Quietly, without much fanfare, online news sites have begun making good use of a revolutionary new information tool. It's called video.
Until now, anyone seeking to capture the flavor and texture of a news event was limited to surfing the old-fashioned way: with a TV set and a remote control. News sites on the Web have offered the occasional QuickTime video, but that required long download times, typically several minutes for just a 30-second clip – hardly worth the trouble.
But a fairly new technology called streaming video allows users to watch news clips instantly, at the click of a mouse, though the quality is a bit herky-jerky if you have anything less than a high-speed ISDN line.
The New York Times on the Web began offering streaming video during its coverage of Princess Diana's death. Now it provides video with one or two stories roughly four days a week.
"We're still in a learning curve," says Bernard
Gwertzman, the site's editor, "but it's evident there are people who think a news operation on the Internet should have components beyond the printed word – video, animation, multimedia. At this point, it's a minority of people who like the bells and whistles, but we'll go the extra length for them."
For the most part, the Times offers video from APTV, a division of the Associated Press that employs video journalists around the world. But there have been other occasions when a Times reporter has used a digital camcorder to record a news event, such as the hackers convention last year in the Netherlands. "In a year or two we'll be seeing newspaper reporters doing that routinely,"
Gwertzman says, "just as they now put up sound bites on an audio clip."
Jim Kennedy, director of multimedia services for the Associated Press, notes that 150 newspaper and broadcast Web sites have access to APTV streaming video through The Wire ( http://wire.ap.org ), though few of them are taking full advantage of it yet.
"The beauty of the Web is that it gives us the ability to cover a story through print, photos, graphics, sound and video," Kennedy says. "Streaming video will become much more prevalent, especially as these online news sites move to the TV screen. It's tough to read a story from across the room, but with products like Web TV, it works just fine if the story is mostly visual and audio."
That is also the vision of CNN Interactive, which has gone online print publications one step better. Until now, a video clip on the Web has been a small adjunct to a mostly text-based story, with an image about the size of a matchbook. But any day now, the network will begin offering a streaming video service called CNN VideoSelect, in which the video (150 percent the size of the typical video image) and audio are the main focus while the text and links are the supplements.
"We believe that, going forward, you have to be a player in video to be a player in news on the Web," says Scott Woelfel, editor in chief of CNN Interactive. "People always ask us how they can see something that relates to what they're reading. This takes a big step in that direction. Video rounds out the story. Within a year or two, when people hear of a news event, they're going to start thinking, 'I want to watch that on the Web.' "
CNN VideoSelect lets users browse through dozens of options: individual stories with two-minute video reports; business news; weather updates; archival footage of major stories; and raw background footage of unaired news reports, such as the complete tape of a news conference. Woelfel rightly observes, "Just because an editor decided not to air part of a press conference doesn't mean it's not newsworthy to somebody. It comes down to user choice, which is so important on the Web."
The site also allows users to call up recently aired CNN shows such as "Larry King Live," "Crossfire," "Burden of Proof" and "Computer Connection," providing users with complete footage of the shows they missed, bios of the guests, links to background information and bulletin boards, and complete transcripts of the show. Two or three times a day, CNN Interactive provides live video of a breaking news event.
"The network-based Web sites like ABC and MSNBC have an advantage over the big print publications because they've got the video," Woelfel says. "They just have to figure out what to do with it."
Says the Times' Gwertzman, "Just as the cable and TV companies have gotten into the written word on their Web sites, we in the print business are now getting into their traditional turf."
It's going to be an extraordinary rivalry to watch. l