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Online news a bit disappointing

This is the second part in a four-part series about the newspaper industry’s early attempts to capitalize on new media technology.

I was excited when I was given the go-ahead to research the World Wide Web for the newspaper company I was working for back in the day. The Web and the Internet offered so much promise and a world of possibilities.

About one year before I began my research, I had visited an arcade that featured a new technology being unveiled to the public: virtual reality. I was allowed to don sensory gloves and pads, and clamp on special goggles while a pistol-grip control was placed in my hand. Through the goggles I could see a dark world with platforms at different heights and locations, and a dragon moving toward me. The computer animation made the scene appear multidimensional. The added movement provided by the sensory pads and the buttons on the hand control added to the sensation. I was able to move in four directions within this virtual scene, and I could hop from platform to platform, dodging the dragon and eventually shooting it with the pistol control. I became immersed in this world after about one minute. Yes, it really worked.

I kept this experience in my memory as I began to learn about the Web, and for some reason I assumed virtual reality and 3D computer animation would naturally be woven into the function of websites as they were developed, especially in the maps. Why not?

Oh, the possibilities!

My mind went wild dreaming of the wonderful things that could be accomplished. I envisioned a living, breathing multimedia online world in vivid color; multidimensional news reports blossoming in real time on numerous windows as viewers sit back and click seamlessly, easily creating their own customized report highlighting their main interests any moment they desire, complete with sound, 3D video and virtual reality. A viewer could access all of this anytime they wanted; no need to record it.

The interactive aspect was the most exciting part. Live Web media personalities would be online and available around the clock. You could always get an immediate response. No one would ever be lonely again because Internet banks full of live people would be ready to assist you and answer any questions, or to simply talk, discussing any topic you wished. If you wanted someone more tailored to your personality, you would be able to program a virtual friend, complete with an avatar of your own design. The only need for automation would be to make the process more efficient. The best part: it would all be free.

I began my research by reading any article I could get my hands on, most in trade journals. One article that stands out was in Editor & Publisher. It included a description about Web technology and how the Web could bring news to viewers everywhere.

Here is an example:

There was a police operation in Philadelphia that turned into a shootout with a criminal holed up in a housing project. Police fired teargas canisters into the building and a raging, block-long fire resulted. Television news would bring the video to the public on the evening newscast, and newspapers would carry a front-page article and a full-length news story along with a possible sidebar the next morning.

But news organizations utilizing their websites would be able to post the news article as it happened, with on-going updates as more information became available. The website could display more photos than a newspaper would ever accommodate, and it could have them online for viewing within minutes after the action began, and more photos could be added as the situation developed.

That’s not all. The website would be able to post sidebars and news features while the incident developed. For instance, a viewer could read a short bio about the fire chief or police commissioner, and could locate the scene on a virtual map, all while watching the scene live on another window, but on the same screen.

Not yet up to expectations

After all these years I have yet to find a good 3D interactive map on any of the many sites I visit regularly, not even a computer animated map with four-sided blocks to represent buildings, with some shaded highlights to add a little perspective. Instead, Google Maps sends someone around the earth taking panoramic photos of every single street they can find for its Street View. That sounds like some convoluted idea that I would have come up with when I was in kindergarten. I noticed that my neighborhood’s street view is not yet available, and that’s okay with me — my home’s rooftop is already visible on the satellite maps. I like the satellite maps.

Still, I haven’t found any sites that let me open multiple windows simultaneously, displaying background information about the subject in which I am viewing. The streaming videos are sketchy and my streaming audio stops unexpectedly. Multimedia views take forever to load, and they freeze on occasion, sometimes knocking me off the site in order to reload.

Yes, I like Youtube and I enjoy the online music sites, but they are not live. I subscribe to satellite radio and I could play it on my computer while I work if I could find my password. Many of the attempts for live online “radio” have failed, but local TV news stations have come through with pretty good live streaming news coverage when needed. For instance, many of the San Diego stations provided excellent online video news feeds from their live coverage of the May 2014 wildfires that torched numerous communities and threatened to engulf several towns. Once the feeds loaded, they worked pretty well. Believe me, watching the progress of firefighting efforts live was a real help for those of us wondering if our homes would be threatened.

Newspapers once provided a popular and valuable service when natural disasters struck by listing names of people looking to contact their relatives they lost touch with in the face of mass evacuations. Now, Facebook and Google provide those services more efficiently. The earthquake recovery in Nepal is a good example. The only problem — one has to have electricity or a charged battery to power your device to access such a service, and electricity is generally the first thing to go during a natural disaster.

News stories not posted often enough

Many news media organizations have fallen short on preparing real time news, and most news sites don’t provide news updates often enough. New news as it happens is still not happening fast enough. When I thought of online news, I envisioned newspapers taking the lead in capitalizing on all the Web has to offer, and developing their own technology to improve news presentation. I never expected radio websites and TV websites to surpass newspaper sites, as many have, in my opinion.

I never saw the social media part coming. I soon realized social media makes superstars out of ordinary people. I thought the basic Web would do that. But I never figured that people would rely on social media to get their news, many times getting reports directly from the source of the action: athletes, celebrities, authorities, witnesses, untrained reporters posting what they think they saw.

Needless to say, I’m only partially satisfied with how the media has utilized the Web so far, but I have no doubt things will change. I once interviewed a young journalist for a reporter position. When I asked what her perfect job in journalism would be beyond our company, she replied, “I don’t believe it exists yet.” People like her will utilize fresh concepts and technology to provide news for the masses in ways that don’t yet exist, and it will be awesome!

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