Frayed Webbing

Local TV and the Internet: Not Exactly The News

Surfing the World Wide Web makes me feel like a demented child running amok in a candy store. The reptile cortex seems to take over, as the ease of jumping from one link to another fosters a heedless momentum that discourages stopping to savor delectable chunks of information. Fortunately, there aren't too
many of them. Much of the Web, novices soon discover, is a vast blur of advertising and non-prose, and the occasional 10,000-word essay on student rebellion in China or whatever must be turned into hard copy which then turns into office clutter, albeit nifty clutter. (The Usenet is a whole other box of chocolates.)

Still and all, the Web is here to stay, at least as a harbinger of the merger of on-line and video services that will hit a few years hence. And since the ostensible subject of this column is local news media, the Web attempts of local news providers deserve a look. Two of Austin's TV news operations, K-Eye 42 and KXAN 36, are hyping their Web pages on the air like there's no tomorrow. The former was first out of the gate months ago, the latter came along more recently, and neither of the other two news operations in town have pages up yet.

It's hard to tell whether these sites have much reason for existing other than advertising the news broadcast and maintaining a with-it image. They seem to lack a profit center, though K-Eye has cleverly titled its advertising component the "Interactive Marketplace." It consists of links to commercial sites, and it's currently underpopulated, boasting a bare handful of business names under the various categories. Of course, watching the corporate world try to figure out a way to make hay from the Internet is half the fun of following it nowadays. Its massive popularity suggests that there are bonanzas to be reaped, yet advertising can often be circumvented and the net's basic structure works against conducting secure transactions.

A perfect example of this occurred in a slightly different medium down in Orlando, Florida, where an experiment in interactive cable TV is being conducted. Eighteen months in, the most popular feature of the Full Service Network is not movies-on-demand but remote control ordering of postage stamps that are delivered in the customer's mailbox the next day. "That won't exactly offset the costs of the $5,000 set-top boxes and the tens of millions of dollars of infrastructure that includes fiber-optic lines and a roomful of high-speed Silicon Graphics digital video servers," notes The Hollywood Reporter.

At least Web sites are relatively cheap, so much so that even the tiny number of ads on the K-Eye site (www.k-eyetv.com) could pay for the thing. Clicking around the site, one finds information on the station's personnel, learning that co-anchor Shaun Robinson is from Detroit and recently acquired a Maltese puppy named Snowflake. The "Homework Helper" lists dozens of links to educational sites grouped by topic -- History, English, and so on -- undoubtedly a useful feature for high school students. World and national news can be found by following a link to Yahoo Reuters, the online version of that venerable international wire service, full of stories that clock in at two or three hundred words or longer. Interestingly, the page features a sizable amount of material on how you can "HELP SAVE FREE TV!" by agitating against TV airwave auctions; this section is refreshing because it pulses with the fear of extinction.

So far, so good, if only the local news component didn't fall flat on its virtual face. Here is a typical item, in its entirety: "Police Search For Murder Suspect: Austin homicide investigators believe Roberto Sanchez killed a man on the corner of East 7th and Onion Street Friday. He's considered armed and dangerous. Call police if you have any information." Right, whatever, as Bob Dole might say. They could do better if they hired a college intern to type in the transcripts of the news pieces that go out over the air, though this kind of item does have the advantage of stripping away voyeuristic video of the crime scene and grieving relatives.

KXAN's site (www.kxan.com) suffers from the same paucity of local news, and following the link to world and national news leads straight to... Yahoo Reuters. But the best reason for looking at this site, as the TV commercials scream day and night, is the availability of Live Doppler Radar. By remarkable coincidence, it is actually raining when I check it out. Since the image is updated every three minutes, I am able to see what the area map looks like covered with electronic salsa verde splatter, and then, an hour or so later, what it looks like covered with nothing at all. KXAN will spend tens of thousands of dollars sending a reporter and crew to the Republican convention in San Diego. If they were smart, they'd dispense with all that and just send the Doppler Radar guy to send back pictures of the weather there.

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The Austin American-Statesman has yet to put out a full-blown online edition; the site I found only listed names and phone numbers of editors, along with links to Web sites of elected representatives. However, the last six years of the paper's archives can be accessed at www.austin360.com, or directly at www.tlc.statesman.com (type in "guest" for the name and "austin360" for the password). This site's usefulness for the general reader is marred by a search engine that lacks power and versatility. For researchers, it can come in handy as long as you keep your keyword search parameters narrow and brace yourself for blocks of copy minus paragraph breaks. For example, a search for stories relating to "golf" produced a blizzard of sports coverage -- the engine gives you the choice of 20 to 200 matches, going back from one week to six years -- while a search for stories containing the words "Freeport" and "charity" yielded such gems as "More fun than you can shake a club at" (1-28-93). When the electronic archivists get this one tuned up, it will be an invaluable tool. The best place, still, to get Statesman archives is through SmartLine at UT's Perry-Castaneda Library (PCL). You can't get it from your home computer, meaning you have to get off your ass and travel down to campus, but it's fast, free, and you don't need an i.d. card.

Though not comprehensive, a good listing of interesting locally-generated web sites can be found in the feature on the hundred hottest web sites in the August issue of Texas Monthly.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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