Papers Will Survive Newest Technology  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS    
From AJR,   June 1993

Papers Will Survive Newest Technology   

Most people do not need instant information.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     


Futurists say that in time we will carry around electronic newspapers in our pockets, ready to be whipped out to provide instant news, stock quotes and a wealth of other information that now requires reading a printed newspaper or picking up a telephone.

The technology needed to produce personal electronic display tablets is already at hand. All that is required to create this electronic future is development of support systems by newspapers, telephone companies, cable television operators or whoever else decides to jump into the fray.

An additional necessity, of course, is enough consumer demand to make this electronic future economically viable. How this plays out may well determine the fate of American newspapers.

It is not my purpose to downplay the significance of what electronic technology can do and what it might do to newspapers as we know them. We are now rearing a generation educated in schools to use video display terminals as primary sources of information. It is possible that when this generation comes of age in 10 or 20 years, using an electronic display tablet or a home terminal will be second nature, as picking up a paper is now.

But having an electronic information capability available at a reasonable price, as futurists predict, does not assure that a mass market will develop. Instant information will always be useful, as it is now, for people who travel for business or who must remain closely connected to offices and clients. This is why the cellular telephone business has grown.

Newspapers, though, serve a mass market now and likely will serve a mass market in the future. And the fact is, most consumers really do not have a pressing need for instant information.

What will affect newspapers more than carry-around electronic tablets will be new forms of electronic media delivered to the home. Most people get their information at home, and unless home life disappears through some kind of social dislocation hard to imagine, it is where they will want to get it in the future.

Newspapers excel in delivering mass amounts of information – news and advertising – to the home, albeit by the 19th century method of throwing the product at the customer. They now represent the only medium organized to gather and process mass amounts of local information, delivered cheaply and in an easy-to-use format. Newspapers also are "user-friendly" in a way that electronic systems can only hope to be. These are fundamental strengths of newspapers, and investments in recent years have reinforced newspapers' ability to play to these strengths.

The electronic revolution has come to newspapers, too, no less than to other media. Everything a newspaper does right up to putting a plate on a press is done electronically. At the other end of the press, computer control of sorting and packaging will enable newspapers to deliver a product in which at least one section can be tailored to the specific interests of specific readers.

Telephone companies and cable television operators are at work on electronic delivery systems that likewise will be tailored to specific interests. Yet these corporations and others that might enter the business are not organized now, and probably will not find it economical to become so organized, to provide the mass amounts of local information that newspapers gather every day.

What the electronic operators will do, however, is go after the backbone of newspaper advertising revenue – local retail and classified advertising. The electronic Yellow Pages, when they arrive, will offer far more than telephone numbers, and cable operators are likely to develop classified and retail advertising channels as counterparts to the national home-shopping channels they already carry.

The threat of these developments is reason enough for newspapers to invest in electronic publishing, especially now when they have the money to do it.

Moving into interactive electronic publishing will offer newspapers a chance to increase economic efficiency. Newspapers now produce three to four pages of stock quotes every day to make sure that the minority of readers owning stocks can check up on the prices of two or three issues. Classified advertising, too, could be delivered electronically, although newspapers may be leery of removing from print something that has proved to have great editorial appeal.

Stock quotes, classifieds and other statistical data could be delivered with up-to-the-minute timeliness via an interactive electronic system, saving a newspaper production, newsprint and distribution costs.

Could electronic publishing completely replace newspapers printed on paper? I doubt it, but the answer will be determined by economics. The economic efficiency of printing mass amounts of daily information on paper is so great that it will take a long time for electronic publishing to make serious inroads, despite the predictions of futurists.

I'm reminded of the predictions after World War II, which would have had us all commuting to work in personal helicopters by now. l

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