Hold the welcome page

For the first time in hundreds of years, technology has thrown up a new medium that could change the very nature of the daily newspaper. Peter Hall asks whether online services can ever be designed well enough to consign the newspaper to the past

SBHD: For the first time in hundreds of years, technology has thrown up a new medium that could change the very nature of the daily newspaper. Peter Hall asks whether online services can ever be designed well enough to consign the newspaper to the past

Living in America, you get used to being told that you are welcome, but nowhere tries harder to make people feel welcome than cyberspace. If I want to read a story from the New York Times Online, I am welcomed no fewer than five times. I first turn on my computer, to be welcomed to Macintosh. I open up the online service application, to be welcomed to America Online. I sign on, to be personally greeted with the words “Welcome Peter Hall” and – in case I missed that – a jubilant cry of “welcome” from the computer speaker. I type in a keyword, and there it is on the screen again: “Welcome to the New York Times”.

This extraordinary case of hyper-hospitality indicates a number of insecurities. In the real world, welcoming is restricted to two main occasions. When we arrive somewhere impersonal – such as a hotel, aeroplane or restaurant, and the proprietors hope to make us feel at home; and when we arrive somewhere familiar after a long absence, or an arduous journey. In the case of the online newspaper, it is a combination of the two. The succession of initial greetings is trying to make us feel at home in the anonymous world of the computer, and the final greeting from the online newspaper has a ring of empathy about it, as if to say, “Thank you for coming all this way. We know that it’s much easier to turn on the TV or go to the newsstand to get your news, but you made it, and we’re so glad. You’re a pioneer. Round here, we’re all pioneers.”

And these are indeed pioneering days for the newspaper. Never before in its long history has it made such a dramatic leap. The growth of the railway networks in the nineteenth century brought huge increases in newspaper circulations, but putting a newspaper online makes it instantly accessible to millions of readers. The arrival of television and radio earlier this century robbed the newspaper of its monopoly on news, and colour television forced it to compete in terms of picture quality and accessible design. But it still remained a newspaper, whereas the online newspaper is really an oxymoron.

As the notes to a current show at the Cooper Union school in New York examining newspaper design indicate, the newspaper has proved remarkably resilient to changes. My guess is that, despite its flexible friends online, the ink newspaper will be with us for some time yet.

One reason is that cyberspace is utter chaos in comparison to a conventional newsstand. Online services are dense, frenetic, badly organised and easily bypassed for other means of information gathering. Conscious of the competition, the front page of an online newspaper is very heavily branded. The New York Times Online front page, for instance, incorporates three different logos: the traditional ink masthead, the T lettermark from that masthead, and a new online mark, @times.

Another reason is the medium itself. On my computer, the front page of an online newspaper is an eighth the size of its real-world counterpart. This leaves digital designers with a difficult spatial challenge. The first page has to convey a sense of the tradition and reliability of its ink-brother, but at the same time, show off its unique interactive potential with icons that lead the readers into the departments of their choice. It must communicate its immediacy as the fastest source of news, the most frequently updated version of the publication; yet there is no room for headlines, and barely room for a single photograph. By contrast, the ink newspaper is large, readable, interactive, tactile, portable and a masterful example of image and text working together to deliver news with excitement, immediacy and a distinctive voice.

It becomes increasingly clear why we are “welcome” to peruse the online newspapers for little or no cost. Their potential is huge, but they’ve only just begun to stumble over the first few hurdles. Just as ink newspapers were forced to acknowledge the techniques of TV rivals, so will the online services have to learn from the box, where news comes with sound, moving image and personality. The on- line paper’s advantage, interactivity, is something the ink newspaper has always had. But from there on, it will be forced to compete with the cathode empire for survival. Or join it.

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