Newspapers in 2020: Paper vs. Digital Delivery and Display Media

Oleh: Roger F. Fidler

In October 1999, some two dozen leading designers, editors and publishers from the United States, Canada and Europe gathered in Reston, Virginia, for an American Press Institute seminar titled “Newspaper Design: 2020.” Most of the invited participants, like the author, had attended another API seminar in 1988 titled “Newspaper Design: 2000 and Beyond.”

So this was to be an opportunity to review how well we had done at predicting what newspapers would be like at the beginning of the twenty-first century and to stretch our somewhat less than 20/20 foresight even further to visualize newspapers more than two decades hence. Roger Black of Roger Black Consulting, a respected New York-based design firm, lead the critique session as he did back in ’88.

Not surprisingly, nearly all the 1988 visions were based on the assumption that newspaper design and publishing technologies would not change significantly in a dozen years. The dominant themes were more color, more graphics, shorter stories, and narrower page widths. Some participants foresaw the delivery of personal newspapers to fax machines and home printers, but the notion of electronically delivered and displayed newspapers was generally ignored.

Three notable exceptions were Howard Finberg from The Arizona Republic, who presented a personalized newspaper in the form of an Apple HyperCard stack; David Gray of The Providence Journal-Bulletin, who envisioned a portable PC similar to Allan Kay’s DynaBook that would allow readers to create their own newspapers on the fly by aggregating content from many diverse sources; and the author, who predicted that newspapers would begin producing electronic editions for portable reading devices by the year 2000. At the time, these ideas seemed too farfetched to be taken seriously, so they generated little discussion.

Eleven years later, all participants acknowledged that newspaper companies in the near future will routinely produce electronic editions designed for reading on mobile information appliances, such as laptop computers, e-books and tablets, in addition to producing traditional printed editions. Only a few were willing to consider the possibility that paper might no longer be the preferred delivery and display medium for newspapers in the year 2020.

Several participants eloquently argued that the printed newspaper is too deeply rooted in our culture to be replaced by a computer screen and that electronic displays are unlikely to be as readable as paper anytime soon. However, most participants were not so confident in those assumptions after Bill Hill’s session.

When Hill, a Scotsman from Microsoft’s e-book development group, pulled a hand-held computer from the pouch attached to the front of his kilt and demonstrated a prototype of Microsoft’s new e-Book Reader with ClearType technology, doubts about reading on electronic displays seemed to dissipate. Even though the display was not much larger than the display on a Palm Pilot, the electronic books stored on the device were no less inviting to read than printed pocketbooks.

Conventional wisdom that people will always prefer paper to electronic displays for reading newspapers was further challenged by the contents of a videotape played by Hill during his session. In the video, which presented Microsoft’s vision for the future of publishing, The New York Times is shown announcing its last printed edition in the year 2018. While most participants were unwilling to concede that newspapers printed on paper might go the way of horse-drawn carriages within their lifetime, no one could deny that the future of the newspaper business is digital and that electronic editions would one day transcend the newsprint editions.

My presentation, which immediately preceded Hill’s, also made a case for the conversion of newspapers to digital delivery and display media within the next two decades. Excerpts from that presentation follow.

Pushing Print to Its Practical Limit

When we look back over the past two decades, we can see that newspapers have undergone vast improvements in content, design and technology throughout the world. Today, practically all newspaper content is in digital form right up to the printing press, which has made possible a proliferation of graphics and color. Even the “The Old Gray Lady” — The New York Times — now routinely runs full-color photos on its front pages, something that was considered unthinkable in 1979. Most would agree that overall printing quality and content design have never been better.

However, while further improvements in printing and newspaper design are still possible, I firmly believe ink-on-paper newspapers have been pushed to their practical limit. No future redesign, content improvement or advanced color press can be expected to displace broadcast and cyber media or to recapture lost audiences and advertisers.

If established newspaper publishers are to survive and thrive in the next century, they must be prepared to abandon the last vestiges of industrial age publishing — printing presses and delivery trucks. Their only viable option is to make a full conversion to cyber age publishing within the next two decades. The writing is already on the wall, or, more to the point, the writing is on the screen.

Continuing Technological Trends

If the technological trends of the past two decades continue unabated for the next two decades, we can realistically expect the following developments by the year 2020:

• Computing power will have increased by at least three orders of magnitude over what it is today. That means the typical personal computing device will have a microprocessor rated at about 400 billion instructions per second — more than a thousand times faster than todayÕs personal computers.

• Memory and storage capacities for personal computing devices will be routinely measured in terabytes.

• Computer programs will incorporate advanced forms of artificial intelligence that will be capable of managing complex tasks in real-time without human intervention.

• Networked microchips more powerful than anything we know today will be embedded in practically everything from our clothing and homes to our hearts and brains.

• A wide variety of document-based portable information appliances, incorporating durable, low-power displays comparable in contrast and clarity to ink printed on paper, will be ubiquitous.

• Integrated global telecommunications networks will provide pervasive and virtually unlimited bandwidth for highly interactive multimedia communication.

Predictions for Newspaper Business

The following are my predictions for the newspaper business based on the previous assumptions about the continuing development of digital technologies.

• By 2005, Internet publishing for the general consumer market will split into two dominant forms — online TV/Web-based services and offline document-based digital periodicals. The online consumer news/information services will be designed for high-bandwidth, highly interactive, continuous access. These services, which will emphasize full-motion video, animation and audio, will have a more television-like, entertainment quality. The offline consumer news/information services will be designed for fast, simple and convenient downloading and reading of professionally edited and packaged digital periodicals on portable magazine-size display devices. These mobile information appliances will be able to connect to the Internet or other global communications network on an as-needed basis to complete transactions or to send/receive e-mail, but nearly all reading and interacting will be done offline. All digital periodicals will be accessible worldwide at a cost comparable to or less than the cost of printed editions.

• By 2010, the economic incentives and market advantages of electronic publishing will have convinced most forward-thinking newspaper publishers to devote the majority of their resources to digital editions and to rapidly phase out their mechanical printing and distribution operations.

• Well before 2020, established newspaper companies will be competing in a life-or-death struggle with nontraditional publishers, such as Microsoft, CNN and AT&T, and eager “dotcom” entrepreneurs, such as eBay and Amazon (or their successors), for audiences and advertising dollars.

• The size and number of newspaper pages printed on paper during weekdays will steadily shrink after 2005. Classified advertising, stock market listings and many other components of traditional printed newspapers will be provided exclusively by TV/Web services and digital periodicals.

• The majority of newspapers in the U.S. and many parts of the world may, in fact, no longer publish weekday editions on paper by 2020. Timely news, general information and advertising will be so pervasive on line and on the air that daily paper editions will be considered superfluous and outdated. Paper editions simply won’t be able to compete with the more immediate, more convenient and more compelling multimedia digital periodicals and TV/Web services. Only the weekend general-interest, leisure-reading editions of newspapers with their abundance of advertising inserts may survive for another decade or two as traditional paper products.

• The best news reporters, editors and designers will have long since been drawn away from paper to electronic publishing. Well before 2020, the pagination process for printed editions will be fully automated. By 2020, the pagination process for electronic editions also may be fully automated, which means there may no longer be a need for specialists in news design. Human editors can be expected to continue playing an important role in the process of aggregating, filtering, organizing and packaging content, but they will be assisted by an array of sophisticated digital agents and drones that check facts, write headlines and cutlines, fine edit copy and monitor global news and feature services.

• By 2020, there will be a great many more digital periodicals than there are printed periodicals today. Nearly all will serve niche audiences. However, globalization will lead to the emergence of several supersized international digital newspapers, each claiming more than 200 million daily readers worldwide.

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