Magazine article American Journalism Review

When Push Comes to News

Magazine article American Journalism Review

When Push Comes to News

Article excerpt

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. …

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