Push: The next wave of Net news?

Push technology, the Internet’s trend du jour, allows online news sites to narrowcast personalized news directly to readers

The following article appeared in the May 1997 issue of The American Journalism Review.

For news consumers and publishers alike, 1997 may well mark a seismic shift in the way content is delivered on the Internet.

The phenomenon goes by many names: Push technology. Webcasting. Netcasting. Personal broadcast applications. Channel technology. Internet news broadcasting.

All refer to a technological revolution that is redefining the relationship between online news operations and their readers. And even if you’re not a cyberspace cowboy, push news should interest you because it has the potential to reshape the fundamentals of journalism in much the same way that television news has altered the rules of the profession.

Simply put, push changes the online news equation. We no longer have to surf for news and information. News finds us. Call it the Third Wave of Net news.

In the First Wave, newspapers launched primitive sites with cumbersome search tools, started their own members-only services, or hooked up with an online service like CompuServe, Prodigy or America Online. Few news consumers were dazzled.

The Second Wave hit when the public and mainstream media discovered the World Wide Web back in early 1995. All major news publications stampeded to the Web. And millions of Netheads, long starved for color and graphics, surfed away in a vast, communal infotopia.

But it’s been a rocky love affair. Sputtering through cyberspace on clunky 14.4-kilobits-per-second modems, wading through gigabytes of junk information, using search engines that return 147,710 hits on “Norman Mailer,” dealing with dead links, boorish flamers and “interactive” news sites that don’t respond to e-mail messages — is it any wonder that we’re feeling overwhelmed and just a bit cranky? Fully half of regular users in one recent survey reported that they don’t surf anymore; they visit the same sites whenever they log on.

Which is why so many Internet users — now estimated at 51 million in the United States and Canada — are eager to embrace the Third Wave: push technology.

“Push” refers to the concept of delivering content to Internet consumers rather than expecting them to seek out a Web site — the “pull” model. (Think of good old e-mail as the ultimate push and Web surfing as the ultimate pull.)

But push news is more than simply a matter of dropping a publication’s Web site on your digital doormat. Push news empowers readers by letting them specify what content they want delivered, as well as how often. The best push media allow consumers to customize and micro-tailor their news choices. The new tools of push delivery are evolving with quicksilver rapidity, and they promise to make 1997 a watershed year.

Why now? What’s the impetus behind the Third Wave? A confluence of three factors: technology, money and a receptive public. For consumers, online news operations and software vendors, the push model offers something for everyone in the online news equation:

• Users generally like push because it delivers time savings, reliability, context and familiarity.

“The Net is just so bloody slow,” says Jay Verkler, chief executive of inCommon, a push software startup in San Mateo, California. Having part of a Net publication’s content delivered behind the scenes to a user’s hard drive eliminates the bottleneck created by traffic snarls on the World Wide Wait. “Our studies show that most people return to the same places on the Web 90 percent of the time. They want those ruts in the road.”

• The push companies — content distributors like PointCast and software developers like inCommon and BackWeb — add value to the equation by letting the content folks do what they do best: gather and report the news. These online middlemen either provide the technical know-how — a sophisticated software package like inCommon’s Downtown — or else they bring along a broad new audience, like PointCast and Excite.

• The main force driving push, however, is the online publishers. They like push for several reasons.

“The push idea is more compatible with the traditional media publishing model,” says Steve Harmon, senior investment analyst for Mecklermedia, the leading Internet trade show and publishing firm. “Any magazine editor knows you’d rather have readers fill out a subscription card rather than go to a newsstand with 500 titles, which is what you now have with the Web’s hunting and gathering tools.”

As online editors know well, it’s hard to rely on readers to come back to your site day after day. But even when visitors on the Web do stop by, it’s often an anonymous, amorphous relationship.

“The Web is like a billboard. You may know the demographics of that particular stretch of highway, but you don’t know anything about the individuals,” says Patrick Naughton, senior vice president of technology for Starwave, a personalized content service. “Push strips away the anonymity. It gives us a one-to-one relationship with the customer.”

“Push is going to be huge on the Web,” Harmon says. Mecklermedia forecasts that as much as 50 percent of all Web use could be via push or a push-pull combination in just the next two years. The Yankee Group, a market-research firm in Boston, predicts that within three years, nearly a third of the projected $19.1 billion in annual Internet revenue will derive from push media.

In practice, however, push is still so new — the term didn’t even come into general usage until 1995 — that to describe it is like trying to sketch a moving object. But as push news develops, some early lessons are already crystallizing.

“I know of a college professor who decided to stop reading newspapers and get all his news from PointCast,” says Allegra Young, marketing manager for USA Today Information Network. “But he found he was missing out on 90 percent of current events. There’s a lot of unpredictability about what news makes a difference in your world. To be a well-read citizen, you need to know more than what you woke up thinking you needed to know.”

Which leads to Vin Crosbie’s three rules of push. “Push is valuable if you know what you want, if you don’t have a lot of time and if you want to receive something regularly,” says Crosbie, a new media consultant in Brookline, Mass.

“Push won’t replace the morning newspaper that you read over your morning coffee, at least in the foreseeable future,” he says. “But it’s a valuable personalized supplement to your news diet.”

Push news comes in a dizzying array of shapes and flavors, and the flavor you choose depends on whether you’re a heavy information consumer or just an info grazer. For simplicity’s sake, then, let’s look at push not in terms of the technology but from the perspective of how it will serve us.

News alerts

Brad Templeton, publisher of ClariNet Communications, whose text-based Clari-News service has 1.7 million subscribers, recalls working at his computer in 1989 when he heard a beep and saw a news flash pop up on his screen: U.S. INVADES PANAMA. “That was six years before some people claimed they did the first push and broadcast news service on the Net,” Templeton says. “The truest form of push is something that literally grabs you, makes your pager beep, pops up a window to interrupt what you’re doing. But users will tolerate very little of that, and they’ll have to have a high level of input on what they want to be alerted about.”

Already the outlines of this news world are taking shape. Mercury Mail, a Denver startup that launched in June 1996, will e-mail news briefs, sports results, box scores, weather information — even birthday and anniversary reminders — to your electronic mailbox for free. Quote.com will provide investment advice, portfolio updates and stock quotes 15 minutes after they have posted to the stock exchange, also for free.

And now some online news publications are beginning to enter the fray. In February, McClatchy’s Nando.net, the online service of the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, launched a free content provider that automatically gives users updated news headlines and stories throughout the day via its “NewsWatcher.” It also includes a notification feature that alerts you when a news headline includes keywords that you’ve chosen in advance.

The San Jose Mercury News updates its Web edition four times a day with original content. CNN Interactive and ESPNET’s SportsZone update their news continuously during the day. But few other online news organizations use the Web to report breaking news.

The emerging technology of push-news channels, however, is likely to change all that. A reader using Marimba’s Castanet tuner or inCommon’s Downtown will be able to tell immediately — through the use of icons or other visual cues — when a news organization with a “channel” on those two “networks” has posted a new story.

All of this assumes that online publications will finally begin posting original news on their Web sites, rather than recycling yesterday’s news plus wire-service content. “There are lots of thorny issues about what news do you break in a competitive market,” says David Yarnold, former editorial director of Knight-Ridder New Media, now managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News. “But I think 90 percent of what you’re working on in a particular day’s paper could be digested or mentioned first on the Web.”

Rob Caplan, senior marketing manager for inCommon, says, “With ideal push technologies, as soon as the news gets reported, the user should be told about it.” But as is often the case, that’s a double-edged sword.

Is faster better?

The Internet was abuzz February 28 with the word that the Dallas Morning News had used its Web site to report that Timothy McVeigh had told a defense team member that the attack on the Oklahoma City federal building was done to create a “body count” that would send a message to the government. The paper’s print edition carried the story the following day.

While the Morning News story did not directly involve push technology, the episode points to an unmistakable trend in Net journalism: Readers are beginning to get their breaking news from an online source first.

Dale Peskin, the paper’s assistant managing editor for new media, says, “Were we out to make Net history? The answer is no. Did it raise everyone’s consciousness about the power of this new storytelling tool? I think the answer is yes. This demonstrates that we’re not a print organization, we’re a newsgathering organization.”

Peskin acknowledges that the desire to be first with the story played a large role in the paper’s decision to post the story on its Web site. “Once we informed the defense that we had the story, any number of things could have happened. The story could have been leaked to any number of media organizations. They could have called a press conference to try to discredit the story before it even ran. A competitor could have reported the story and gotten the facts wrong. So, yes, after all the work that went into our coverage, to have someone else break the story first would have been unthinkable.”

The Dallas episode has far-reaching implications for online journalism, says Valerie Hyman, who directs programs for broadcast journalists at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

“What happened in Dallas is just the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “We’re beginning to see a push for people who’ve worked in a print environment to move toward a mindset that the people at the wire services and all-news radio and television have always had. In a world of Web sites and push media, our deadline is continual, our deadline is the next minute.”

Notification and niche-casting

In addition to breaking news alerts, online content providers have something else in their information arsenal: personalized filtering and search tools.

“I see push as primarily appealing to people with intensively niche-focused interests,” Yarnold says. “I’m thinking of two friends of mine, a heart transplant surgeon who keeps up with developments in his field, and an Ohio State alumnus who wants to know everything there is to know about Ohio State football. They’re representative of the people who use Newshound,” the recently revamped news clipping service.

Many newspapers have their own version of this kind of personalized search tool. Philadelphia Clipper, a service of Philadelphia Online, allows you to write your own request or choose from a list of categories. The results are pushed to you once a day as e-mail or stored on the paper’s servers as your own personal Web page.

Several thousand readers are taking advantage of the service, most of them former residents of Philadelphia, says Chris Nelson, webmaster of Philadelphia Online.

According to Nelson, these search tools offer a way for online news publications to make inroads into markets that newspapers have not traditionally served: professionals, businesses and heavy information users. “If you custom-tailor information for individuals with a specialized area of interest or for companies with paralegals or secretaries who track home repossessions or sheriffs’ auctions, you’re not only providing a valuable service, you’re saving them time and money.”

Terry Schwadron, the Los Angeles Times’ deputy managing editor who oversees the paper’s Web site, says he’s not personally persuaded that push is the second coming of online news. “We have a push technology now,” he says. “It weighs a couple of pounds, and we deliver it to your door.”

Nonetheless, he adds, “where push will be especially valuable is for highly targeted, specialized information. If you’re looking for a house in a specific neighborhood, within a certain price range, with a certain number of bathrooms and in the right school district, you’ll want to know just as soon as the house goes on the market. If you care deeply about the Dodgers, you might want an inning-by-inning score sent to your pager. If you want a particular model of a rare automobile, we’ll alert you when one becomes available.”

Unfortunately, nearly all the search and filtering agents in use today are fairly crude. For several months now I’ve received a weekly e-mail alert from The Gate, the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, after signing up to be alerted about job listings containing the word “editor.”

The Gate’s search agent returns not only job listings, but death notices. One day I received an alert about a features editor job opening — along with a funeral notice for a Jesuit priest who “went peacefully to the Lord” after a career in which he served as associate editor of a Jesuit periodical.

Observes inCommon’s Verkler: “A reader is coming to a publisher for some human intelligence, not just software intelligence, which — trust me — isn’t there yet.”

Changing colors

Until last year, push was largely confined to subscription-based customized news services (see “The Daily Me,” April). Then came PointCast, the company that touched off a revolution.

The Silicon Valley company, which began as a conventional online information service in 1992 but rolled out a finished version of its advertiser-supported software in May 1996, dubs itself “the first broadcast network on the Internet.” Basically, PointCast is a personal computer screen-saver that retrieves personalized news, sports, stock quotes and company information — along with animated ads — and serves it up in a full-screen display. In the past year about 2 million people have downloaded the free software.

PointCast’s genius in reinventing the screen-saver to deliver useful information has been matched by its success in signing up major players as content partners. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Knight-Ridder, Boston Globe, Seattle Times, CNN, CNNfn and Time Warner’s Pathfinder (Time, People and Money magazines) are among the publications that funnel content to PointCast, which massages it and broadcasts it on behalf of its media clients.

But some analysts think PointCast is poised on slippery turf. Most of its estimated 1.2 million users are office workers; home users, who generally have a dial-up connection, don’t like the five- to 20-minute wait that PointCast demands to download content to your hard drive. Moreover, few of PointCast’s content partners are committed to long term deals, and a new brood of push upstarts is nipping at its heels.

Some of these startups are technology brokers, offering the software needed to become a push publisher. BackWeb, inCommon and Intermind fall into this group. Another high-flying push startup, Marimba, has aligned with Netscape to deliver “channels” of multimedia with its next release of browser software later this year. (See “Major players in the push field.”)

Many online publications, like USA Today Online, are pursuing a multi-partner strategy. On the paper’s Web site, readers have the option of downloading free software to read the paper in several ways: Netscape’s In-Box Direct, which pushes the paper’s top news headlines to your e-mail box; Individual, Inc.’s FreeLoader and Berkeley’s WebExpress, two offline browsers that download sections of the paper so you can read it at your leisure; Berkeley’s After Dark Online screen-saver; inCommon’s Downtown, a multimedia Webcasting program; and MyWay, a push tool aimed at novice users.

All of these companies are taking different approaches to “Webcasting.” But what they all have in common is a grab bag of soothingly familiar broadcast metaphors. Information is packaged into “channels” that a “viewer” can “program.” Software applications are called “transmitters” or “tuners.” There’s even a new Webzine, ChannelSite (www.channelsite.com), devoted to covering the emerging push technologies.

The broadcast metaphor extends only so far, however. Viewers can’t “personalize” their TV shows. Wired magazine, in its March cover story on push, took a shot at reporters who equate Webcasting with television, saying, “The new networked media do borrow ideas from television, but the new media landscape will look nothing like TV as we know it.”

Kevin Kelly, Wired’s executive editor, says, “We’re seeing a glimmer of this large territory opening up before us. There’s this opening space between what a TV program is and what a Web page is, and it’s in these in-between spaces that we’ll begin to see other dimensions of news in the same way that television changed not only the delivery of news in that medium, but also altered the way newspapers deliver the news…. In push-pull, the consumer is in a conversational stance with the news. You’ll hear a report, but then you can respond, ‘I’m skeptical of that, can you prove it to me?’ And the service responds back.”

The upshot is that we’re now on the cusp of a one-to-one “narrowcasting” network where each of us is able to summon up a finely tuned menu of choices: your favorite Boston Globe sports columnist; the New York Times’ op-ed page; the latest golf news; and Dave Barry’s latest musings, along with your weekly church newsletter and neighborhood Little League results.

Now here’s the billion-dollar question: How many Webcasting networks will carry these channels? And who’s going to own them?

“Anyone can put up a Web page,” says John Robb, senior analyst for interactive technology strategies at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “But to build a personal broadcast application, you’ve got to have some serious change in your pocket.”

At Starwave, Naughton says the company considered signing up with PointCast, but “we saw a lot of room for improvement and decided to develop our own technology. But we’re unusual in that respect. We have the software talent. Very few media companies are going to be crazy enough to write their own code.”

However things shake out, nearly everyone predicts that the push media landscape will look vastly different a year from now. “I think a lot of these small, innovative push start-ups are going to wind up getting hosed,” says Robb, who predicts that PointCast, Starwave Direct and forthcoming push releases from Microsoft and Netscape will carve up most of the terrain.

Why only a handful of push vendors instead of hundreds of competing applications or distribution networks? Think of each push vendor as equivalent to a television set. Who wants to own a hundred different television sets, even if there’s quality programming on, say, a dozen of them?

Explains consultant Crosbie: “Today, USA Today is on BackWeb, Sports Illustrated is on Berkeley’s After Dark screen-saver, the New York Times is on PointCast. The trouble for any consumer who wants to receive content from all three is that he would have to run on his PC three different push applications that conflict with each other and crash each other. That is overwhelmingly inconvenient.”

Crosbie says it makes more sense to adopt a new universal delivery standard. And the leading candidate right now is HTML e-mail, which displays pushed content as colorful, graphics-rich Web pages.

That’s what Netscape and Microsoft are counting on.

Dancing on the desktop

For all of the players on the push field, there remain only three real ways of pushing news to readers: simple text e-mail, HTML e-mail and a push application like PointCast or BackWeb running on your desktop.

While push vendors are counting on you to be dazzled by their multimedia wares, there is a sizable number of readers who prefer simplicity and speed and aren’t impressed by jazzy Java mini-programs whirling and dancing on their desktops. And not everyone can handle multimedia; 80 percent of home computers have 8 megabytes of RAM or less, which isn’t a high enough octane to fuel most multimedia programs.

For those reasons, the Christian Science Monitor, with a global online readership, has a no-frills, text-only e-mail service.

This new landscape of networked push media provides an immediate advantage to big media companies and newspaper chains that can deliver all of their newspaper, magazine, TV and radio content on a single platter. Peskin of the Dallas Morning News says his paper’s Web site is a humble five-person operation. But he adds, “Down the road, we’re talking about ways to bring together the newsgathering resources of our TV, radio and cable stations,” including 16 TV stations owned by the paper’s parent, A.H. Belo Corp.

Knight-Ridder has moved into the push realm with Inkling, which debuted in early February. Former editorial director Yarnold describes Inkling as “a national daily news magazine that aggregates the best reads from our 24 Web sites.” Subscribers can choose from among 6-Pak, a selection of six sports columnists; Panorama, stories from America’s heartland; Talk Talk, a sampling of lifestyle, technology and general interest items, including columns by Dave Barry and Carl Hiassen; No Way, a collection of “the demented, weird stuff that copy desks pass around”; Probe, a selection of explanatory and investigative journalism; and Celebrate, a collection of good news and upbeat items. Inkling is now part of Netscape’s In-Box Direct program, which has more than 5 million subscribers. The New York Times, Salon, Wired News and dozens of other Web publications are among the content providers that offer their fare — usually a table of contents with hotlinks — via HTML e-mail to users of Navigator 3.0.

Netscape’s next release, dubbed Communicator and due out by mid-1997, will be part browser and part communication application. Tim Hickman, product manager for Netscape’s push technology, says it will enable users to subscribe to narrowly focused channels through PointCast, and Marimba’s Castanet program will “tune” your content by tracking the kinds of information that you regularly follow. Communicator will also “netcast” multimedia content, giving users sound clips, video, film clips and movies that will be downloaded to a user’s hard drive. “Users are just dying for it,” Hickman says, “and content providers are just salivating over the idea that they no longer have to design Web pages limited to what a Web surfer with a 28.8 modem can call up.”

Microsoft, too, is moving fast into push. PointCast will become an integral part of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 4.0, due out this summer, delivering content — including news from MSNBC — over “channels” in the forthcoming Active Desktop.

On March 10 Microsoft and NBC announced plans for a free, advertiser-supported, live-video business news “channel” on the Web. On March 11 Microsoft proposed a new set of standards for push that would enable anyone to take a Web site and turn it into a channel. And on the same day, PointCast announced that it would open up its broadcast system to small publishers, so that anyone with a Web site — not just its media content partners — could build a channel on the PointCast network.

Pushing into multimedia

A few truths are beginning to settle over this new media landscape. Push and pull are going to exist together; it’s not an either/or choice. Online news organizations must accommodate users’ needs when deciding which approach to take. Push news may be a new delivery system, but it borrows from all of its media predecessors: the fact-checked reliability of print, the interactivity of the Web, the timeliness and instantaneity of television and radio.

But analyst Robb suggests that online newspapers have not yet gotten the wakeup call. “When these programs come together and users come to start expecting animation, video and audio with their news and entertainment, it’ll be crucial how well you put them together because they’ll be playing on the desktop in all their glory. The content providers are going to have to get their multimedia act together.”

Kelly of Wired magazine says push media are moving us toward a world in which news follows us wherever we go. “In addition to static Web sites, there will be an entirely new species of things following you around at your general invitation. Devices that chime on your wrist when there’s a traffic jam ahead. Pagers that broadcast the scores of your favorite teams as their games are being played. If the president is assassinated, the news will pop up in the middle of your spreadsheet on your home computer.”

Robb envisions a desktop that looks radically different from the one we see today. “In two to three years, instead of a Web browser, you’ll have a push-pull Internet desktop that resembles a channel-changing experience.”

Naughton of StarWave sees the day coming shortly when “users will see a channel or an icon for ABC News and ESPN right next to their Quicken, Excel and Word programs.”

Analyst Harmon says that mostly text-based push programs like PointCast will evolve into dynamic, robust multimedia programs by late 1997 to early 1998. “You can receive a 100-page issue of a multimedia publication, with all the richness of a CD-ROM, that could be the newspaper of tomorrow.”

Within five years, he says, the line between software and content will blur; they’ll be intrinsically tied together. Beyond that, Harmon says, “the holy grail is a personal profile agent that roams the Web, intuitively knowing your likes and dislikes, and retrieving only the news and information you’ll want.”

But too much can be made of all this flashy technology. When all is said and done, readers want substantive news and information that brings meaning to their lives.

“If you’re pushing content that is thin, users will figure that out,” Yarnold says. “Nobody has the local deep content that newspaper sites do.” Adds Harmon: “Microsoft is trying to reinvent themselves as a global media company. But they’re finding out how tough it is to be in the content business.”

How will the push-news vista look a year or two from now? No one knows, and for now, many newspaper publishers are content to sit on the sidelines, seeing how it all shakes out.

Harmon, for one, seems bemused. “If these media titans only realized how much power they have. Newspapers and magazines have the content. It’s as common as water to them, and yet they forget that, in the digital desert, water is everything.”

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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