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Robert MacMillan's Random Access

The Internet's Paper Chase

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; 10:08 AM

There's something about dead wood. I don't mean the HBO series; I mean paper.

This column never graces a single sheet of paper. We produce and edit it with computers and publish it on the Internet. In contrast to a daily newsroom, the process is organized, streamlined and clean.

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Sitting next to me is a copy of today's Washington Post. I thumbed through some of the sections when I came in this morning, checked out the business briefs and the horoscope. (Don't laugh, you do it too.) As a result, my keyboard keys have turned a light shade of gray. I could have looked at my own Web site instead, but there's just something about dead wood.

I started doing online journalism in 1996. We produced a paper-based newsletter, but started getting more subscribers who wanted it delivered through e-mail. This spurred my friends to ask me whether I thought that people would stop reading print news and just get it online. I said I didn't know, but we agreed that there was no substitute for ink-stained fingers or discovering the secret origami pattern that could let us read an article on the subway or, better yet, do the crossword.

This is a timely topic for the news business. Many of you know this, but many more don't. As more people start looking at newspapers' Web sites, circulation drops for the printed product. Newspapers suffer additional harm as classified sites such as Craiglist.org become more attractive to advertisers. Some people say that most newspapers will die off, leaving behind a few boutique publications catering to a high-end audience.

Ironically enough, I was scouting the Internet for news over the weekend and I found a weblog by Masood Mortazavi. He works at Sun Microsystems, so he knows from tech. What struck me in one of his postings was an essay on the value of paper. Maybe he was being sarcastic, but I don't think so.

He wrote: "Let's face it. Paper as a 'technology' works really well. When I unfold my paper copies of The Wall Street Journal or Financial Times every morning (if I have time to do so), they are about twice as big as the largest desk-top flat-screen around, and I don't even need to remind the reader how much lighter and easier to carry a paper edition is to the hand. Talk about mobility! Most astonishingly, paper editions offer us an extremely flexible viewing and reading environment. I can fold my paper editions (or some sections of them) to almost any useful size for reading, down to the size of the viewing area offered by a typical PDA, in a matter of seconds."

One of Sun Microsystems's neighbors in Santa Clara, Calif., is E-Book Systems, a company that is trying to bring us the best of both worlds. The San Jose Mercury News ran a story about the company today: "Digital print is unlike the run-of-the-Internet, HTML-based Web sites used by many publications. The three-dimensional format has the pizazz-plus of newsstand magazines. It allows editors and advertisers to incorporate video and audio into pages. It also can provide instant interaction with readers, who virtually turn pages on an image that looks like a physical magazine, book or catalog."

"What we are trying to achieve is the combination of the traditional way of reading with advanced digital technology," Kyu Kim, the company's manager of enterprise solutions, told the Mercury News.

The article also focused on San Francisco-based Zinio, which counts the International Space Station as a customer for its digitized magazine service. The astronauts want Motor Trend, PC World, Jane's Defence Weekly and MIT Technology Review, the Merc says. (What? No Utne Reader? No Playboy?)

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