Are electronic newspapers just a load of bullshit.com?

Media

Having spent August a good 45-minute walk from the nearest newsagent, this seemed like a good summer to check out the world of on-line newspapers.

The experiment was made more feasible by the introduction of a BT data-line into our house in Wales, enabling us to use the Internet, fax and telephone simultaneously. This may not be your idea of a holiday, but some of us must be prepared to suffer for our art.

In any case, the exercise turned out to be painless. If the inventors can find a way of making electronic text as portable, comfortable to read and disposable as ink on newsprint, as they surely will in time, the newspaper may just be in the final phase of its history. Well-organised electronic news services are easier to search and easier to clip than their print versions - though these are virtues more obviously relevant to broadsheet papers than tabloid ones.

Whether or not the end of history is at hand, it is now incontestable that newspapers are in long-term decline and that those titles that rely upon classified advertising - which accounts for half the income of regional papers and 12 per cent of the nationals' - have a fight on their hands against newcomers to the Internet-based classified ad business, now selling cars, jobs and houses with increasing success. Estimates circulating inside the British regional newspaper business suggest that newspapers could lose a quarter of this revenue by 2005, which raises a serious question about the economic foundations of local journalism.

But at the national level, things aren't quite so stark. Hence the bewildering diversity of approaches visible on the electronic news-stand.

On the evangelical wing, unsurprisingly, are those with most to lose. The Guardian (www.newsunlimited.co.uk), which depends more on classifieds than any of its rivals, has poured money, invention and spirit into its website, going well beyond the dutiful re-presentation of the paper version with extra background to big stories, good links to other sites and an exceptionally smooth (and free) search engine.

United, which owns the Express and the Star, seems to have taken the view that the Internet offers a way out of the box for two titles with gravely reduced sales. Having taken control of the Line One (www.lineone.com) Internet business, United has arranged its Express (www.express.co.uk) and Star (www.megastar.co.uk) sites around what is one of the most ambitious news-based hubs on the UK scene.

This is not to deny that the Star's grisly taste in humour is, if anything, even more painfully anachronistic on the web than in it is in print, resting upon the spellbinding conceit that every headline and catchline must rhyme with "ah", as in "Helga wants to register, ja!" and the "editaah" wants to know "which top totty or personality would you like to see in the Megachat hot seat?" But the site has energy, from its Karaoke Chapel to a sports site where fans can create websites for their own clubs. Express readers, assumed these days to be an aspirational bunch, can link effortlessly to papers such as Le Monde, El PaIs and the Sydney Morning Herald, or indeed to a string of American talk radio stations.

Also at the committed end of the spectrum are sites such as the Electronic Telegraph (www.telegraph.co.uk) and the Financial Times's (www.ft.com). During August, the FT announced that it would be hiring more than 100 extra journalists to develop its on-line services. It is up against fierce competition from the likes of Dow Jones and Reuters, and from newcomers such as thestreet.com, an aggressive investment-based web and e-mail service aimed at the growing numbers who have piled into Wall Street's long boom.

Rather uncharacteristically, Rupert Murdoch has wobbled about the importance of the Internet and this is reflected in the sites of the Times (www.the-times.co.uk), Sunday Times (www.sunday-times.co.uk) and the Sun (www.currantbun. com). Although the sites attached to the two broadsheets are well organised and browsable - indeed, I find a bulky paper such as the Sunday Times easier to scan and more pleasant to read on screen - there is a dearth of additional features and even the software designed to search the archive (still, fetchingly, here called "the library") is under reconstruction.

The Sun has taken yet another direction, noisily launching currantbun.com earlier this year as a full-scale Internet service provider, where it competes with Freeserve and countless others, to the exclusion of being able to function as an open news, entertainment and e-commerce website. This looks like a mistake - and one that www.mirror.co.uk has avoided.

The doyen of the new media refuseniks, however, is Paul Dacre, the increasingly powerful editor-in-chief of the Mail titles, who was quoted in the Guardian diary in July as telling his staff summer party: "A lot of people say that the Internet is the future for newspapers. Well, I say bullshit.com."

This presumably explains why, although Associated Newspapers has put money into Hungarian radio and London cable TV, it has done nothing worthwhile on the web. Key "Daily Mail" into an Internet search engine, and the first thing you find (before you get to the Hull Daily Mail) is a grudging website with terse corporate data.

The Mail doesn't rely on classifieds and it is the strongest conventional newspaper. But it's when you're in front that you should worry most about what's behind you, especially when you've just made an epic blunder, paying £350,000 to Princess Di's "love rat" for a piece you can't publish.

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in Kids just say no to party politics

1999-09-13