Web column for Prospect

Web column for Prospect.

Andrew Brown 4 June, 1997

A couple of years ago, a column like this would have been easy to do. I would just have skimmed off the 0.1% of the internet that was actually useful to normal people, and directed readers at it. But now that canít be done. Even if the proportion of worthwhile stuff has still further diminished to about 0.001%, and I believe it has, that homeopathic fraction of sites that do their work better than anything off line is now larger than any one person can hope to grasp. But if it is no longer news that the Web exists; nor even that it is useful, what is there to report about it?

The answer, I hope is what it will do for us: literate Prospect readers with better things to do with their time than "surf", or people like my 80-year-old mother, reluctantly coming to grips with email because it is far the simplest way to communicate with both her children at once, but unlikely ever to regard a computer as fun. The Internet is going to change the world as much as the car did, and there are useful things to know about cars even for people who are not interested in them ver much.

Most of the discussions about what the Web will do to journalism have concentrated on its effects downstream of the journalist: how will we sell our stuff, and to whom? There are no really convincing large-scale answers to this around yet, though there are a couple of Web magazines for which one would happily pay on a bookstall, such as Salon. But in the meantime there has been a revolution upstream of journalists, in the supply of information to us. It used to be that access to a newspaper library was the single most professionally important perk of a staff job. But in the last ten years all newspaper libraries have shrunk horribly. Last year, on the Independent, it rapidly became clear that almost any query could be answered more quickly on the Internet than by asking the Mirror Group library; and experience of other newspaper libraries since then shows this is generally true.

The only important English newspaper that cannot be read online is the Daily Mail. The Times and the Telegraph both have excellent, searchable Internet editions: the Telegraph is still the better of the two, at least for those interested in words, but the Internet edition of the Sunday Times is a tremendous time-saver. I already know I donít want to read 97% of the stories; a single list of contents makes it very much easier to pick out the ones I might need to study and print them off.

American papers are even better. The New York Times is the only one that charges foreign subscribers. The Washington Post, the LA Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle all have excellent, free, sites. Even Murdochís tabloid New York Post has a useful web presence. All these papers have just about everything in the printed edition, including the classified ads; and they have searchable back issues. Those are more than fun. An enormous amount of modern journalism consists of recycling clippings: itís cheaper than finding things out, and demands less of the reader. The web now lets you recycle clippings before they have even appeared in this country. There will be no interest from British readers in studying the New York Times directly: lifeís too short. But wait until newspaper managements realise that the traditionally important part of a foreign correspondentís life ó reading the local papers ó can in fact be done in London.

The web-based databases that I have been talking about do not go back more than a year or two yet. Nor do they compare in thoroughness with a database like FT Profile, which goes back to the mid seventies. But to make a full-text search in an old-fashioned database will cost $5.00 a shot on Compuserve, and that soon mounts up. There is a cheaper alternative; to use the "Newspaper library" in Compuserve, which has The Independent and, I think the Guardian, and only charges $1.50 per article retrieved.

The newspaper library is the sort of thing that Compuserve did well, which is why it is a shame to see it up for sale. It was one of the few online services that ever made money, because it sold valuable information to people who had to pay for it. It used to be expensive, elitist, and efficient. Now it cheap, plagued with junk mail, yet still indispensable to a travelling professional, because there are local Compuserve numbers almost everywhere a modem will work; and the old-fashioned interface is still a bit quicker than flashy Web sites like APís news online. Certainly it passes one test of interest, which is not "Is it worth visiting when I have ten minutes free at the office", but "Is it worth switching on the vile machine to get at."

There is as yet very little online that passes that test so far as my mother is concerned. She speaks six languages with varying degrees of fluency, but none of them are Windows. A dialogue box suggests to her something to do with the stage. "Ah! Itís a monologue box", she cried when she finally got the point. So it was with considerable satisfaction that I was able to point her at a list of computing terms in Anglo-Saxon, a language from which she feels they should never have been translated.

Table of URLs referred to in the text. Not sure if they should be underlined, or otherwise marked in the body.

Old English Computer Glossary

The Daily Telegraph

The Times

The Financial Times

The Washington Post

The Los Angeles Times

The San Francisco Chronicle


The New York Times

AP wire online

Front Cuts Book Back

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