Thirty years into it, and I manage to miss one of my key points when I reflect on the past and consider the future. In my 7,700-word opus in last week’s 30th anniversary issue of U.S. 1, I somehow ran out of both space and time to consider more fully the future of newspapers in the digital world. But the nice thing about being in the game for 30 years is that you get another at bat. Here it is:
My vision is simple: Print may eventually be dead, but newspapers will not be extinct. Instead they will be electronic models with all the bells and whistles of today’s most advanced smart phones along with the readability and size of the largest format broadsheet papers. Scrolling through hundreds of lines of narrow columns of text to read an in-depth article should not be acceptable. Opening an electronic newspaper should not result in a view of just one story and a dozen links to other stories.
An electronic paper (an iPaper?)ought to be at least as readable as a print newspaper, with big pages for multiple stories and graphics and facing pages for even grander presentations. You should be able to click on a photo to see an entire gallery of photos or even a video. You could click on an ad to get more details. If a story runs long, you should just have to touch a “continued on” line to get the rest of it.
And one more thing: it ought to be light enough that you can hold it in one hand while you sip your morning coffee with the other. And, of course, it should be foldable or flexible enough so that you can stick it in your bag and take it with you on the train or the plane.
Simple, but is it also simply impossible? Am I envisioning the future in the reverie above, or am I just trying my hand at science fiction?
Last week I had the chance to attend a discussion with Joshua Spechler, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at Princeton. Spechler promised to give a group of Princeton alumni an overview of an electronic future that would include “flexible and wearable products” and the possibility of electronic devices being “made from flexible and foldable materials.” Flexible, foldable — the words made me hit the RSVP button.
Spechler, a 2008 Brown alumnus, put the whole matter of electronic devices into perspective. The first breakthrough came 20 years ago, with the advent of personal digital assistants (PDAs) that brought desktop computing power down to smart phone size. In 2007 the iPhone arrived, taking the power of the PDA “from the executive to everyone,” as Spechler put it.
Then he made an observation that I found startling. “In my mind we’re done making computers smaller,” Spechler said, pointing out that the newer iPhones are getting bigger. “The call is for thinner and lighter,” he said, adding, “we need to ditch the rigid box” that surrounds most of our devices.
A lot of Spechler’s talk was about the work that would make already small electronic gadgets even less obtrusive and yet more useful than ever. He talked about wearable devices that would be able to detect when you have fallen asleep and then relay a signal to your television to pause the current show (presumably being simultaneously recorded via a DVR) and resume the show when you wake up. Or a device that could be worn by a baby that could sense (and alert parents) when the baby’s diaper is wet or the baby is hungry.
All of it sounded like science fiction to me until Spechler said that the wearable device that can sense when you are asleep and synch that information with your television controls already exists — check out the “Fitbit Flex Wireless Activity + Sleep Wristband,” available for around $100.
Other devices were still in the R&D phase or at least glimmers in the material scientists’ eyes. The ultimate device would be mounted inside our body (no more “where is my cellphone” anxiety) and would be powered by our bodies, as well (no more frantic recharging of phones before leaving the house). Converting our biological functions into usable electrical energy would require a “game changer,” Spechler said, but it was easy for non-scientists like me to imagine a little turbine in an artery, whirring 24/7 as our heart beat away.
Compared to all this, my requirements for the newspaper of the future seemed pretty modest. Spechler said that thanks to something called “active-matrix” OLED technology (as opposed to “passive matrix” OLED), we can now have high resolution screens that are paper thin. (The OLED acronym is something a lot of people are already aware of — organic, light emitting diodes.) Spechler says to expect ultra-thin television screens to hit the market very soon.
Spechler pointed out that the ideal flexible device or screen would not only be flexible and foldable but also “self healing,” capable of going back to its original shape after use.
I pointed out that editors are already used to designing their papers with a predetermined place for a fold. Think of the centerfold of a paper or the spaces on the sides of facing pages that create the “gutter.” That accommodation alone would facilitate a foldable electronic newspaper.
For us newspaper editors, the great challenge would be how to harness all that display and inter-connectivity. As I have argued before, one of the two key components of a successful publication is reasonable content aimed at a reasonable community. The editor of a print publication that has a finite number of pages will often have to make some hard choices about what stories are run and which ones are not. The editor of an electronic paper may find it easier to just print a marginal story, rather than butt heads with persistent writers or public relations people.
The other component is a reasonable and reliable frequency. The editor of that old-fashioned print newspaper will have a hard time convincing the publisher to pay for press time and mobilize the deliverers to print a special edition of the paper. But the editor of the electronic newspaper of the future will have no such constraints.
If I am around long enough to edit such a paper, I will resist the temptation to change it all the time. If this paper comes out on Wednesday and someone on Thursday or Friday tells a co-worker to check out a particular article in this issue, that article better still be there in the same position on Saturday or Sunday. Everyone should expect a new edition to “arrive” at the same time on Wednesday (though of course old issues would be conveniently archived and accessible).
I would design the front page of my E-newspaper with a window in the same spot each issue that would link to news updates as they are warranted for the community. “Stop the presses” stories that demand a re-design of the front page ought to be reserved for stories that really would have stopped those high speed presses that cranked out 20,000 papers in a few hours.
About those presses. In all this “print is dead” chatter not much mention has been made of the amazing technological advances in web printing, with software innovations that permit an editor’s design to go virtually “direct to plate” on the press. What will happen to all that technology when the newspaper is actually paper-less?
Amazingly Spechler, the mechanical engineer, has another prognostication: That materials in solar panels may soon be so flexible that they can be manufactured on a high speed press that would “print” them out in a continuous stream. Is that really possible? I am tempted to E-mail Spechler and ask for the essential technical details. But then I recall the 27-inch computer monitor that hogged my desk space until just a few years ago. How did that device get shrunk down to less than an inch thick today? I have no idea how it happened, but I wouldn’t bet against more changes in the near future.