Facebook Twitter

PAPERS AREN’T DYING, JUST PLUGGING INTO NEW AGE

SHARE PAPERS AREN’T DYING, JUST PLUGGING INTO NEW AGE

In the late 1970s, I was looking into the future of the so-called "electronic newspaper," which in those days largely meant teletext. I had a personal interest, because many of my students were aiming for careers in newspapers and were worried that the newspaper was going out as swiftly as the horse and buggy did after the auto appeared.

Some futurists thought teletext might supplant the daily, even though in Britain, where it was introduced, it has become largely a means of providing look-up data rather than long news reports.I asked Jerry O'Brien, a longtime newsman and then assistant publisher at the Salt Lake Tribune, if he saw any threat in teletext. His answer was to reach into a drawer, pull out a copy of a 1940 newspaper that had been delivered by facsimile, and smile. The message was clear: There's a big gap between what is technically feasible and what is marketable. That is still true, as we start traveling the so-called information highway.

- TELETEXT IS A SYSTEM for sending "pages" of reading material that can be captured by a television set equipped with a decoder or by personal computer equipped with a modem. Since 1978 it has been broadcast here by forward-looking KSL. The company still has hopes for it, though there are many problems, including the biggest: how to make money from the computer system.

Its sister technology was videotex. Videotex systems were started with much ballyhoo by two or three newspaper chains. They could deliver virtually an unlimited diet of information, including highly personalized data like your bank account, over lines to your TV set. But videotex never found a following in the United States and has foundered. Apparently there was no real need for it.

Some say electronic marvels already at hand are going to revolutionize information services as profoundly as Gutenberg did with moveable type in 1452. Possibly. All media are being changed by technology and all are greeting it with a mixture of awe, fear and hope.

But even a visionary like cable TV's Ted Turner can be dead wrong in predicting what people need and want, how easily they will abandon their media habits and what the market will support. He said the daily newspaper would be dead by the end of the 1980s.

The magazine industry once ran a series of ads that chortled that the communication guru Marshall McLuhan ("The Medium Is The Message") once pontificated that print was dead "and wrote eight books to prove it."

- I'M PERSUADED, like Deseret News marketing manager Stephen Handy, who wrote in this space last week, that "it will take a long time for electronic publishing to make serious inroads."

When the Tribune this week started its Utah OnLine system for delivering its news to IBM-compatible home computers, it editorialized that the new service "isn't so much a technological revolution as a logical next step in communications evolution."

Tribune editor James Shelledy believes newsprint may disappear some day, but certainly not until well into the next century. Others aren't even this radical; they point out that no mass medium has ever died and most don't even fade away. Old media mutate, as radio did in becoming "narrowcasting" or reaching specialized audiences.

Although the Deseret News has been exploring on-line transmission for a couple of years, the Tribune clearly stole a march on it by coming out with its incipient system, for it excited its readers with the new technology.

The Tribune is pleased about a wave of interest in its OnLine offering. It figures about 1,000 personal computer users call up each day to get their 15 minutes on the system, and that uncounted others aren't able at the moment to get through to one of the eight lines.

The cost to the Tribune so far is negligible - only one staffer is assigned full time to the venture - and in a few months, when a fee is charged callers, conceivably could make some money. It was a "logical step" in the sense that a database already exists. Reporters for the past decades have been typing their stories into the computer system, and news service reports are delivered directly into the system as well. But the paper will face far higher costs in going to a more ambitious computer system to give its paying customers the access they will demand.

Other media are also providing their wares on-line. Last September Time magazine became available electronically by computer. Customers get the information a day before the magazine goes on the newsstands, though without the pictures and graphics. (The Tribune service expects to add graphics to its system sometime this spring.) More than 100 other magazines have signed on with computer services like America On-Line.

- THE NEW ELECTRONIC services are not, so far at least, hurting subscriptions. One critic said that "the real popularity of electronic magazines have little to do with reading and everything to do with talking. . . . The interactive feature is the most important. Many users are offering gripes, praise and advice to editors and writers or scanning electronic bulletin boards for magazine-sponsored discussion sessions." Most of these magazines make editors available to interact with computer callers at specified times. The Tribune also found that a lot of users want to talk to the editors.

Another caution that most media managers inject into discussions of the electronic newspaper, including Shelledy and Handy, is that the delivery system though important is secondary to the quality of the information. Newspapers do more than just deliver information; they sift and array and interpret it and package it appealingly, so that readers get in the swim instead of drowning in data.

One such manager is David Lawrence, publisher of the Miami Herald. The Herald is a part of Knight-Ridder. This group is on the cutting edge of electronic transmission and has intrigued the industry with experiments with the portable "electronic notebook" newspaper mentioned by Handy.

But Lawrence says that "no matter the technologies, my belief is in the power of newspapers as information centers to prevail. . . . Despite the technological options, print will never be passe. . . . Media fragmentation has hurt television more than newspaper. . . . By contrast, newspaper audiences have stabilized. . . . So we are changing, but with great care and an emphasis on protecting our core business. That's true no matter what business you will enter."