First we visited @Times, the online offering of the _New York Times_ on America Online. When @Times first opened, it received horrible reviews as being totally separate from the print newspaper, and not even allowing for feedback to reporters and editors. We found that @Times is still not news-oriented. Perhaps this is OK, as there are already newswires on AOL, though granted not the Times wire. However, the Times is still regarded as a "newspaper of record". It's value is less for immediate news, and more for its depth and breadth. While today's news is available, existing agreements for electronic distribution of the full-text Times limits its usefulness for research on AOL. And furthermore, the news is presented simply as a list of headlines.
Where there is value is in the listings. For instance, all of the New York cultural event listings in the Sunday Times are available on AOL. This could be very useful for someone visiting New York who wants to know about museums or plays. Still, I would find it more efficient to pick up a _New Yorker_ or _New York Magazine_ if I were going to the City. To our group, the biggest drawback of @Times is the AOL interface--it is very difficult to navigate. While both of us are experienced computer users, comfortable with a mouse and hierarchal menus, @Times is simply clunky, littering the screen with windows.
Being on America Online allows for discussion sections for users to debate what is in the paper. However, our cruise through showed that most users were complaining about @Times, rather than participating in anyting substantitive. To us, @Times on AOL was disappointing.
At this point, we took advantage of an opportunity to explore another way in which the _New York Times_ and the _Wall Street Journal_ are delivered electronically--through Dow Vision, though viewed offline with software from Ensemble. What Ensemble does is allow a subscriber to download each day's full-text Times and Journal (from the Internet if you are able) and view the entire paper by section, or focus in on stories about selected companies, industries, and issues.
To us, Ensemble is a more "computer" interface, rather than the simplified, but ineffective interface on AOL. When you select a section of the newspaper with the mouse, the stories in that section appear in a window. Choosing a story with the mouse brings up that story in a new windows. There is a button to enlarge or reduce the size of the text, and another to autoscroll down the document. There are currently no photos or graphics, but the software can easily support them. The text is fully searchable, both on a document level, and on a newspaper level. Text can be cut and pasted from Ensemble into a word processor, or a story saved locally. The real power and benefit of Ensemble is in defining "personal indexes". This feature will filter the news for you on any of the following criteria: company, industry, subject, region, market, government, WSJ code, product, statistics code. Then only the stories you want to see are shown, saving considerable time. As an optional feature, Ensemble can also deliver "custom" papers by monitoring all of the news and business wires. The _Wall Street Journal_ is viewed in the same way as the Times, and can make use of the same personal index file. The online paper is organized in the same way as in print, so stories can be scanned by section.
Our next excursion was back to AOL to visit _Time Magazine_ online. Again, we were turned off by the AOL interface. While Time has its logo on the screen, their style and design is constricted by AOL. The magazine online is organized around the current week's issue, focusing on the cover story. All of the stories can be read onlin, and saved to disk, but none of the photographs, except a small GIF of the cover. My guess is that reproduction rights are either too expensive or too difficult to obtain, particularly since the images would be released in digital form, risking further reproduction. Still, much of the effect of the magazine is lost without its visual and graphic impact. The few images that are online are also difficult to get to, being located two menus down in the archives. Time also offers a daily "What's Hot in the News" section compiled from its bureaus and news sources. It is more of a topical overview than the headlines found on the AP wire on AOL.
Why Time Online works is the debate found in the discussion sections. From what I could tell, unlike the New York Times, Time Magazine is committed to developing its online readership, most of whom is appeared are also hardcopy readers. They have dedicated conference hosts to manage the debate in the sections, and Time editors and reporters participate. We got the impression that they understand the power here to receive immediate feedback and connect directly with their customer--the reader. This creates more value for the magazine through loyal readers and product differentiation. Overall, Time is a leader in translating its presence to the commercial online world.
Time, Inc. is also now testing the Internet world through a World Wide Web site called Pathfinder, a presence for several of its magazines, including Time, Sports Illustrated, and Vibe. Like AOL, Pathfinder is graphical and has point-and-click interface, however it makes a tremendous leap in design. Publising on the Web allows a magazine to be presented in either its actual print form/look or in a similar way with a unique blend of typography and other design elements. However, the drawback is file size leading to slow response. It was noon when we surfed to www.timeinc.com, and the Net was s-l-o-w. The initial timeinc menu offers a choice of either text menus or a 70K graphic menu. Chossing the graphic menu eventually brings up a stunning clickable image with a map of the whole system, much like the opening screen in eWorld. Chossing Time Magazine brings up another image menu with the current cover. Choosing to read an issue then brings up a more mundane text menu. The design for a story is even simpler--a bold headline, then normal text. However, this is the most efficient way to deliver stories. Graphics are nice to present the top level information, but we felt that plain text on the story-level was acceptable. Like on AOL, there are no inline graphics or photos. The same daily news brief that we saw on AOL was also on the Internet site. One nice feature is a form for submitting letters to the editor while online.
The last sight we visited on our journey was the just opened to public Hotwired, the new online world of _Wired_ magazine. Hotwired has several design elements of interest. The first is its design--unique and graphical like the magazine. The clickable-image menus are striking, but not as large in size as Time's. The second is its user-interaction via the Net--Hotwired has conferencing, much like usenet or the well. Users can read and respond to ongoing discussion threads, or start one of their own. And since Hotwired is accessed over the Web, links can also be added as responses. We visited Hotwired shortly after it opened, so there was not yet discussion going on in every section.
Hotwired is billed as an adjunct to the print magazine, not as a substitute or clone. It appears to capture the philosophy, structure, and focus of _Wired_, but due to the direct user/reader interaction, develop on its own in several, to be determined, directions.
While we found _Time_ on AOL to be the most effective online version of a print publication, perhaps because of its newness, or perhaps because of its hipness, we found Hotwired to be the most interesting online interpretation. Time serves its audience well; however, Hotwired has the potential to be actively guided by its audience, making for a very interesting media experiment.
Submitted by Alex Sutton