Panel Vision  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 1994

Panel Vision   

At its information lab in the Rockies, Knight-Ridder is working to turn a hand-held electronic panel into the newspaper of the future.

By Jerome Aumente
Jerome Aumente is a professor and director of the Journalism Resources Institute at Rutgers University''s School of Communication, Information and Library Studies.     


Over the last year countless articles have trumpeted the coming of the information superhighway. Infobahn entrepreneurs promise interactive television with text, video and audio delivered to living rooms via fiber optic cable or enhanced phone lines. Commercial online computer services, such as Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online, already claim nearly 5 million subscribers, and the Internet boasts more than 15 million users worldwide.

Newspaper executives are scrambling to figure out the best way to tap this embryonic market – television or computer. Some are taking both routes. For example, the Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and five other papers, owns part of America Online and launched Chicago Online, which allows users to access Tribune stories and classifieds, communicate with Tribune staffers and shop electronically (see "The High-Tech Trib," April). Meanwhile, the Tribune Co.'s Orlando Sentinel has joined forces with Time Warner Cable to test an interactive information and entertainment service (see "The Age of Convergence," January/February).

But do these two delivery systems provide the best avenue for print journalism? Roger Fidler, the director of Knight-Ridder's Information Design Laboratory (IDL) says no. He's developing software for a third way: the electronic tablet (see "What Are We So Afraid Of?" October 1992).

Fidler is betting that a portable, battery-powered flat panel, or what he calls a "personal information appliance," will become the main vehicle for newspaper, magazine and book publishers. He says the tablet – which will be about two pounds, a half-inch thick and roughly the same dimensions as this magazine – could begin replacing newspapers by 2001 and serve half of the country's newspaper readers by 2010 with highly readable multimedia, digital displays.

Fidler worked on Knight-Ridder's aborted videotex efforts in the early 1980s and finds the conventional computer unappealing. Screen size and text readability are a problem, he says, and most people associate computers with number-crunching and work.

But even if computers were more user-friendly, Fidler argues that the news industry's focus on online interactivity is misguided. The need for real-time interconnectivity enamors academics and business professionals but will not attract the average family, he says. Communication costs and the complexity of getting online and staying there also are beyond the purse and patience of most people.

Fidler also believes many of today's trials in interactive television will fail. "It might be heresy to say this, but..we have been trying for 15 years now to...force print media into the television and it is not the right model," he says. "Yet there is going to be a lot of money put into developing all kinds of interactive TV services that people neither want or are willing to pay for."

People watch television primarily for entertainment, not information, and the flickering TV screen is unsuited for text, he says.

He advises newspaper publishers to confine their use of online services and interactive television to special premium services and communications between readers and editors. What will sell electronic publishing to a mass audience, he says, is the "document" model. The book, magazine and newspaper are all the results of 5,000 years of document adaptation. He says his portable electronic tablet is merely the latest incarnation.

Rattled by stagnant readership, fluctuating advertising revenue, and predictions they will be surpassed by electronic competitors, newspaper publishers are paying special attention to Fidler's experiment. With as much as 60 percent of the cost of newspaper production due to printing and distribution, Fidler says publishers will be able to reap far higher profits by delivering the news via his tablet.

Publishers take notice anytime profits are promised, but some experts on the new media caution that the tablet is not a reality as yet. They say that Fidler underestimates the potential of both online services and interactive television to evolve into suitable media for the general public. They also question whether the newspaper industry, and then the public, will embrace the tablet.

Since starting in newspapers in 1961, Roger Fidler, 51, has been a science writer, reporter, copy editor, graphics editor, designer and computer systems manager. He helped redesign a number of Knight-Ridder papers, and then conceived and directed the company's Graphics Network that joined with the Chicago Tribune to form Knight-Ridder Tribune Graphics, now servicing 500 newspapers worldwide. He then founded and directed PressLink, KRT Graphics' electronic mail service for the newspaper industry, which has 4,000 users in 40 countries.

For his latest project, Fidler began assembling his team of specialists in Boulder, Colorado, in September 1992 to create business opportunities for Knight-Ridder. A $2.5 billion-a-year media behemoth based in Miami, Knight-Ridder owns 29 newspapers, including the Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer, and Dialog online information services.

The company is a leader in new technology ventures, and IDL is one of its key projects. "Roger's thinking and pioneering are among the more interesting things Knight-Ridder is involved in," says James K. Batten, chairman and CEO. "The whole world seems to have beaten a path to Roger's door."

ýith a staff of nine, IDL is located in a modern, angular downtown building, typical of the corporate bivouacs sprouting around this University of Colorado campus town. Boulder once thrived on surrounding gold and silver mines, but is now home to researchers developing products for cyberspace, fiber optics, cable television and telephone communications – one reason IDL selected the site.

Besides IDL, Knight-Ridder also has invested in the MIT Media Laboratory's "News in the Future" project on digital news delivery; is testing online computer, phone and fax delivery at its San Jose Mercury News Mercury Center; and is exploring multimedia ventures with telecommunications companies.

The electronic tablet may deliver the newspaper of the future, but IDL also is working on projects that will have more immediate results and expand the boundaries of newspapers, turning them into what Fidler calls "community knowledge centers." These projects include an experimental "IDL Fax Report" on new media and telecommunications to be circulated nationally; a national online daily agricultural news service (in conjunction with the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota); an interactive computer software package for pro football fans in Charlotte, North Carolina (with the Charlotte Observer); an electronic guide to restaurants; and electronic street maps indicating real estate sales.

The flat panel that meets Fidler's ideal specifications is still a couple of years away. He has a plastic model of the tablet to show, but he has to rely on a Macintosh computer to display his electronic newspaper prototype, the Knight-Ridder Current.

The computer version cannot replicate the actual feel of having the electronic tablet on your lap, and readability is still years away from the promised high-resolution screens. But the IDL package is attractive and accessible for unsophisticated users.

Fidler abhors the idea of merely dumping copy into the digital newspaper the way many online services do today, offering unformatted and unadorned text on the screen. Although there is commercially available software that allows users to create their own "personal" news formats, Fidler's prototype is three dimensional. It provides layers of information: A reader can find out more about a story with simple commands that call up data beneath the top layer of the article (see "How It Works," page 38).

"Our objective is to make this so simple that anyone can pick this up and, regardless of their age, know immediately what to do," Fidler says. "We want to provide a medium that cuts across all economic strata, all educational strata, to provide information services to everyone."

His electronic tablet will have no keyboard. Instead it will allow a user to touch an icon with a pen or a finger (or eventually give a voice command) to page through it. His design team begins with text, and then builds in other attributes such as sound and video.

"You are not going to get people to cross this chasm from ink on paper into this new world of interactive multimedia without some kind of bridge," Fidler explains. "So our philosophy is to build a bridge that people already know how to use and are familiar with. Of course a newspaper is something people already know how to use."

There will be a number of delivery systems for news, but Fidler advises publishers to remain "channel independent" to be able to utilize the least expensive one. New technologies will enable readers to automatically download the paper in seconds from cable channels. Eventually plug-in kiosks at hotels, airports and other public places could be available. Telephone lines with fiber optic or compressed digital technology might be another source, but would be more expensive than cable. Satellite transmission is another possibility.

Fidler plans other helpful features. The IDL design team has built-in icon commands allowing a reader to clip stories electronically, store them for later retrieval or send them via electronic mail with attached comments. With aging baby boomers in mind, another simple command will allow a reader to enlarge the print for easier reading. And by the end of this decade, Fidler is confident that electronic tablets will have digitized voice capacity to read the newspaper aloud while a subscriber is driving.

Some major questions are still to be answered. How much will the appliance cost? Will the newspaper industry embrace the idea? And will it make money?

Certainly newspaper publishers are nervous about the digital future, and Fidler is addressing industry temerity head on. He and his staff frequently appear at industry conferences to offer "technotherapy" as much as practical guidance on the new media. When Fidler lectures about building "bridges of familiarity" from current newspaper formats to the new world of digital interactivity, or multimedia news pages – produced by bona fide journalists – the potential changes seem far less frightening.

Many journalists think the electronic paper will put them out of work. Peggy Bair, IDL's applications manager, travels around the country to provide reassurance. "You talk to people in small groups, hear their fears, and let them know what is coming – that this is really going to happen," she says. "And you show how it can make their jobs more interesting, more important."

Fidler also has been spending a lot of time with manufacturers of flat panel technology, cajoling them to create a product that will meet the needs of the newspaper industry. In Japan, big names like Sharp, Sony, NEC and Matsushita are developing electronic tablets. In the United States, ATT and Motorola are involved, and Apple's Newton, though a disappointment in its initial launch, still holds promise. Observers also predict the U.S. government's decision to nurture flat panel technology for defense will spur development for civilian uses.

There are big screen versions of the flat panel selling now for $3,500 to $5,000. But to succeed in a general consumer market, Fidler needs a slimmed down tablet weighing less than two pounds, with high resolution equal to reading ink on paper, a battery life of several days, simple on-off operation, ample storage capacity to load large amounts of data, touch screen commands, and a vertical screen that resembles the paper documents we read today. The tablet should be able to interface with other, more sophisticated home and office computers, and offer wireless communications.

Fidler says the first generation tablets could appear by 1996 for $1,500 to $2,500, dropping in price to $500 or less for stripped-down versions by 2000. In the ensuing decade, add-on options might push the price to several thousand dollars, but the economy models could retail for as little as $200, allowing publishers to subsidize or lease the devices in mass quantities to seed a new market of subscribers. Content – the daily news – must also be inexpensive, says Fidler, because he doesn't believe people will pay much more than the 50 cents or so they now pay for a daily newspaper.

Fidler is urging newspaper publishers to agree on standard technical specifications so the same tablet can be used anywhere, just as the paper product is uniformly accessible in broadsheet or tabloid size. He predicts a two-decade transition period in which both paper and electronic versions will coexist, with the purchase of new printing presses tapering off by mid-century.

Publishers not only want to know if the tablet will work, they want to know if it will make money.

Advertising revenue plays the same role in Fidler's electronic tablet as it does with a standard newspaper or magazine. He says he has received partnership offers from representatives of the computer, cable and telecommunications industry who want to separate advertising from the editorial product, but he warns publishers to be wary of giving away their advertising franchise. Classified ads, especially in an advanced interactive mode, should also provide healthy revenues.

George Gilder, known for coining the concept of supply-side economics in the early 1980s, is also sanguine about the flat panel as an advertising vehicle. He maintains in his upcoming book "Telecosm" that the "electronic newspaper will be a far more effective advertising medium than current newspapers, television or home shopping schemes. Rather than trying to trick the reader into watching the ad, the newspaper will merely present the ad in a part of the paper frequented by likely customers. Viewers who are seriously interested in the advertised item can click on it and open up a more detailed presentation, or they can advertise their own desire to buy a product of particular specifications."

There will be money to be made, says Fidler. "I don't think [newspaper and magazine] publishers are going to die on the information highway," he says. "We may be the prime beneficiaries, because content is what is going to drive it."

Experts in new media technology admire Fidler's tablet idea but question how simple it will be to realize. John Carey, president of Greystone Communications in Dobbs Ferry, New York, likes the fact that the panel is portable and offers high-definition typographic and photo images. But he wonders how quickly the tablet will be perfected. And when it is, will people accustomed to paper products, radio and television change their habits?

Others say there's no reason to think that one news delivery system will supersede all others. "Roger's tablet is neat but is only part of the picture," says Walter Bender, director of the "News in the Future" project at the MIT Media Laboratory. Bender predicts a future with a wide variety of devices – including online services and interactive television – used simultaneously to harvest news and information.

Carey, Bender and others also say Fidler shouldn't dismiss online services, such as Prodigy and America Online, so quickly. Carey considers them to be real competitors that could dominate the electronic news market before the electronic tablet materializes, or that might adapt their own services to include portable tablet technology.

Bender says Fidler's opinion that online computing is too complicated and costly for the average user is "1970s thinking," and that in the last two years more than 50 percent of personal computers were sold for home use. Plus, he points out, there are 54 million Nintendo game machines in homes, and 20 million pagers in people's pockets. Overall, an estimated 60 million Americans use personal computers. All this lays the groundwork for computer-based news and information services.

"There are a lot of devices out there and people do not seem to be intimidated by them," Bender insists. "People are embracing them quite rapidly these days."

Gary Arlen, an electronic publishing expert, loves the tablet, but has his doubts. He wonders if a single-use "newspaper machine" can win over people already accustomed to multipurpose personal computers. Yet Nintendo did it with its machine, he adds, so the flat panel paper may have a good chance of surviving and thriving.

Bender also disagrees with Fidler's withering assessment of interactive television. People use television for entertainment and, when available, interactive services. It's "not an either-or thing," he says, "that you watch TV with a joy stick or sit back and be a couch potato." In the same way, someone who is using the electronic tablet may want to turn to a personal computer to access more information than is available on the tablet. All of these news and information services will complement each other.

The flat panel electronic tablet will come, Bender says, and could be an important device for accessing prepackaged, predigested news packages. But the MIT Lab is exploring machines with more power to give users greater access to larger databanks and a wider array of multimedia news and information services.

Fidler fine-tuned his electronic tablet concept while on a nine-month fellowship at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University in 1991. Everette E. Dennis, the center's executive director, says Fidler has three prime obstacles: He needs to whip up newspaper industry enthusiasm, convince individual papers to try the tablet technology, and get "the consumer to actually want to use it at home, or to carry it around – and that is where the jury is out."

He says Fidler has done a brilliant job promoting the idea. "There is a lot of excitement all over the world about that project," he says. Like Bender, however, he says online systems shouldn't be discounted. Newer versions will make it easier for users to navigate, he says, and the growing sophistication of computer users may overcome cumbersome barriers.

But don't underestimate Fidler, Dennis adds. He remembers that people had been seeing Fidler carrying his plastic mock-up of the tablet around for years and considered it somewhat fanciful. Then reporter John Markoff wrote about the concept in the New York Times while Fidler was at Columbia and the phone at the Freedom Forum rang off the hook. Venture capitalists and others wanted to hear more.

That was when Knight-Ridder officials summoned Fidler to Miami and asked: "What was that proposal you had, Roger?"


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