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TechWatch: Newspapers in the Technological Future

I used to think I wanted to be a journalist. I was editor of my college newspaper and, with my wife, ran a small town weekly during a summer while the editor was away on a special assignment. Eventually my love of mathematics won out, and that was my entry to a career in technology.

It is interesting to look at the potential intersections of technology and journalism. How can and will technology change the nature of newspapers? It is easy to speculate on this future but as a reality check I chat from time to time with longtime friends who stayed in the newspaper field.

Richard Cooper, the editor on leave at that small town weekly, has spent many years in the Washington DC bureau of the Los Angeles Times. Richard recently mentioned the advantages of being able to file important background information on political figures on the web. A reader can catch up on this information when convenient or needed. Many newspapers now have online versions; some even make the present day edition free, but charge for access to their archives.

Joe Distelheim, the sports editor on our college newspaper, is now editor of the Huntsville Times (Alabama). On a visit to his newsroom a year ago, the transformation by technology was obvious. Not only the typewriters (obviously), but also most of the paper is now gone. Stories are moved electronically from writer to editor to page layout to printer. His first attempts to have on-line chat sessions with readers, however, resulted in a long evening of futile waiting. Being on-line doesn’t guarantee conversation.

In one of our local Seattle-area papers, technology enabled a great reduction in the local editorial staff, leaving the paper dominated by wire service content. I still read the paper in the morning, get newsprint on my hands, and haul the old papers out to the curb for recycling. There is still something we like about reading our morning news on paper.

Still, several opportunities are here, or close, which could result in significant change. Whether they will happen or not depends less on the technology than on customer acceptance of new ways of doing things. In this sense, newspapers reflect the broader change in business brought about by technology. What can be done and what actually is accepted are often not the same. The two-way video telephone remains a technological possibility rather than a reality, for example. But let’s consider a few possibilities for newspapers.

When I was in Moscow, Russia, recently, I noticed that the Financial Times in the hotel was a day old because of shipping time. But when we visited a company working with Newspapers Direct (http://www.newspapersdirect.com), we received an up-to-the-minute version of that paper, ads and all. Rather than printing the newspaper and then shipping it, they ship the newspaper in electronic form and then print it with a patented high speed printer.

Some newspapers already have multiple regional printing facilities. Newspapers Direct takes the idea further and brings the latest editions directly to the hotel, cruise ship, or perhaps even the individual. Printing-on-demand also eliminates the expense of pre-printed newspaper inventory. Any newspaper could be delivered to any hotel, newsstand, or cruise ship with this subscription and printer service. The cost of a newspaper could be very modest and still leave a profit-margin for the newspaper and the distributor.

Of course, newspaper content could be delivered straight to your laptop or PDA, but many people continue to like the paper version. It is not always convenient to have the laptop on a trip, or to download the paper before getting in the cab. Reading the paper on a small screen can be annoying. It will be interesting to watch for the acceptance of paper newspapers on-demand.

A second big potential change is a bit further away. XEROX PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) has an interesting technology in their lab called electronic smart paper (http://www.parc.xerox.com/dhl/projects/gyricon). They are experimenting with a “paper like” sheet (about the size and thickness of paper, though it feels a bit more like plastic) that contains embedded electronics. When the content of the newspaper is downloaded, this sheet could at one moment be the front page, then the business page, then the sports page. It could also allow video clips to replace standard pictures, and have connected reference to other sources like navigating the Web. With wireless communications, this “newspaper” could be automatically updated with the next day’s edition by simply leaving it on the couch over night.

Is this the newspaper of the future? There is little doubt that technology will make it possible, though today the technology is only at the point where it can be used for large signs. The question remains whether it will be affordable and acceptable to the public. And, of course, what will we use to line the bottom of the birdcage?

Another way technology could influence newspapers is by mass personalization. Suppose you are primarily interested in sports, with emphasis on baseball and the Chicago Cubs. And suppose you are also interested in business, particularly the stocks in your own portfolio. It would certainly be possible to get a newspaper tailored just for you. Drawing on many sources, it would pull together just the sports and stock information you wanted. Even in the winter it could bring you the “hot stove” discussions about the prospects for the Cubs. Today, there are special Web services, even fax subscriptions, which allow this, but it has not broadly invaded the domain of newspapers.

Serendipity

As intriguing as this sounds, it may have more downsides than upsides. Andrew Shapiro (The Control Revolution) argues for the value of serendipity. The standard newspaper provides opportunities to find something of interest that you never would have requested in your customized newspaper. You could easily come to know more and more about less and less. Perhaps elements of customization combined with some other externally selected content will combine in future newspapers.

There is another caution here. I believe we need good, qualified editors more now than ever because of the volume of information out there. Editors help us by sifting through masses of information to create a balance of important and interesting reading.

Peter Lyman and Hal Varian (University of California, Berkeley) published a recent report (http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/how-much-info) attempting to quantify information. You know about gigabytes (a billion bytes) or even terabytes (a trillion bytes). The next two larger measures are petabytes (1000 trillion bytes) and exabytes (a million trillion bytes). They report that more than an exabyte of new information (or data) is generated each year. Newspapers generate 25 terabytes, more than twice the volume of information in the Library of Congress. Information generated annually in e-mail is estimated at eleven terabytes.

Electronic newspapers. Up-to-the-minute printed newspapers. Multimedia, automatically updated newspapers. Newspapers customized to my personal content interest. Technology is making all of these possible. Economics, value propositions, habit, preference, and immune systems all play a role in what takes hold and what does not in newspapers as in other areas of business.

What do you think Richard? Joe?

Postscripts:
Al,
It is widely assumed in the newspaper community that technology will transform the way the content of newspapers is delivered to tomorrow’s readers. The great unknown — and the source of the great anxiety — is “how” and “when.” The economics of these techno-futures is still a mystery but these problems will be solved in time and the prospects could then be good for the three or four remaining “national” papers.

As other dailies have become thinner and more local, the gap has grown enormously between what is available to interested readers in Los Angeles, New York and Washington and to readers almost everywhere else. If technology could make the big national papers available in an appealing and profitable form to readers across the country, the demand could be substantial, because the one thing technology has not changed — and will not change — is the need for reliable, professionally assessed information about the world we live in.
Richard Cooper
Los Angeles Times, Washington DC

Al,
As an experiment, a longtime newsman recently gave up newspapers for six months to see what he’d miss. The answer: Some news, for sure, but also some of the things you suggest, like the smell and feel of the paper, the serendipity of the unexpected story. Technology will change how we do what we do, mostly for the better, I think. We’ll learn to go beyond one-size-fits-all, and tailor newspapers for readers who want different content, or different delivery schedules. We’ll deliver news faster, and farther
What will remain, though, is the need for newspapers to serve sets of people brought together by community, people in places like Huntsville who may have very dissimilar interests, but who are bound together by weather, roads, local events, local government, shopping, utilities, natural resources, schools … and a need to live together.
Joe Distelheim
Editor,
The Huntsville Times, Huntsville AB

erisman-thumb

Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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