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Bob Gibson ONLINE & ON PAPER

The world's largest library is in your computer, thanks to the Internet. Even if one factors out the worthless junk that occupies parts of cyberspace, it is still true that the news groups, bulletin boards and Web sites accessible with an Internet connection far outweigh any other source of information. And that is before one considers e-mail, FTP sites and other Internet applications.

The Internet's seemingly limitless storage space, coupled with ever-improving tools to instantly use and massage data from anywhere, has made it more usable than the building-full-of-books variety of library. The World Wide Web has diminished the need for an after-school dash to the public library's encyclopedia for a junior high geography report on the economy of Ecuador. There is no doubt that the Internet has taken its place in history as a dominant spot to find information and entertainment.Limited supply of informationBut an Internet connection does not guarantee access to all of the world's information. Many older books and records just have not been scanned or typed into digits that can flow through wires, switches and chips to a computer screen.

Some of what has been written or compiled in the past decade deliberately is left off of the Internet and, under current circumstances, never may be viewable via the connected computer. Why? Technology makes any information on the Internet accessible to anyone in the world with a computer and connection. And one copy of a news article on a Web site, for instance, theoretically could serve all of the Internet readers in the world. So people who sell information a piece at a time are reluctant to post their data anywhere on the Internet because it would take away their opportunity to make money.

In the news business, that phenomenon applies to syndicated columnists who appear in the newspapers. Ann Landers, Ellen Goodman, Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau and the other syndicated authors rely on the peculiarities of paper distribution to sell their prose. A column or cartoon sold to the Boise paper appears only as far as the Boise paper can be distributed. So the same material can be sold to publishers in Dallas, Philly and Billings without much overlap in readership. If the same information was sold to a Web site in any one of those towns, however, it would be viewable to any Internet reader in the world.

So newspapers buy syndicated material for one-time use - in the printed newspaper. Syndicated information generally does not appear in the online site.Where are the syndicated columns?I bring this up because my e-mail is full of questions about where billingsgazette.com readers can find syndicated columns that they saw in the newspaper. Generally the inquiring newspaper readers saw something in print and want to e-mail it to a friend or relative. They scour billingsgazette.com without finding the material, then call or e-mail for help. I have to tell them that syndicated columns and cartoons remain the exclusive domain of the printed piece. That won't change when the re-engineered billingsgazette.com is launched later this month.

A number of other features that appear in the newspaper are not on the online site. The most obvious is the display advertising. You see more professional sports coverage in print than online. Dr. Gott, Heloise, national political columnists, comics, the printed crossword puzzle (although billingsgazette.com features a different, online-only puzzle) and the classified "legal ads" run just on paper. Some newspaper items are requested frequently enough that they will be considered for inclusion in the redesigned Web site. Those include wedding and engagement announcements, local drunken-driving convictions, organization meeting schedules and recipes.

If you have questions or suggestions for things that should appear in the new online site, email your comments to bgibson@billingsgazette.com.

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