The newspaper as we know it is dead, but companies putting business documents on the Web can get an edge by borrowing from the best of traditional journalism.
That was the two-edged message delivered at the last keynote session here at the Seybold publishing conference.
In a role reversal, it was James Adams, veteran journalist and current chief executive officer of financially beleaguered wire service United Press International (UPI) who delivered the message – probably not breaking news to this audience -- that newspapers are in trouble.
And it was programming guru Dan Bricklin, inventor of the pioneering spreadsheet VisiCalc and currently chief technology officer of Trellix, who said that people creating business documents for the Web should borrow liberally from newspaper writing and layout.
"We are watching the demise of the traditional media as we know it in this century," said Adams, the first of the two keynote speakers. But newspaper publishers seem unwilling to confront the problem that the Web presents, he said.
The decline in revenue and audience for traditional media is unmistakable, Adams said. Newspapers will lose 40% of their real estate advertising and 30% of their help-wanted ad revenue by 2001, Adams said, citing figures from Forrester Research.
Other traditional media like television is also under attack, said Adams, citing figures for declining viewing hours per year for the television audience.
But on various conference panels that Adams has participated in recently, newspaper publishers treat the subject of the Internet "like a bad smell ... that won't go away."
While most leading newspapers these days have Web sites, until now they have merely "tried to replicate a declining market ... pasting together their pages online," Adams said.
And the stronghold of traditional newspapers – local news and content – is now under siege from Web search sites such as Yahoo!, Adams noted.
But with the glut of information on the Internet, there is a role for news organisations to play in delivering the news that customers want, when and where and in the format they want it, Adams said.
"There is a distinction between information and knowledge," said Adams, and he sees a new role for UPI in "shaping knowledge" by allowing customers to dictate to his news organization the type of news they want to get.
Adams was short on details of exactly what new services UPI will be offering, however.
One idea he mentioned was the possibility of letting individual customers order specific bits of information for very small amounts of money. This would depart from UPI's traditional practice of charging a set fee for its news feed to large customers like newspapers and institutions.
Details of UPI's new news delivery mechanism over the Web still have to be worked out, Adams said. In terms of technology, UPI has struck an agreement with Microsoft, whereby it will get 100% of its software from Microsoft or third parties recommended by Microsoft, Adams said.
Adams also announced a number of other business initiatives, including a deal that calls for UPI to provide Media Exchange International Inc.'s Web site (http://www.mediaexchange.com/) with news photos, audio, and video on a pay-per-use basis.
It was up to software pioneer Dan Bricklin to tell the audience specifically how newspaper techniques can be used to address a real problem confronting almost every business today. That problem is how to make business documents, which are almost 100%produced on computers, readable on computers.
"We don't read documents over five pages long on screen," said Bricklin. Any document that requires a reader to scroll down the screen for more than several pages is likely to be printed out, Bricklin said.
If documents were to be read on screen, businesses could use the power of the Web to allow users to link, track and manage them better than paper output, Bricklin said.
The problem with reading most business documents on screen is that it is too difficult to skim them to find the sections that are most important, he said.
For example, a competitive-analysis memo might have pricing information useful to a sales person and technical information crucial to a developer. But memos on company intranets are generally just long documents readers need to scroll through, making it difficult to find specific facts and figures.
The answer? Borrow writing and layout techniques used for years in newspapers.
Using the attention-getting techniques of commercial Web sites won't do, because bells and whistles such as animation actually distract the reader's attention, Bricklin said.
Bricklin demonstrated how Trellix' namesake Trellix 1.0 program is designed to make it easier to incorporate into Web documents such newspaper techniques as dividing material into sections, which are in turn divided by headlines and lead sentences.
When creating business documents for the Web, writers should make sure that links have headlines and leads that summarize what the reader will find by clicking on the link.
"Don't just say , 'For more information click here!' If you say what you're going to find by clicking on the link, that saves ... the reader time," Bricklin said.
Use of subheads in the body of a text and use of boldface type also make it easier to skim a Web-based document, Bricklin said.
But creating documents for the Web should be more than just "mechanically reproducing" newspapers for a new medium, he said.
Page links are a great way to avoid getting the main body of a business document from getting bogged down with too much detailed data, Bricklin said.
And site maps, complete with links to particular pages, can enhance a business document's traditional table of contents.
Trellix 1.0, demonstrated by Bricklin, was designed to make it easy to blend traditional newspaper techniques with the use of Web-specific capabilities such as page maps and links.
Earlier this week, Trellix rolled out the Trellix Trelligram Utility, designed to let users e-mail multiple, graphics-rich hypertext markup language (HTML) files. It is being incorporated into Trellix 1.0 and is available free from the Trellix Web site at http://www.trellix.com/.