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Interactive Web sites to thrive

February 9, 2000
Web posted at: 12:04 p.m. EST (1704 GMT)

by Nancy Weil


BOSTON (IDG) -- The key to successful Internet publishing is to encourage readers to provide site content through comments and discussions, a panel of keynote speakers said in Boston Monday morning at the opening of the Seybold Publishing 2000 conference.

"Any good publisher is always aware of what their readers are doing," said Roger Black, chief creative officer of and one of three speakers kicking off the conference. One way to be aware of what readers are up to, the speakers indicated, is to invite them to participate in the Web site.

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For those who have a hard time seeing the common ground between commercial and community sites, speaker Philip Greenspun suggested that the two different concepts ideally feed each other with surfers moving from site to site, using links and recommendations from others online. Greenspun teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is founder of ArsDigita, a Web development and hosting company that distributes open-source toolkits to those who want to build sites.

In his view, the difference between a boring site and an interesting Web presence comes down to user participation. As an example, he showed the audience the slow-loading Web site for gun-maker Smith & Wesson, which did not offer commentary on the relative merits of the various weapons offered in the online catalog.

However, the highly interactive site for Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership with its "Ask the Rabbi" column provided plenty of opinion and discussion.

"Even the lamest page can be saved by collaboration," Greenspun said, referring to his own site for the annual Head of the Charles regatta on the Charles River here. That site, he said, is made interesting by reader comments and discussion.

After giving brief individual talks, Greenspun and Black were joined onstage for a discussion including Dave Winer, president of UserLand Software (whose bills itself as "the Web portal for people who create the Web"). Winer was the third speaker of the morning, and he advocated a free-forum Internet where discussions are devoid of editors so that people can say what they want to say.

A lot of journalism today is "boring," he said, and could be made more interesting by pulling readers in and allowing them to have more of a say.

At least one question from the audience hinted at the struggles of traditional mainstream publications that are trying to build a Web presence using unfamiliar business models in a culture that is largely alien to them. Advertising plays a different role on the Internet, with banner ads flowing across pages in a way that some readers find irksome. Privacy issues also come into play because of the ability of Web sites to collect online information about visitors.

Black advocated that publishers employ full disclosure on Web sites, letting readers know what information is being gathered about them and how it will be used. Publishers should not fall back on using the standard opt-out procedure, requiring visitors to say that they do not want information about them to be collected.

The Los Angeles Times print version has recently been lambasted for not telling readers -- or its own sports editors and writers -- that a supplement it published about the new Staples Center there was cosponsored by the Staples Center, which is an athletic facility. The embarrassing episode underscored the lack of journalism background of those now running the newspaper, as such an arrangement is largely considered to pose serious conflicts of interest.

Black said that the incident would not have been untoward had the newspaper run a notice that the publication in question was cosponsored by the center. He further noted that the Internet has somehow created an "ecclesiastical" notion regarding advertising that all ads are bad.

"People have always bought newspapers as much for advertising as for editorial (content)," he said.

However, he intensely dislikes search engines that allow companies and organizations to pay for the privilege of being listed higher on the results page than nonpaying customers. The practice would not be so bothersome if the companies that paid to be listed higher were clumped together and labeled as having paid, he said.

These and other online publishing issues will be discussed through this week as the Publishing 2000 show continues at the Hynes Convention Center.

Nancy Weil is U.S. correspondent for the IDG News Service in Boston.

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Seybold Seminars, Boston, Publishing 2000
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