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EXTRA! FUTURE NEWSPAPERS AN ELECTRONIC SMORGASBORD

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Moses got the news on stone tablets. In the next few years, that ancient technology could be recycled by the media as the printed word is increasingly delivered in digital form.

In an effort to define what the newspaper of the future will look like, one of the nation's largest newspaper chains has come up with the "electronic newspaper tablet" - an as-yet imaginary device capable of receiving and displaying a product that looks similar to the paper you're holding in your hands.Unlike a printed paper, the electronic tablet will deliver not just news stories. Its "pages" will also hold video clips, sound bites, even interactive advertisements that allow the reader to call up more information, place orders or make restaurant reservations.

"We have the potential of blending television, print and radio into a new medium," said Roger Fidler, director of the Knight-Ridder Information Design Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. "The goal is to keep newspapers as the focal point."

That's been an elusive goal in recent years as newspapers have tried to stave off their oft-foretold death by experimenting with electronic delivery vehicles - which have so far flopped.

So-called videotext services pioneered by Knight-Ridder and others allowed personal computer users to access news and information databases.

Fidler said Tuesday the ventures have failed, at least in part, because people don't have the time to hunt down the stories they want.

"Searching a database is work," he said.

The venerable print newspaper, on the other hand, "is a very easy to use, random-access, non-linear medium," Fidler said. That's another way of saying that readers enjoy browsing through the pre-packaged contents, without having advertising forced on them as they do with television.

"A large part of the pleasure is the serendipity of encountering something you're interested in that you didn't know you were interested in."

Fidler, who discussed the newpaper of tomorrow with Seattle Post-Intelligencer employees, thinks the key is ensuring that it still looks like a newspaper. He's touting the electronic tablet as the right format.

As envisioned by Fidler, the device will weigh less than 2 pounds and will be about the size and thickness of a legal pad. A full-color, flat-panel screen will display what looks like the front page, containing synopses of stories that can be accessed by tapping the screen. Sports, lifestyle and business sections will also be available.

Each edition of the paper would be received over phone lines, through wireless transmission, or by downloading the information onto memory chips that can be plugged into vending machines, then into the tablet.

"You can take it to a coffee shop or read it on a park bench," Fidler said. Better still, tapping a photograph will produce up to 20 seconds of video of a news event. The newspaper can even read itself to you.

Users who want their news tailored to their own tastes would be able to furnish the newspaper with areas of interest and have a "personal summary" delivered.

Fidler said he didn't expect the printed newspaper would disappear anytime soon, however.

"Newspapers were supposed to be dead when radio was invented, when television started and when videotext came along," he said. "We're still around."