Facebook Twitter

ELECTRONIC NEWS IS COMING - BUT TO WHAT EXTENT?

SHARE ELECTRONIC NEWS IS COMING - BUT TO WHAT EXTENT?

Part of my job as marketing director of the Deseret News is to "worry" about the future. Things are changing rapidly in the information business and I and my colleagues want to know what the newspaper of tomorrow will look like. The answer is anyone's guess, and there are thousands of people in this industry and related industries who have the same worries. And they're willing to spend millions of dollars to find the answers.

One thing's for certain, we've got to find the right way of leading today's reader into tomorrow's personalized new forms of communication. In the future, information will be more tailored and advertising will be more targeted too."Future tabloids will be high-tech tablets," according to one report. In fact, one lab envisions an electronic newspaper that will run on a flat, electronic panel, about 8 1/2 by 11 inches, half an inch thick weighing about a pound with a gigabyte of memory - equal to about 3,000 to 4,000 average-size books. It will be a portable assistant, a portable reader.

If you really want to gaze into the future it's worth noting that one futurist thinks electronic newspapers may eventually respond to voice commands and be able to read stories aloud.

Whatever the evolution of today's newspapers, one thing's for sure, it's not your father's newspaper anymore. It will require much more than a comfortable chair. You'll probably need a telephone and a fax machine too.

So, why aren't newspapers totally electronic today? It's not because of technology - that's available. There are a couple of reasons: 1) End users aren't that comfortable with this type of delivery system, and 2) support systems by newspapers, telephone companies, cable television operators and whoever else decides to jump into the fray aren't yet in place.

Additionally, there isn't yet enough consumer demand to make this electronic future economically viable. How this all plays out may well determine the fate of American newspapers.

It's all well and good to prognosticate about the future, but having an electronic information capability available at a reasonable price does not assure that a mass market will develop. As John Morton, a former newspaper reporter and current newspaper analyst with the financial services company Lynch, Jones & Ryan, says, "Instant information will always be useful, as it is now, for people who travel for business or who must remain closely connected to offices and clients. Newspapers, though, serve a mass market now and likely will in the future. And the fact is, most consumers really do not have a pressing need for instant information."

That's exactly the kernel of my worry. How much instant information is really needed and what would someone be willing to pay for it?

Newspapers do a better job than any other information source of delivering mass amounts of information to the home. It's done by the old 19th-century method of throwing a newspaper at the customer's doorstep, a system that's cheap and "user-friendly" in a way that electronic systems can only hope to be. As Morton says, "These are the fundamental strengths of newspapers, and investments in recent years have reinforced newspapers' ability to play to these strengths."

Everyone wants to get into the electronic information delivery business, but I doubt whether telephone companies or cable operators will be able to organize themselves nor find it economically feasible to provide the mass amounts of local information that newspapers gather and disseminate every day.

What they will do, however, is go after the backbone of newspaper advertising revenue, local retail and classified advertising.

That's why newspapers must experiment and invest in electronic publishing, to protect their franchise as the primary local information source.

Classified advertising; stock quotes; sports; breaking local, national and international news; "what's happening" calendars; movie and concert reviews, and countless other segments of information can now be transmitted electronically, but at what cost? If we give it all to you now do we shoot ourselves in the foot by removing from print things that have proven to have great editorial appeal in the printed form?

Could electronic publishing completely replace the newspaper of today? No one knows for sure, but I doubt it. The question will ultimately be answered because of economics, however. Newspapers now are extremely efficient, and it will take a long time for electronic publishing to make serious inroads, despite the predictions of futurists.

The Deseret News hasn't been asleep when it comes to the future but has been intensely studying the issue of electronic publishing for several years. The future is still muddy, and one thing's for sure: Our loyal readers won't be left out. When it's viable and the level of interest is proven to be great enough, an electronic version of the Deseret News will be available.

Until then, I'll try not to wear out my worry beads.