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September 2000

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2001.01, 02)

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Accessible E-commerce:
Does it work or doesn’t it?

In the space of a single week, we found conflicting accounts of the accessibility of E-commerce content.

  1. The New York Times reports that online grocery shopping benefits many disabled New Yorkers, particularly the blind. However, the writer insists on using the term "voice recognition" to describe the adaptive technology blind surfers use. In reality, screen readers provide voice output.
  2. Yet the Royal National Institute for the Blind surveyed banks, grocers, clothing retailers, and the like and found that all their sites were inaccessible to a significant degree. The RNIB refuses to post the actual survey details on its site, insisting on £5 for a copy of the report (a small enough fee to be annoying, but not big enough to give you the impression you’re buying something of value; if the RNIB wants to recoup its survey costs, it should charge £100).

We grow ever more tired of E-commerce sites that exclude disabled users (or anyone not blessed with, say, Windows, IE 5, or a high-speed connection). We grow tired of this because, were it technically possible to build a Web site that excluded Jews, no one this side of the Aryan Nation would ever consider it.

The legitimate press clues in, finally. Read all about it in the newest addition (a brief one; don’t get your hopes up) to our special report on megalomania and the failure of "convergence," MogulWatch.

And what did Dick Pound of the IOC tell CNN about Olympic rightsholders? Well, we’ve got that, too.


You can’t be serious!

Seemingly a lifetime ago, we described the utility of comix as a form of online content. We discussed how the medium didn’t have to be all fun and games, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Well, two developments:

The Onion ain’t the only game in town, folks.


Is reading online all that hard?

Paul Tough has this oddball lèse-majesté approach to the Internet – it’s good enough for him to start up his own epistolary site, Open Letters, where semi-famous writers, and, hypothetically, anyone else, can submit first-person diaries.

But Open Letters is a site that doesn’t work like most of the content sites you visit – dig those weird, inaccessible imagemaps of four quadrants of text. Worse, Open Letters keeps getting sniped at by its own creator.


The former Saturday Night editorial wunderkind epitomized the very best Canada has to offer by being lured back from New York, Canada apparently unequipped with suitable alternatives. He gripes in other online publications that it’s so hard to read online that his own site is suffering. "The ideal place to publish such ephemera, of course, is the Web, but Tough had some reservations. ’It’s hard to read long things on a website,’ he says. He often found himself printing out longer pieces instead of reading them onscreen."

Well, duh. Reading onscreen is difficult, particularly on crappy monitors (typical Windows clones, anyone?) and when using pretty much any font except Georgia or Verdana. But Tough took this to such an extreme that he seems to be perpetuating an urban myth for the Web intelligentsia. There’s an undercurrent of sophistication: Everybody knows the Web is hard to read the way everybody knows that Wired magazine is an unreadable mishmash of neon colours, despite having been toned down a good five years ago.

So now, on hiatus for the summer anyway, is a mere teaser to a PDF and print version.

[The PDF] allows for photographs, typography and graphics, and is less prone to being corrupted by Internet gobbledygook. Ultimately Tough wants this version to be e-delivered to paying subscribers, who ideally will print it out and read it the old-fashioned way.

Man. Talk about commitment to the Web!

We wanted to show that Paul Tough a thing or two. We wanted to band together some experts in Web typography and Web design, like the kids at and the Zeldman, to adapt an Open Letter five or six different ways, proving you can come up with Web type that people will sit there and read.

Except that Gen at WebType couldn’t figure out what poor Paul Tough was going on about.

Take this quote from the "Explain this PDF subscription idea" section:

"It will actually look like a magazine: it will have a cover, and a table of contents, and page numbers and headlines and different fonts and margins: all of those elements of page design that make reading a pleasure – all of which are hard if not impossible to deliver on the Web."

Right. The only thing that is impossible to achieve on the Web is the "cover" bit, but only if they are talking about an actual paper cover. The rest has been done for ages and is in fact used on Open Letters. They use GIFs for headlines and titles and tables for the margins. There’s no CSS for some reason, but for such a simple site it wouldn’t be hard at all to use it for setting typefaces and leading.

I actually like the site quite a bit – even the Courier text, which gives it a kind of typewritery, old-fashioned feel – so I don’t see what they are complaining about. The navigation is a bit shit though, and they seem to have stolen the illustrations from Douglas Coupland’s Life After God.

The more I look at the source code the more I think that Craig Taylor, the designer, knows what he’s doing.

I also like the fact that he hasn’t specified the font size. At least in IE 5.0, Courier works well in all size settings – it doesn’t go bold in larger sizes the way Verdana does, and it is actually quite readable in smaller sizes.

You’ve also got a nice 400 px column that should work in resolutions down to about 800x600 and the illustrations (also by Craig) are nice, if seemingly unrelated to the text at times. Links and titles are clearly separated from the body text by being bright orange and bold red, respectively.

I still think that the navigation is too confusing – "Today’s Letter from the Editor" is a different one depending on what page you access it from, for example – but we can’t really change that. I’d love to see an example of how the typography can be substantially improved, but I’m afraid I can’t come up with anything myself at the moment. I would also like to reply to those bone-headed statements on their "Delivery" page, but it would really be a lot easier if their own typography was shit.

The Web is not print, but maybe it’s not such a readability disaster after all.

Just don’t ask us to read eight-point black MS Sans Serif text on a 14-inch clone monitor. (We change all Windows displays to 10-point Verdana immediately upon sitting down – and never change them back.)


Accessibility: Mighty Olympics vanquished

The Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games has, in effect, been found guilty of discrimination in Australia for producing a Web site whose content is inaccessible to blind and visually-impaired visitors.

All this was the result of a single complaint from one person. Talk about David slaying Goliath.

We at NUblog, in our continuing commitment to accessible Web(-content) development, have written a Reader’s Guide to Sydney Olympics Accessibility Complaint, since the whole shebang is pretty long and complicated. Complete with full links to and quotations from the source document, of course, but lots of opinion. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


How’s this for content management? The IOC has decreed that athletes may not recount their Sydney experiences on their own Web sites. But interviews by accredited journalists (NBC, anyone?) are just fine. Check the links – including a link concerning IBM’s defection from the Olympics – in the NUblog special report, Olympix à Go-Go!

Nua: Right and wrong all at once

We respect the Nua kids. But two recent publications hold largely contradictory views.

Writing for ClickZ, Gerry McGovern lists seven reasons why content sites don’t make money. But a Nua Internet Survey specifies that half of newspaper Web sites in the U.S. and Canada are in the black or making a profit.

The contradictions don’t end there. Two of McGovern’s reasons for unprofitability of content sites:

  1. Staff and technology costs are very high for Internet publications.
  2. Providing quality "instant" news on an ongoing basis is very expensive.

Well, God love ’im and everything, but McGovern joins the unending litany of critics who mistakenly equate "Web content" with enormous, high-profile, publicly-traded, over-ambitious Web sites. We don’t know how many times we have to say this: Salon is not the Web (or, for you math types, Salon ≠ Web).

Are we alone in savouring the irony that McGovern lists why content sites don’t money through an article on a content site that does make money? They do it by staying small.

And that may explain why the newspaper sites that are doing all right are doing all right: "85% of Web editorial staffs saying they have five or [fewer staff] on their team."

Do we see a pattern here?

Later, we’ll offer some links showing how a lot of what we’ve been saying for months is finally being parroted by the Legitimate Press. Well, we were right first.


Slate: Anagrams to Stale

What’s that you say? You want to read our incendiary letter to Medianews about the twee irrelevancy known as Slate? Well, here it is, converted to editorial we.

We personally don’t give a shite why it is that Slate is surviving, whether it’s "parsimony" or simply being ignored by Microsoft or whatever else. Slate is an American irrelevancy, with only the most inconsequential and begrudging integration with the true Web. (And we do not refer to the fact that redirects automatically to, itself an incriminating detail.)

Look at a couple o’ things. Check the BoilerSlate page, an opaque and twee euphemism for Masthead or Contact Us. Why is the staff list formatted as a continuous paragraph? So you can’t read it. So you can’t understand it. So you won’t be tempted to ferret out a name and bother that person. Notice anything else? Like an absolute absence of E-mail addresses? Everyone who writes for the online medium has to be willing to accept E-mail in response. Anything less is a newspaper-style sop to interactivity, a Letters to the Editor page rendered in electrons.

You see this all the time, at, for example, ZDNet: A journalist writes a story, and the rabble mutter about it in user fora, entirely ignored by the journalist and editors. (A real Web content site engages the writers with readers. [A later correction holds that ZDNet writers do occasionally join in the fray.])

We speak from experience here: It took us weeks of digging to find a fax number to contact New York editrix Judith Shulevitz with a story idea (actually, an idea for a column, which we see they have since largely adopted). A fax number. We had to ask the local Microsoft office to look it up. She turned us down in a hardcopy letter laser-printed on a plain page (no letterhead) with no telephone number listed. It’s easier to contact a spy agency, like CSIS or the CSE, than it is to reach a Slate editor.

When Slate débuted, we surfed avidly to the site, only to find it took forever to load in Netscape (an accident, shurely?!) and pretty much didn’t work at all in Lynx, and recapped print metaphors like page numbers, since remedied. But more importantly, we was appalled that milquetoast standard-bearer Michael Kinsley had managed to get away with another super-elitist magazine for upper-class twits.

You head to the site and all there is to read about are DNA tests and tissue typing of the entrails of U.S. politics. We hear a lot about integrating audio and video. Kinsley’s greatest legacy will be his magical, almost alchemic ability to translate the chattering classes to the Web. Soon Microsoft will propose chattering as a MIME type in Windows Media Player, another of its many "open" standards. You get all excited at a substantive zine with good writing, and all they want to talk about are American senators and Bill forking Clinton.

And note another detail in BoilerSlate: If you really have to contact Slate, you can send a letter by "U.S. Postal Service." What, we have to drive to Buffalo and mail a hardcopy letter with an American stamp to communicate with a Webzine?

These conceits come up over and over again in publishing, of course. Wired once flatly turned down an article pitch because one of the chief subjects was a nonprofit organization receiving government funding. You have no idea how free-market we are here, an editrix told us. Fast Company is a plot by executives, stung by the mounting proof that downsizing did not in fact help their businesses, that "free agency" (i.e., serial unemployment) is an empowering New Economy paradigm. And of course, here in the province of Toronto, the Daily Tubby (i.e., the National Post, or National Socialist) acts as house organ for the hundred or so Christian Right–style arch-right-wingers still frustrated by their inability to secure U.S. green cards.

Slate, however, continues to get away with its manias. True, the subject-matter has expanded notably, but the site has never, ever been fun to read, and Kinsley, for all his talk of the virtues of a small team, insulates them more tightly than any political office inside the Beltway. We know why he brags about never holding launch parties: His staff would have to face their own readers.

Salon editors are spendthrifts and they’re quite dirty-minded, but there’s always something relevant and of interest on their site. Slate sets itself apart from the Web, the real world, and real readers – in all the wrong ways. To paraphrase Morrissey, if it should die, we might feel slightly sad but we won’t cry.

Sharp eyes will spot parallels with Jon Katz’s demarcation of open and closed media (NUblog passim). What do you think? E-mail is eagerly solicited.


A-a-and... we’re back!

The NUblog is reNUed. Go tell all your friends we’re live again.

Lots to start you out with right now, and regular updates resuming this week.


Mix ’n’ match – it’s interactive!

Stale Slate, evidently striving to make up in technology what it lacks in personality, verve, interest, voice, relevance, vivacity, individuality, originality, savvy, edge, moxie, spice, or spleen, offers readers a superfabulous new feature!

Now Windows tinkerer-geeks are able to noodle with Slate articles, mirroring the necessities and passions of Windows tinkerer-geeks in general, who spend their entire lives futzing with their user-hostile, insecure, crash-prone, unæsthetic, bloated, crass, inelegant, derivative, and deeply common operating system merely to get it to work.

How? According to Inside, through “mySlate.” (Beating out competing candidate names like iSlate, eSlate, and cyberSlate?)

When visitors to the site choose mySlate, a small window is launched. Users can then select any stories from that week, save them to an online hard drive, and then slice and dice them into custom layouts, Microsoft Reader E-books, or, thanks to technology from Lucent, even have them read aloud in streaming audio. “It’s a container that lets readers take things out and put them in as they want,” says publisher Scott Moore.

We shiver as we sense the wheezing ghost of the failed conventional wisdom of “interactivity” brush past us, whereby the term is taken to mean “you get to choose from a limited, predetermined list of actions we decide in advance for you.” Slate lets you engage in a limited, predetermined list of actions with its articles.

It’s something. It’s not nothing. In all sincerity, there is a degree of innovation, and what has Salon done for us lately?

Still, as ever, Microsoft has no understanding of universality. It’s a walled fortress: Your new powers work only with Microsoft-approved operating systems, E-book readers, and Media Players. (Don’t you love the expressive Microsoft nomenclature? Doesn’t “Microsoft Photo Editor” roll ever so trippingly off the tongue, unlike the clumsy, malapropos “Adobe Photoshop”?)

Microsoft software festoons mySlate. Users log in through Microsoft Passport. Streaming-media files are read through the Window Media Player. And the only E-book format available is Reader, which in turn is available only on Microsoft’s PocketPC PDA until late summer, when Reader will expand to all Windows devices (but not Apple or Palm).

And remember, we’re dealing with surfers who don’t know how to change the fonts in their browsers, let alone set up a user stylesheet.

It’s something, what the Slate milquetoasts are doing. But it’s not a lot, and it’s not enough.

(For comparison, read about Esquire, below. Who’s doing better, in your opinion?)



The net is, after all, merely the evolution of former media. We espouse an interdisciplinary approach in assessing online content.

So let’s study how the music industry shafts musicians, and how existing content sites (portals, anyone? convergence, anyone?) trod in the same path.

But don’t listen to us yammer. Read MusicDish: “The Real Reason Major Record Companies Suck.” (We prefer the word bite, of course; majusculation sic.)

Content relevance (or, as the kids used to say on Usenet, ObContent): TV types, metastasizing wildly in online media, understand mass audiences. (Network’s The Mao Tse-tung Hour is a bit too specialized to appear on a real-world réseau.) That’s true even in the age of specialty TV channels.

Marketers, too, understand mass audiences, with uncommon exceptions – trade magazines, ethnic newspapers, strictly local media.

When confronted with a medium that permits and encourages specificity, not generality, TV types and their marketing minions speak the language they know best. And it doesn’t work.

Further, it doesn’t work because TV and marketing types are accustomed to vast oceans of money to play with, which venture capitalists and Eisner-style CEOs were all too happy to provide. This kind of megalomania, documented on our MogulWatch pages, causes online managers to overlook cheap, small sites, the ones that really work online.

We respect the intelligence of our audience, unlike, say, portalistas, who do nothing but condescend and talk down, so why not take a look at the MusicDish article and draw your own parallels? There’s a pretty direct path between the amorality and cluelessness of the music biz and what’s happening online. As you’ll read, you’ll be licking your chops. History repeats itself, as Miss Shirley Bassey helpfully informed us.


Reclaiming Rugby League

We really wanted to like the article by Matthew Wood, “Supporters reclaiming Rugby League through the Internet.” The academic tone put us off. (Academic articles are hard to make work online. “So what’s your excuse?” you immediately respond.)

The piece didn’t say too much, except that fans work without corporate control, work faster, and cut the crap.

We would have appreciated some actual reporting, including interviews with Rugby League officials. Did they have to drag themselves, reluctantly, to the stage where they tolerated or encouraged fan sites, or did they learn the failed lesson of the music industry (yet again) and TV, which tried to squash fan sites early on, and wisely decided to encourage rugby league fan sites straight away?

In any event, a recurring NUblog theme comes up: Even when dealing with corporate pro sports, small is beautiful. And just as drag queens do a better Shania Twain than Shania does herself, fans have a greater collective knowledge of a topic than participants themselves, if only because, with so many minds at work, the chance that an event or nuance will be forgotten forever vanishes. What did Caroline van Oosten de Boer write on

I’ll tell you why I tape gigs. Not to sell them (though I have in the past), not to swap them (because I do). It comes from the very same reason I wrote my book, and do my music-related sites. It’s a need to document things. Which goes back to the need to document myself, where I was, what I listened to. The need to capture moments of happiness, which occur during a gig. That one song that makes your heart sing. Capture it, and then go back to it, remember it, relive it.

One of the most popular books on U2 was written by my friend PJ. I did work on it too, listening to U2’s entire Joshua Tree tour and transcribing those “moments.” We used bootleg tapes for this purpose. These tapes record a band’s history and progression. You can hear how songs evolve from the first time played, to the last note. I happen to think this kind of documenting is important. And whaddaya know... we were told U2’s management use the book themselves, for reference.


If small is beautiful, what about Word?

OK. If small is beautiful, why did the perennial critics’ darling of content sites, Word, bite the dust recently?

An also-ran, overshadowed by Slate, Salon, even Feed, but more famous than Mappa Mundi, Teeth, and the more latterly Iron Minds, Word was always a tough read, a form of Difficult Listening Hour, to paraphrase Laurie Anderson. Five or so years ago, we could not believe what the Word kids were doing with HTML and graphics – a yellow happy face that looked straight at you for a minute or two, then rotated and stayed put for a minute or two, then rotated again, and so on, remains in our memories.

Anyway, in August, the perennially clueless fish-powder manufactuer Zapata pulled the plug for the last time. Founder Marisa Bowe kept telling interviewers that Word didn’t make a profit and was never intended to. In cases like these, unfortunately we have to side with milquetoast standard-bearer Michael Kinsley: You need a rich parent. A site like Word is akin to Woody Allen films: They don’t earn their money back, but they earn the parent monolith credibility.

So why isn’t some smart media or technology company racing to snap up Word, the way’s remains were bought for next to nothing? Because we can’t name any smart media or technology companies – not off the tops of our heads, anyway.


Can we call ’em or what?

Remember our incongruous, vaguely romanticized, and essentially ignored pæan to the superannuated guy rag Esquire and its online presence?

Well, we barely remember it, either. (Over here.)

Now the Hearst kids, led by Brendan Vaughan, who has no functioning E-address we can find (even webmaster@ and bounce), is releasing fiction in E-book format, namely Love and Murder. An anthology, in fact, which we guess corresponds to the conventional wisdom of E-publishing, where shorter texts work better. (Maybe.)

[Deputy Editor Peter] Griffin, who came up with the idea for both the anthology and the Summer Reading Issue E-book, worked with Vaughan over the summer to copy the stories from Esquire’s Quark-based publishing system into Word documents, as a pair of staff designers prepared artwork. The files were then E-mailed to Barnes & Noble’s digital content division, which converted the files into four commercial E-book formats for $500. The rest of the costs: $255 spent on registering ISBN numbers. “There was a not insignificant amount time spent working on this, though,” Griffin says. If Esquire does publish future E-book anthologies, Griffins adds that staff would have to be hired.

The rights questions are largely glossed over. Thank God for the deficiencies of U.S. copyright law, which permit wholesale anthologization without further permission, which Vaughan claims Esquire secured anyway. (A nice gesture. But might makes right, and Hearst can do what it wants in producing an anthology.)

Esquire editor David Granger blows his own horn, not without justification.

If you just look at the E-book as a machine, that’s really what it’s capable of: Providing a new format for telling stories. The reason we took the four main stories of our July issue and created this little E-book edition that came out three weeks before the magazine was because we thought that those four stories were uniquely suited to that tool. It provided a viable entertainment experience that the E-book, or, maybe to a slightly lesser degree, the Palm, can provide. Which is just like sitting there and reading something on a page and having the words drive you through to the end of it. A lot of it is guesswork – we’re doing it because we can, and we want to be in the game, and we want to see if it works – and it’s not all that expensive.

And so now we’re going to try to do it with a couple of anthologies. And again, one of my great frustrations is always that I’ll go back and read stuff that I edited where I was at GQ or my three years here, and it bugs me that it’s dead. Unless you go buy it on Contentville, it doesn’t have a life anymore. And some of the stuff is ... still relevant, beautiful, great works of American journalism. And I’d like to give them a new life. And also see if we can make a couple of dollars off of them.

How long will it take Esquire to earn back $755?

How many cents of that “couple of dollars” will the writers see?