to narrowing the pathways of information in potentially dangerous ways.

The key question is: Do we want Netscape, Microsoft, Disney, AOL, Yahoo!, Excite, Infoseek and a handful of corporations with interlocking ownership and hidden agendas determining what information we receive on the Net? Can we trust these for-profit organizations not to skew the selection of content based on marketing considerations, i.e. payoffs?

Their power to cut through the digital clutter and organize content can seduce the information seeker into entering the corporate world. But this convenience comes with a high price. Large Net corporations now become the selectors of content, not the consumer.

News

A fourth body of information exists on the Web, again, a terrain of highly uneven quality: news or timely information.

Let's take the most obvious problem first: Most news content on the Web originates in another medium. The vast bulk derives from newspapers, wires, magazines, network TV and radio. Only a small fraction of this derivative content takes advantage of the Web's multimedia capability.

The word 'shovelware' comes to mind. This lame adaptation resembles the early days of cinema when the movie makers aimed their cameras at dramas on stage, a failing of which those who produce Web news are painfully aware.

Not only is most news on the Web derivative but also lacking in substance or superficial. This trend seems to be getting worse.

In only three short years, Web editors and designers have sorted news into neat categories: breaking, financial, sports, entertainment, technology. Web publishers are mining each category as a separate vertical market. And within these narrow categories, the most desirable information are facts and factoids, statistics and briefs.

Slicing and Dicing

Moreover, customized news products, sorting mechanisms and 'push' delivery systems, allow this information to be separated so that consumers get what they demand. Their needs are met, often brilliantly, but this content holds few surprises or spontaneous delights. It's like having a digital laser aimed at your brain.

This slicing and dicing of news allows publishers to skim off the most popular and profitable topics for delivery, while putting more substantial topics, such as about government, politics and global society aside -- or so far down in a database that it is almost irretrievable.

Role of Web Designers

Where do Web designers fit into this dismal picture? Designers are both at the center of the problem of weak Web content, as well as in a special position in the industry to help rescue the medium from a downward spiral into the same mediocrity that claimed the soul of television.

The decision-making and dynamics of Web production have elevated the role of online designers far above the roles they play in print and broadcast. When organization charts are drawn of Web sites, the designer usually resides in the center, a pivotal spot among the business, editorial and technical staffs.

Web producers, editors and technical directors generally rely on the designer to create the 'look and feel' of a Web site. The designers come up with the initial -- and crucial -- concept of the site. (Later modifications by business and editorial staff are usually minor, or the entire concept gets scrapped, and the designer along with it.)

Designers often play a key role by selecting the navigation modes, a responsibility that gives them great influence in determining how a site is used. They get to define the editorial and marketing functions of the site. They allocate buttons or choices and rank this finite number of selections.

In Web terms, this is the power of God. Designers can play up their holy mysteries and leave the rest of a Web operation in awe of them.

But positions of power require making hard choices. Designers often have to weigh how to allocate a site among conflicting interests. The business and marketing people, for example, bring -- and push hard for -- money-generating functions: paid archives, classified ads, and E-commerce, display ads and sponsorships.

This revenue is easily identified and quantified. That is not the case with the editorial staff. Editors bring costs to the table and the value or return is hard to quantify. It may or may not generate the traffic it is supposed to.

The designer can get caught in the tension between revenue and cost centers at the site. It becomes his or her job to devise a compromise so that revenue -- and site traffic -is maximized, that marketing needs are met but editorial content still remains visible.

Designers of news sites have been remarkably successful at reaching this balance. This has done much to make them the most important people at any Web site. They are often included at the highest corporate decision and planning levels. On the other hand, conscientious editorial staff members tend to be omitted from these discussions. Under these circumstances, budget plans and resources can be allocated to Editorial as a fait accompli.

Unlike print or broadcast, the head of a design team on some sites has the power to allocate resources within his or her own department between editorial and business tasks. A graphic artist on the Web can turn from producing an ad one minute to creating a news graphic the next. There is nothing intrinsically unethical about this. But the Web designer's dual functions represent the complex -- and pivotal -- position that graphics people enjoy.

In many ways, graphic designers have usurped the role of editors. In many cases, they have become the conscience of the site, the people with the integrity to draw the line between editorial and marketing, the church-state arbiters.

Equally remarkable, designers in many ways have eclipsed the technical staffs at Web sites and often become the key decision-makers or advisors on the selection of software, hardware and delivery systems that will make the site function.

What's Wrong

So, what's wrong with this picture?

The basic problem is that Web publishers, whether Net-native or derivative, have still under-invested in new media. In many cases, fearful of costs that would delay the day their sites turn a profit, they appear to be investing only enough to keep Bill Gates and AOL at bay. Protecting classified ads is the name of their game. And if you can give your brand name a high-tech look at the same time, so much the better.

This means most Web producers are forced to borrow content from print or broadcast. Their mission is to spend only as much on editorial Web staffs as will make their product look plausible or attractive to narrow, vertical markets: financial, sports and entertainment, primarily.

It becomes the job of the designer -- and to some extent the programmer -- to make up for or disguise the shallow or narrow nature of the news content. This allows the business side to postpone a commitment to a high-quality Web product and to avoid costly steps, such as improving staff training, integrating Web staffs with traditional news staffs and increasing staff sizes.

In fact, successful design has worked against the development of original news content for the Web. Even the most praised news sites resemble Western movie sets, with little behind the handsome store fronts.

How Designers Can Improve Content

Since they have done much to create this problem, designers are also in a key position to push for reforms and make them happen. Not only have designers quickly gained influence and respect in the Web industry, they tend to be the ones in any Web organization with the most vision and creativity.

They are often trained in editorial departments and share the cultural values and social concerns of news staffs. They know good content and can recognize marketing schlock for what it is. By temperament, they are not comfortable in shafting the consumer or settling for second-best or allowing a site to sink to the lowest common denominator of the medium.

Designers need to lead the way in a search for better content on the Web. They need to make it clear to Web producers and publishers that the limits to disguising inadequacies have been reached: The latest software marvel is not a substitute for innovative multimedia content.

Solutions for Editors -- and Designers

What can be done? More Web graphics capability needs to be shifted to editors and writers at Web sites. Editorial staffs must be better trained in multimedia technology. Derivative sites need to integrate their Web and traditional news staffs -- they have to start working together.

News content needs to become less dependent on traditional publishing and broadcast cycles. It must become more original and timely.

Both derivative and Net-native sites must adopt multimedia technology. Designers should be pushing for content that would better serve Web sites, such as digital photos, graphics tied to breaking news, audio and video versions of interviews, press conferences, speeches and local news events.

Both Web designers and editors need to be shifted into newsrooms and be directly involved in the editorial process. Their physical placement in newsrooms and at editorial meetings would allow them to break the publication and broadcast cycles and to get multimedia content working at the earliest stages of news events.

This has to be done now, while standards for Web production are still being defined. If the existing low standards continue, it will be difficult to improve quality later. (A look at the history of network TV and how low quality got locked in serves as an ugly example.)

If nothing is done about Web content, the public will eventually drift to another medium. Cable and satellite-delivered digital TV, including movies on demand, are just around the corner.

The interactive capabilities of the Web are probably here to stay. But increased Net traffic does not guarantee an ever-growing, loyal audience for Web news sites. Much right now is taken for granted, the all-boats-will-rise scenario.

But today's success on the Web could be eclipsed tomorrow if the public is offered a competing medium of higher convenience and quality at a competitive cost. Face it, consumers have only so many hours a day to acquire information and entertain themselves. This is hard-fought turf.

So, let's not squander this opportunity as a new mass medium develops over the last half of this decade. Designers, be bold and grasp the day and turn this trend toward inadequate Web content around.