When I recently visited friends who only have an AOL account, we called up the Albion Monitor -- and I'm still recovering from the shock. It wasn't just that it was slow as molasses; what horrified was the appearance of our front page. It was a jumbled mess.
"Does it always look like this?" I asked.
"Sure," one of my friends replied. "Isn't this how it's supposed to?"
Well, no. If you're reading the Albion Monitor through AOL, the picture to your right (which, in all probability, appears above this paragraph) is how the front page is supposed to look. The headlines and descriptions of the stories align neatly on one side, with the section header (News / Features / Commentary) opposite. The "free" stars are next to the free stories. The "No Ads" logo is in the upper-right corner of the display. There is, in short, some sense of layout -- a design which vanishes in the AOL web viewer.
When we were planning our layout, we knew that there were some viewers that wouldn't display the Albion Monitor correctly. Some, like Mosaic, were as bad (or worse) than the AOL viewer. But in the last few months, newer versions of those programs have appeared that fix the problems. Surely, we thought, almost everyone would soon be using Netscape or a newer version of the other programs.
But we forgot that AOL users don't have that option.
The problem isn't really with AOL; it's with web page designers, such as ourselves. We want control over the layout, sometimes placing a graphic in the middle or right of the screen instead of just the left. We want to present text in ways that are easier to read. We want to show pictures that have more than 256 colors and change the background.
None of these things are possible under the current "HTML" standard, which is the primitive computer language used to present web pages. Netscape realized this and made a cunning decision: They decided to create a new standard that incorporated features under discussion for a future version of HTML as well as unique commands all their own.
Like most web page designers, we jumped on the opportunity to use the more powerful commands available through Netscape. The Albion Monitor is "enhanced for Netscape 1.1," as doubtless you've seen on other web pages. But at the same time, we don't stray too far from features that will appear in the next HTML standard; this way, we hope other web viewers will display the newspaper correctly -- someday. Maybe even AOL's version.
But relying upon the Netscape set of commands puts us in an uncomfortable position. It's as if we demanded you drive to our store using a Ford automobile fueled only by Ford gasoline. Everything's great as long as the car and the gas are cheap, but you can't rely on the corporation to keep the prices low, particularly once it becomes a monopoly.
It's a dilemma. We don't like helping a company build a stranglehold on this industry, but at the same time, Netscape (and Microsoft, for that matter) offer superb products without any serious competition. Personally, I'd like your opinions on this matter; send a note to email@example.com and let me know what you think.
There's another kind of viewer support that I'm reminded of, now that public television has finished its pledge weeks.
Like public TV, the Albion Monitor is non-commercial. We don't accept advertising of any sort; instead, we ask our readers to support us through subscriptions. The easiest way to do that if you live in Sonoma County is switch your Internet provider to Monitor Publishing. If you live outside Sonoma County, you can subscribe to the Albion Monitor for $29 per year.
In this issue, you'l find we're the first newspaper anywhere to break the important news about the new state policy on leaking underground fuel tanks. This could be one of the top environmental stories of the year, as California prepares to walk away from thousands of contaminated sites at the risk of our drinking water supply. You'll also find in this issue the most comprehensive coverage of the Bear Lincoln case available in any newspaper.
Those stories are free in this issue. But if you're a subscriber, you can also read our exclusive coverage of the Detroit newspaper strike, something you're not going to hear about in your corporate-owned daily newspaper. (Gee, I wonder why?) Without a subscription, you won't be able to read Mark Lowenthal's column, John De Salvio's moving feature about mothers of gay children who committed suicide (and the churches that despise them), the news story and matching commentary about the politics of global warming science, or any of the rest of the newspaper.
It comes down to this: you need the kind of uncompromised news coverage we offer, and we need your subscriptions to bring it to you. Just like public television and radio, the Albion Monitor brings you information you don't find anywhere else. Those stations need your financial support to survive, and so do we.
Our next issue appears on January 11th, with the latest on the important news we're following plus new stories to keep you awake nights.
Hope to see you then.
Jeff Elliott, Editor