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Whatever Happened to Cross-Media Publishing? --McIlroy

May 2003
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The other night, lying in bed, thinking about publishing (sad, but true!), I started to wonder: Whatever happened to cross-media publishing? As the Internet and Web exploded across the publishing world in the early to mid-1990s, cross-media publishing and media-independent publishing were our battle cry.

Sure, the Internet was in ascendence then, but we publishers knew that the Web folks would have to come home to papa eventually. They couldn't build megalithic systems for Web publishing independently from the megalithic systems for print publishing currently in development and in place. These systems would have to merge together into a single, powerful, cross-media system: one database and workflow that could drive content both to print and to the Web (and, back then, we thought also to CD-ROM).

I credit the popularity of the cross-media concept to a guy named Jeff Martin. In the early '90s he was an executive in Apple's publishing marketing group. His efforts (and those of some of his colleagues) led to the establishment of an industry group called the Worldwide Publishing Consortium (WWPC), announced by Apple CEO Michael Spindler at Seybold San Francisco in October 1993. Seybold Reports reported that the WWPC "was created to address the issues of open-system publishing and cross-media communications, and to foster better communication among users, developers and suppliers." This is the first time I could find the term "cross-media" used in a Seybold Report to describe something other than authoring to print and CD-ROM only.

At Seybold San Francisco in September 1996, Jeff Martin encouraged Apple to sponsor a "Masters of Media" display, which included a station showing "Future Cross-Media Authoring."

At Seybold San Francisco in September 1998, Seybold Publications launched its Vision Awards, "which recognize products or people who have helped to move the publishing industry forward in the areas of print, Internet and media-independent publishing." (The term "media-independent publishing" is generally used interchangeably with "cross-media publishing." While working at Seybold we had many debates about which term was more accurate or more appropriate. Today I find 3,850 links on Google to "media-independent publishing," and 30,900 links to "cross-media publishing". I guess cross-media publishing it is.)

Software Report

Reviewing Adobe's first release of InDesign in March 1999, the Seybold Report noted that "the hard problems today are workflow automation and media-independent publishing."

I was working with Seybold Seminars at the time and, by checking Seybold's past seminars transcripts site, I see that in the fall of 1997 we offered a whole track called media-independent publishing, featuring sessions like "Publishing in Multiple Media: Moving Toward Media Agility" and "Developing Multi-user Editorial Systems for Print and Online."

By 1999, we had toned down our focus on the topic, because we found that every session made the same point: we should be working cross-media, but the tools and the workflows aren't there yet.

And here we are in spring 2003. Where is cross-media today? Certainly newspapers and magazines easily repurpose articles from print to the Web. Many catalogs use the same text for print and online. But the majority of what we find in print today does not appear on the Web; and very little of what's on the Web today ever makes it to print. What went wrong?

I think now that the dream of cross-media grew out of the print community's sense of betrayal by the Web. After all our years of building a publishing craft, and even going to great lengths to digitize and automate that craft, here was the Web upstart quickly usurping our hold on graphic communication.

As of February 2003, the top 10 Web brands as measured by unique audience by Nielsen/NetRatings are Yahoo, Microsoft, MSN, AOL, Google, Amazon, Real, eBay, Lycos Networks and the About Network. The About Network is owned by Primedia, a company formed around print, though the About Network Website has no print analog. All the other sites are search engines, entertainment and e-commerce sites, with little or no connection to the world of print.

What works best on the Web, we're learning, is very different from what works (or worked) in print. It's not that print has no role on the Web, it's just that its role is relatively minor. We're slowly learning to appreciate the uniqueness of the Web as a communication medium.

I've been reviewing articles about how to write for the Web (that I've found on the Web), trying to understand what makes Web writing different from print writing. Jakob Nielsen, who I think is the finest writer on Web usability, wrote a piece back in October 1997 called "How Users Read on the Web" (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9703b.html).

The piece begins: "They don't. People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In a recent study John Morkes and I found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word."

As a result, he writes, Web pages demand a very different approach from the author than print, including: "one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph), the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion, and half the word count (or less) than conventional writing."

No wonder cross-media publishing has never caught on. No one can write for cross-media publishing. The Web and print are two very different media: we were wrong to think that the twain should meet.

—Thad McIlroy

About the Author

Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing consultant and analyst, based at Arcadia House in San Francisco. He welcomes your comments at thad@arcadiahouse.com.
 
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