Where the Action Is
Kate McKenna is a Washington writer.
Here's a quick tour of some of the hot spots of newspaper high tech:
News in the Future
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, experts are working on a personalized daily newspaper attuned to the likes, dislikes and information requirements of each individual subscriber. Affiliated with this News in the Future (NIF) consortium, which came together last summer, are 19 news organizations that contributed up to $100,000 each. These include Times Mirror, Gannett, the Globe Newspaper Co., the Tribune Co., Newhouse Newspapers, Capital Cities/ABC Publishing Group and Ziff-Davis, a computer magazine publisher.
"There are a lot of ants running off in different directions," says Jack Driscoll, a former editor of the Boston Globe who now heads up the paper's new media office. "But I see a different anthill being built... Whereas we all were going down separate streets – video, audio, online – now it's all sort of coming together and we need to sit down together to operate it properly."
If standards are needed to make these new media work, if certain choices made now can make applying the technology easier in the future – these are the issues the consortium can thrash out.
The project's work is based on the premise that daily news is now a victim of a "marketplace paradox" – everyone has different tastes in news, yet these highly personal appetites are fed unwanted, bulky filler. Walter Bender, one of the MIT visionaries, sees the newspaper of the future as the "Daily Me" – a totally personalized newspaper tailored directly to each reader's taste. If you're a Boston Red Sox fan working in a patent law firm, partial to quirky news stories but deeply interested in foreign affairs, your edition of the paper will reflect those preferences. My edition, emphasizing economic and political news, music, entertainment and arena football, may contain some of the same stories, but not all.
There are other NIF projects, but the aim of the five-year project is unclear. Says MIT spokesman John Hynes, "The goals are vague for a reason..because we don't know what's going to happen either. For sure, there won't be a single outcome – meaning the answer to News in the Future is the tablet-sized, electronic flat panel, or online networks, or the Daily Me.
"There's a sense within the research facility that the right answers will be multiple. Knight-Ridder might have the right answer, Tribune Co. might have the right answer. There might be six or seven right answers. There's just a sense that there's an awful lot to be done."
Knight-Ridder's Flat Panel
Knight-Ridder's Information Design Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, is designing a hand-held flat panel that will display an electronic image with the identity and characteristics of a local newspaper, including all the articles that appeared that day as well as access to the paper's archives. It will have the capability of being continually updated, and will offer full-motion and full-color video at the touch of a fingertip. To cover its bets, however, Knight-Ridder is also a charter member of the News in the Future group.
Knight-Ridder's Roger Fidler is planning to begin marketing the flat panel in two years. The first models will perform a variety of personal computing tasks and will run a few programs.
"Our belief is that the process of providing electronic editions of the news would take off by 1995," says Fidler, who cautions that market penetration will be slow. "Compare it to how TV got started in the early 1940s..with just a few sets and limited programming until more and more people started to get them." He predicts this electronic newspaper will not become fully competitive with print media until about 2010.
While Fidler is banking on future markets, the San Jose Mercury News is hoping to capture one now. The newspaper is closely monitoring public reaction to its Mercury Center, the first online service fully integrated within a daily newspaper. Its task is to shape an impersonal medium into a personal one that instills loyalty.
"The newspaper is a very friendly medium. It has a personality, and people grow very emotionally attached to the newspaper,..which is a good thing for all of us," says Bob Ingle, executive editor of the Mercury News. "Whereas the electronic media is impersonal, dull, no character. But you can give them some personality."
To imbue "personality," the Mercury Center is experimenting with using icons amid the print and offering extra services, such as bulletin boards, public forums and an interactive component in which readers can communicate with reporters and editors.
"The notion behind all this is to extend the newspapers into new areas where readers are going," says Ingle, "especially in our area."
Time Warner ###
One of the most ambitious experiments does not involve newspapers – yet. Time Warner Cable is building the world's first full-service network near Orlando, a fiber-optic "electronic superhighway" into homes. Starting early next year, a test group of about 4,000 residents will receive video on demand, interactive games, full-motion interactive shopping and possibly picture phone service.
Although the project does not yet include a major news component, Time Warner is currently talking with the Orlando Sentinel, which is owned by the Tribune Co., one of the first major news groups to dabble in online services. How Time Warner's network integrates news will be instructive to newspaper companies laboring to protect their franchises.