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Publishing Update

A Death on the Web

Publishing Update Written by Kathy Casper

WebRunner Essays and Opinions was born in March of 1995, the bouncing, breathtaking, brainchild of Paine, Wade, and Tim Dunbar. Their dream was to join the ranks of "big media publishers and broadcasters" on a relatively level playing field. They offered a forum for essays and opinions on everything from Jake Baker's Usenet debacle to the war in Bosnia. In October, they expanded their publication to weekly updates, which foreshadowed its demise.

Citing lack of money and the Web's unsuitable format as a publication medium (!), they announced in a December editorial that WebRunner/Net Op-Ed would cease operations. They lamented the stress of meeting deadlines, of having insufficient time to properly edit submissions, and lack of traffic to their site.

Deadlines and editing demands are obstacles I can understand, but I was taken aback by their stance on the suitability of the Web as a publishing medium. Yes, it is disorganized, although that situation is improving on a daily - if not hourly - basis. They state that reading from a computer screen is "uncomfortable", which may be true with some sites where the print is too small, or the text is displayed in an unusual color on a gaudy background. But, if reading a computer screen is "uncomfortable", I'm sure it will come as shocking news to the entire business community, to say nothing of the educational and governmental organizations which have been computer-based for years.

Even more puzzling is their contention that the Web will become magically more viable when inexpensive, handheld Web browsers and cheap cellular dialup access become available. Now, how will that be more "comfortable" than what we have now? Even their suggestion of "print-quality flat screen" display options doesn't make sense, at least not from a "comfort" standpoint.

They say the "nature of the Web makes it difficult to stand out", and suggest that only deep-pocketed heavy hitters can make a mark on the Web. Well, I agree that a well coordinated traditional (print and broadcast) advertising campaign will bring lots of visitors to a new website. But, it is not advertising that brings them back, nor is it advertising that builds readership. Promotion, yes - advertising, no. It is still a level playing field when it comes to promotion. The newsgroups and mailing lists are available for everyone - although, I am not advocating "spamming". Participation in newsgroup and mailing list discussions, coupled with truly interactive features on a website, can generate just as devoted a following as an ad campaign in PC Magazine, if not more.

The Web is the best thing to happen to publishing since the invention of the printing press. Why? The potential provided by hypertexting is the most distinct advantage, in my mind. Hypertexting makes publishing an infinite, unending venture. It mirrors the human mind, the concept of conversation where one thought leads to another, and evolves into a completely new thought, which generates another and another. Try that on paper!

The Web is dynamic - unless, of course, you turn it into a "library" of static documents, which also serves a purpose (a purpose better served by the gopher sites). The Web brings publishing to life so that it becomes an exchange of ideas between the reader and the writer. As ideas evolve and change, the Web is there to transport them.

The very earliest forms of written communication were carved in stone. Ideas were frozen in time, destructible but not changeable. With ink and paper, the expression of ideas became more flexible, easier to accomplish and faster to distribute. With the advent of the printing press, even more flexibility was possible, plus remarkably wider distribution. The birth of the Web has brought us exponentially more flexibility and unlimited distribution, at relatively little cost in monetary or environmental resources.

Is all this worth the occasional bout with screen-related eyestrain? I certainly think so.

In an essay written for the Internet Writer Resources website, entitled A Vision of the Future, L. Detweiler presents a much more positive and realistic view of the economic and demographic changes we can expect from "cyberspatial writing". Detweiler maintains that ease of production and distribution will reduce the role of "parasitic middlemen" in publishing, and the final result will be higher quality writing, and more effective editing.

In any event, as a publishing medium, the Web is here to stay....well, it's here to grow and change and evolve - just as communication itself has evolved from stone-chipping to electron-chipping. I don't look for the Web to become any better organized than the world's telephone system - and we've learned to deal with that! It will be experimentation, innovation and perseverance that move the Web forward, and unfortunately there will be failed ventures along the way. Well organized essay forums will be an asset to the Web culture, and perhaps the WebRunner/Net Op-Ed website will resurrect itself one day soon. Stranger things have happened.

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