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Pictures and Sound

Some webzines are cautiously taking advantage of the Internet’s multimedia capability. A HotWired article about Jimmy Carter, for example, provided a link to a 20-minute audio of a conversation with the former president, in which he expounded in his gentle Georgia drawl on his philosophical and religious views at far greater length than appropriate to quote in the article. To hear the interview requires RealAudio software, which its creator, Progressive Networks, offers free over the Web.

The interview is one of a series that HotWired’s “Netizen” section has run. In others, civil rights leader and ambassador Andrew Young has talked about affirmative action and Chinese human-rights activist Harry Wu has spoken of his experiences in a Chinese labor camp. Listening to Wu’s tense voice and elegant statement, for example, one senses his pain and his passionate ideals for a better future in a way that a transcript of the interview could not convey.

Unlike listening to an interview on radio or watching it on television, the Web’s audio capabilities allow the user to pause the playback, back up, or skip forward. Oddly, given that such interview tapes are essentially “free” content whenever a webzine covers a story, neither Slate nor Salon offers such audio features. Their hesitation stems partly from the low quality of sound. Ears accustomed to CDs and FM radio may find Web audio a step back in time. The warbly sound resembles, at best, a strong AM radio station, and often is more akin to that of a shortwave broadcast from overseas.

Webzines use video sparingly. Slate, for example, accompanies each movie review with a brief clip from the film. Unfortunately, technical quality is poor. The webzines have to trade off picture quality against transmission time, and choose speed. Not only are the images low resolution, but small as well, typically occupying a rectangle about 1 by 2 inches in the middle of the screen. Longer segments of video that would look sharper and occupy a larger portion of the screen are technically possible but would take impractically long to transmit. As it is, these 30-second video nuggets take a long time to download-for a computer chugging along with a 14.4 kilobit-per-second modem, the download will chew up typically 15 to 20 minutes, Slate warns.

Sometimes, however, this constraint makes little difference. Take Slate’s Varnish Remover column, which analyzes television ads. The Web reader can click on a link to download the video of the entire ad, not just an excerpt. During the presidential campaign, the column was devoted mainly to political TV commercials; now it has moved on to the kind of product ads that fill the screens in nonelection years, including Everready batteries and Levi’s jeans, as well as two product categories-liquor and condoms-that recently were the subject of first-time-ever TV ad campaigns. The ability to view the ads and read the commentary at the same time gives this feature an almost scholarly value.

Multimedia links can also provide historical context. A Slate article by historian Michael Beschloss about the political problems that bedevil second-term presidents, for example, links not only to the Gallup poll’s quarterly public-approval ratings for every president since Eisenhower but also to audio clips from two infamous moments in Richard Nixon’s aborted second term: the “I am not a crook” passage from a speech he made while the Watergate scandal was unfolding, and his resignation address. The medium makes such additions uniquely possible; television delivers pictures without the intellectual depth that text provides; print cannot bring events back to life.

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