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Whatever Happened to Cross-Media Publishing? --McIlroy

May 2003
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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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