An Unfettered Press
By Vic Sussman
Reprinted from U.S. News & World Report, May 16, 1994, published at Washington, D.C.
The newspaper arrives one morning, but something is missing. There is no delivery person tossing the folded papers into dimly lighted driveways, no familiar thunk. In fact, there is no paper at all. This newspaper is electronic -- a digitalized blend of text, graphics, color photos, sound, and full-motion video dancing across a book-size, portable computer screen. And it's wireless, so you can even take it to the bathroom.
This futuristic vision of the American newspaper is no longer science fiction. Newspapers are launching themselves into cyberspace with the enthusiasm they once had for Linotype machines. The Kelsey Group, a Princeton, New Jersey, media consulting firm, says more than 2,700 newspapers -- up from only 42 in 1989 -- are dabbling in electronic ventures. This includes everything from telephone delivery of personal ads and sports scores to fax-on-demand for readers desperately seeking restaurant reviews. The biggest gamble is to develop a true electronic newspaper, a mission that raises some jackpot questions: What is so special about a computerized paper, and will a substantial number of people pay to read one?
If there is an urgency about this, it is because Americans have clearly fallen out of love with the old-fashioned kind of paper. About half the population does not subscribe to one, while almost 50 percent of what should be the future generation of readers -- those ages 18 to 24 -- don't read newspapers at all. Big metropolitan newspapers have been sliding into decline since their heyday of authority in the 1920s, when many Americans were able to choose among competing papers; today, by contrast, many communities lack any newspaper at all. "I love newspapers," says journalism historian Donald Shaw of the University of North Carolina, "but they don't have to remain in their original form to survive."
The new model, says Roger Fidler, director of Knight-Ridder's Information Design Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, is clearly going to be "digital ink on silicon paper."
Newspapers such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit Free Press, and the Chicago Tribune have already opened shop on national information services -- Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online, respectively. The Palo Alto Weekly in California was the first American paper to post its editorial content in the dense undergrowth of the Internet, the global network of computer networks with some 20 million users worldwide.
Readers of these computerized papers don't see the familiar display of headlines and stories. California's San Jose Mercury News, for example, with its Mercury Center on America Online, presents a screen of small graphical boxes, each with a label like Entertainment, Bay Area Living, or Sports. Selecting any box automatically pulls that material on-screen. The opportunity for extensive browsing is a key feature of computerized newspapers, says Bill Mitchell, director of electronic publishing for the Mercury News. "We're trying to create a newspaper with more dimensions, with in-depth material linked to stories in the paper," says Mitchell. Various stories in the paper version of the Mercury News are tagged at the end with graphic symbols indicating that more information is available online: full texts of speeches, for example, or additional photos and related wire service articles that did not appear in the paper edition. Readers can also print out articles and retrieve photos and search through back issues of the paper -- without having to rummage through the garbage.
The ability to direct readers to vast amounts of information is what most distinguishes electronic newspapers from the traditional model, says Neil Budde, editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition. Paper newspapers are severely limited by space and publishing costs. But material that won't fit on paper -- court documents, legislative records, lengthy interviews -- can be tucked into a corner of cyberspace at minuscule cost, available to readers at a keystroke.
Many readers who are already overwhelmed by information may find the promise of more data a hollow blessing, of course. And indeed, the goal of electronic newspapering is ultimately to ease the consumer's data burden. One feature of electronic newspapers, for example, will be customized "news filters" that will deliver specialized information. Readers interested in everything from chess tournaments to obscure medical news will be able to have customized information automatically delivered to their computer screens along with the day's top news stories. Publishers are wagering that people will find this "Daily Me" feature of electronic newspapers worth paying for.
Electronic newspapers are also involving readers in two-way conversations, a historic departure from the traditional one-way flow. Most online newspapers have popular chat areas where readers can converse with writers and editors. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with its Access Atlanta on Prodigy, even expects to use some of its readers as volunteer reporters to gather neglected minutiae like bowling scores and school lunch programs. "Our users are going to help us shape this system," says David Scott, the newspaper's electronic information publisher.
Journalists and publishers disagree about the value of interactivity. Gordon Thompson, a technology manager for the New York Times, thinks it is probably inevitable but fears it could overwhelm reporters, who "should be interviewing Boris Yeltsin, not becoming E-mail buddies." But Dan Gillmor, a technology columnist for the Detroit Free Press, calls his online activity "one of my most valuable tools." He routinely puts his electronic mail addresses at the end of each column and spends two hours or more a day wandering through cyberspace. Reporters and controversial columnists could wind up as online personalities, much like those in talk radio, says Rosalind Resnick, publisher of Interactive Publishing Alert, an industry newsletter.
However much the public enjoys a kaffeeklatsch, the crucial question for electronic publishers is how to make a profit, and few of the newspapers flirting with cyberspace dare yet to dream of glory. Henry Scott, group director of new business development for the New York Times Company, echoes the thoughts of many when he says, "This is a research and development project." How, for example, should advertising work in an electronic medium? Computer screens don't support lucrative full-page display ads, and few online services effectively mix advertising and text on a small screen. (Prodigy includes ads; CompuServe and America Online are experimenting with "nonintrusive" ads.)
One moneymaker could be classified advertising -- with a digital twist. Instead of passively scanning classifieds, users can now search by subject, price, and location. They can view photos of real estate and other products. In time, says San Francisco electronic newspaper entrepreneur Steve Outing, they may be able to subscribe to a particular classified, directing the system to automatically E-mail them all garage sale ads within their area code, for example, or all ads for red 1967 Mustang automobiles. American newspapers earn over $11 billion a year from classified advertising alone, nearly a third of their total ad revenue, says the Newspaper Association of America. Competition for this turf will intensify as telephone and cable companies stake out claims.
The future newspaper, says Fidler, is going to be a versatile, wireless, flat-screen device he calls the "portable information appliance," or PIA. This magazine-size computer will offer a high-quality vertical display; readers will use a penlike pointer to browse, retaining the newspaper's serendipitous power to "expose you to things you didn't know you wanted." The PIA in Fidler's version will also display books, magazines, tax and insurance forms, and ads and is likely to be marketed much as computers are.
No one knows the future of the foldable paper newspaper. Bill Johnson, publisher of the Palo Alto Weekly, believes electronic newspapers won't replace the traditional model -- certainly not in small towns, where papers have less competition and play "a vital role in holding the community together." But Stephen Isaacs, acting dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which recently added a cyberspace component to its curriculum, disagrees. "Flattened trees are not going to be the medium for newspapers much longer," Isaacs says. He sees electronic newspapers as liberating for reporters and readers alike because information flow will no longer be limited by space. Electronic newspapering will usher in "the golden age of journalism," says Isaacs. "It's just too bad the journalists don't know it yet."
Vic Sussman writes for U.S. News & World Report.
Copyright (c) 1994 U.S. News & World Report, Inc. All rights reserved.