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Newspapers: The Future

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Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Media and Entertainment Industry Reporter
Wednesday, October 12, 2005; 2:00 PM

Already facing shrinking circulation and a flat advertising market, the newspaper industry also has been socked with newsprint costs high enough to force some of the nation's largest and best-known papers to change the way they look and feel.

In an article today , Washington Post media and entertainment industry reporter Frank Ahrens discusses the issue.

Ahrens was online Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the issue. Joining him was Russ Wilcox, chief executive of E Ink Corp., which has created a paper-thin video screen that combines the ease of reading words on paper with the Internet's access to information.

A transcript follows.

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Frank Ahrens: Greetings, all.

Today, we're going to perpetrate some meta-journalism. As the topic is about the future of newspapers, it seemed a propitious time to stretch the boundaries a little.

There is a throwaway scene in the 2002 Tom Cruise sci-fi flick, "Minority Report," that every print journalist should have noticed and may well be the salvation to our buckling business.

The movie, based on a Philip K. Dick short story, is set in Washington in 2054. Director Steven Spielberg gave us some terrifying and fascinating glimpses into our near-future, such as retina-scan identification so common that, when you walk into a Gap, a beam scans your eyes and a voice greets you by name.

In the scene we're interested in, a Metro passenger is reading a USA Today. It LOOKS like a USA Today in that it's a full-page newspaper (called a "broadsheet") but instead of a handful of papers, it's a paper-thin video screen, thin enough to fold up and put under your arm. Instead of static photos and text, it's constantly changing text, video and perhaps sound. Think of it as a combination paper, television and Internet, presumably wirelessly connected to a futuristic Wi-Fi, perhaps the next generation of the new Wi-Max super hotspots that are rolling out and cover several square miles instead of several square feet.

As I was writing today's story about the Wall Street Journal shrinking its size to save on newsprint, I thought about that scene. Imagine a world in which newspapers no longer print any paper copies. For a paper the size of The Washington Post, which prints about 700,000 papers a day and 1 million on Sundays, that could be an annual savings of more than $110 million, with newsprint at $625 per metric ton and rising.

Imagine a business model where such a video screen is cheap enough that The Post could give one away to new subscribers, weaning them off the paper product. Or, if you didn't want to subscribe, you buy a screen and get the daily paper when you buy it, one at a time.

Obviously, there would be economics and class issues. Not everyone could afford a subscription to a paper or a video screen. And of course they must not be denied information and news simply because they can't afford the new technology. So there would still be a need for paper products of some sort.

Joining us today to talk about the next generation of newspaper delivery is Russ Wilcox, chief executive of the Cambridge-Mass. E Ink Corp., an MIT Media Lab spinoff that has invented a precursor to the "Minority Report" newspaper. In simplest terms, it's a thin membrane filled with black and white particles. When an electrical charge is sent through it along with digital text, the particles arrange into letters. We're going to ask him how far off the "Minority Report" paper is.

But, wait, there's more. Later this week, I'd like to write a story for the paper Post (or the "fiber media" as some electronic media folks call it) off of today's interview and discussion. Because a newspaper is at bottom a business, we need to know what our customers want. So your voices will be critical to the story I'm going to write. Tell us about your newspaper habits--how you read it, what you want and so forth. I'm sure Russ would be interested, as well.

To that end, I encourage you to send me an e-mail with your name and your questions and comments and I will use some of them in my story. My address is: ahrensf@washpost.com.

So let's get started with this--what shall we call it? A blogversation?

As Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey said in "Master and Commander," set in the early 19th century, "What a fascinating modern age we live in."

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Frank Ahrens: Here's my first question for Russ:

Q: How far off is the newspaper in "Minority Report?"

A: A lot of the pieces have been demonstrated so what's required is to put them together. The movie is set in 2054 but I think you'll probably really see that around 2015.

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Frank Ahrens: Q: What are the main obstacles still to overcome?

A: You need two things to make a display: Something that can change color and electronics to control it. E Ink has spent the last 8 years on the part that can change color. We could do that in today in black and white. For us, the challenge is to add color. We're just now demonstrating color in a rigid display.

Then there's electronics in back. We're just seeing this year several years demonstrating electronics that are just as flexible as a newspaper. And so you've got to put those two things together, you're going to have something that looks pretty much like what you saw in the movie.

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Frank Ahrens: Q: Russ, the newspaper format offers definite advantages in readability over a computer screen or definitely a handheld device. What is E Ink and other companies doing to marry the speed and motion of the Internet and television with the format of the paper?

A: We think essence of newspaper is the large size. You are a reader you're an eagle flying over the desert, you're scanning. You see the rabbit and you zoom down and you grab it. That just happens naturally in a size that fits very well with how the human body works. Got to have a large display and it has to be portable.

E Ink can enable a very large display using very little battery power so you could have something the size of two laptops but our technology uses 100 times less energy than a normal laptop screen. And you can use that for a month on battery power, untethered.

Or you can roll in and out, you have something you roll out of the side of your cell phone, say, so you have a nice big display in a portable package. Both things have been demonstrated by us in small quantities. It's almost like back in Rome with a scroll.

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Frank Ahrens: Q: But what about cost? If we can have such a video-paper, let's call it, by 2015, would it be prohibitively expensive?

A: It's going to be free and the reason is that newspapers are spending $150 per year per reader on making the paper. (Figuring in cost of newsprint.) Within 2 or 3 years you've built up $300 to $500 of budget per reader so you can give it away for free because the device itself will cost less than $300. I'm assuming the paper (such as The Post) will buy 700,000 of these and plunk them down. And they need a lot less capital from Wall Street so their return on equity will go up.

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Frank Ahrens: Q: Regarding advertising, a big thick paper like The Post has lots of space for ads. If you have essentially a one-sheet paper, how do you sell as many ads?

A: An electronic paper has infinite space because you can bring forth as much content as a reader wants. And the resolution of our ads is very high. And when you touch the ad you can interact with the advertiser and the paper will take you to the advertiser's Web site and you can get more information. So ideally there should be a better connection between the ads you're shown and what you're actually interested in.

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Frank Ahrens: Q: How might your device and those like it change the job of a journalist?

A: I predict plenty of ulcers for journalists because they'll have new deadlines every 60 seconds. It'll be a race to file. On the other hand, because space is infinite there will hopefully be more room for thoughtful pieces, longer pieces, the kind that a journalist wishes he or she could do but doesn't have the space. Why not? If a reader wants to read eight pages about bridges in Italy, why not? There will be no space constraints. But there will also be more accountability for the journalist because they will be tracked. (Frank: In other words, you know how many people are reading the stories. A chilling thought for us!)

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Frank Ahrens: Q: Thanks for all your time Russ. Is there anything else you'd like to leave with our readers.

A: I think that people should keep their eye on Wi-Max (The city-wide hotspots now rolling out.) The moment that, say, the city of San Francisco gets free Internet access, there will essentially be a free Internet newspaper. In a short time period a lot of people will be reading their news online--the only thing stopping them now is that a laptop is too heavy to carry around. They will roll out city-by-city and that's exactly how newspapers are organized. There will be a very sudden big change in the the lives of newspapers when their city gets wired. And devices with E Ink are going to be out in the next one or two years, max.

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Frank Ahrens: Now, let's turn the discussion over to you.

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Maryland: Ah, but could you wrap a fish in it?

Frank Ahrens: Yes, but you wouldn't want to. Or as Russ said, "Please don't."

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Washington, D.C.: With the 24-hour news cycle, do you see printed newspapers becoming obsolete because the Internet can provide constantly updated news that printed papers can't?

Frank Ahrens: Good question. Another way to ask it is, "What will the Washington Post newspaper look like in 50 years?"

Well, it seems inconceivable that it will be a place for breaking news. Therefore, it seems to me that it might take on the character of what a newsweekly like Time is now--longer pieces, more analysis, maybe projects, big displays of graphics and photos that wouldn't look as good on the Web. If this is true, it seems to me the circulation will drop radically, but you might be able to charge a premium for the product, say $1 or so a copy, because it's information you're not getting anywhere else.

Another way it could go is to splinter into specialty publications--in other words, the death of The Post as a supermarket. The publications would still carry the brand of The Post and its credibility, image, etc., but be narrowly focused. Such as a Washington Post Sports paper. Or a Washington Post Style paper that has features and events.

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N.Y., N.Y.: Hi, Frank,

My reading habits: I still get some magazines in hard copy, but I dislike inky newspapers, so read them online. I pay for an online subscription to the WSJ, because it's a really well-written paper (I'm talking about the news reporting and columns, not the op-ed), but don't like the Times Select model at all. I'm trying the free trial but will cancel when it's up. The WashPo Web site is really good -- and these discussions are a significant addition.

I would probably be willing to pay for access to WashPo as I do for WSJ, because it's the entire paper plus online-only items. I think the NYT has fallen behind this paper and WSJ in quality, innovation, and really good writing/reporting. I also check various unaffiliated blogs but still feel they should be read with skepticism.

Good luck!

Frank Ahrens: Thanks.

You touch an important discussion in the revenue-life of online publications. There is a "wall," and things that are free to read are "in front of the wall," and things that cost are "behind the wall."

For instance, ESPN's very good Web site has moved more and more content behind the wall, forcing you to pay for insider dope on the Big East college football conference and so on.

Barry Diller, head of InterActive Corp, which owns a bunch of Web sites, such as Match.com and who is a Washington Post Co. director, always says, "build the audience and the money will come."

That's what Washingtonpost.com is trying to do, its chief executive says, and though there is the possibility that some offerings will cost in the future, they want to keep stuff free for now.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Is this really a bad thing? Shouldn't the papers adapt with the times? I've been reading newspapers all my life (I'm 29) and made the switch to Web-based reading seamlessly, even the comics page. Instead of fretting over the disappearance and/or death of traditional newspapers, shouldn't the papers instead be looking for ways to bring old-line journalistic values to the Web? At the least, think of how many trees we'll save.

Frank Ahrens: Absolutely.

For instance, the so-called blogosphere. It's a Wild West out there and I've had journo friends inaccurately smeared by irresponsible bloggers.

News organizations such as The Post, the New York Times, ABC, MSNBC, Fox and so forth--which, unlike most bloggers, still adhere to journalistic standards and run a number of traps to ensure as much accuracy as possible (yes, we fail from time to time)--have a responsibility to be out there in the ether as traffic cops, truth-squadders and so forth.

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Gap eye scans?: Not to get off topic, but where does this occur, exactly? I have never experienced it and would be somewhat annoyed to find out my eyes were being scanned at the register to "capture" my profile.

Frank Ahrens: Only in the movies so far.

But you've undoubtedly gotten e-mail ads from Web sites that have asked you to register, which is a primitive form of the eye scan.

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Washington, D.C.: So someone contemplating a career in newspapers should do what? Go into PR or TV instead?

Frank Ahrens: Well, I hate to think of newspaper journalism and p.r. as equivalent career choices, but I would still encourage folks into newspapers. Just realize that "newspaper" is a constantly changing concept. I may end my career writing for a newspaper (God willing, it's a few decades from now) but if that's so, I've no doubt one that is principally delivered electronically.

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Length of stories: I don't want to see dumbed-down newspapers. But I also can't stand the obvious "This is my shot at a Pulitzer" series that chew up so much newsprint. They are five times longer than they need to be, and the meat of the story is buried under layers of touchy-feely garbage and "Gambling? I'm shocked!" mock outrage.

Frank Ahrens: Hahaha!

Good point. If it's any consolation, The Post is actively trying to shorten story length. Yes, there are some stories that still need to be 100 inches long (about 4,000 words), but the routine story of 30 inches surely could be told in 20 inches or so, and so on. So says our executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I stopped buying the newspaper almost five years ago as many started becoming available on-line.

Given so many papers are now available for free on the Internet, how will the industry survive in the longer term?

Frank Ahrens: It's the No. 1 question we ask ourselves.

There's no doubt that online newspapers are a success with readers. More people than ever are reading newspapers thanks to Web sites.

The real question is, how do we create free Web sites that will support a news-gathering staff the size of a big newspaper's when the online revenue is typically a factor of 10 less than that of the paper's?

It's a question, I think, of persuading advertisers that online ads are just as if not more valuable than ads in the paper because, unlike paper ads, you know exactly who and how many people have clicked on an online ad.

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Maryland : If fiber media goes away then how will we prevent wholesale reforestation of the planet? Will trees take over?

Frank Ahrens: Well, we still need houses. And baseball bats.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Are newspapers to some extent trying to cater to a mass audience that no longer exists?

Few of us are interested in everything. And even a paper as big and good as The Post can't provide the level of coverage on particular topics that I might be able to get from specialty web sites and blogs.

For instance, I love movies and am very serious about them. The Plain Dealer, the big paper in Cleveland, provides reviews and coverage that might satisfy the average filmgoer, but doesn't come close to giving me enough information about specialty films. On this subject, I'm better off visiting iFilm and a host of other sites.

I can do this for most of my other main interests, too. How do newspapers combat that?

Frank Ahrens: Yes, exactly. See my "supermarket" point above.

Our former ombudsman Michael Getler argued that reading a paper every day, almost any paper, gives you a leg up on the world; a good view of what's going on around you. That's an important part of citizenry and just being an intellectually curious human being.

On the other hand, yes, it's true, people have their interests. In an era of typical cable and satellite packages of 150 channels, research always shows that most people spend most of their time on about 15 channels.

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Washington, D.C.: Aren't journalists worried that they will be pressured to speed things up, write quicker and produce more output? Quantity vs. quality.

Frank Ahrens: Yes. Next question. Now!

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Frank Ahrens: Seriously, that is a concern. For instance, consider a day I once had as a reporter:

I was covering a Senate vote on the Hill. As soon as the vote was taken, I phoned in a short story to our Web site, which put it up right away.

Then, I came back to the newsroom and began writing my story for the next day's paper. But before I could finish, I went to the TV set we have in our newsroom to do a quick hit on CNBC about the vote. Finally, I got back to writing my story which, by the time it came out, would be old news.

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Ashton, Md.: I don't subscribe to a daily paper any more because I can get the same information online and because I don't want to burden the waste stream with all that paper.

I value the quality and coverage of The Post's reporting and would pay for online access if required. Am I alone in thinking this?

Frank Ahrens: I certainly hope not.

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Fairfax, Va.: Newspapers are shrinking down and TV Guide just got bigger. Do magazines such as Guide not adhere to this direction toward smallness?

Frank Ahrens: I think that speaks to Cleveland's point, above, about niche interests. TV Guide writes only about TV. Newspapers write about TV, politics, sports, fashion, etc. etc.

There's no shortage of publications springing up. Book sales are high. I was just wondering the other night if newspaper circulation is going down not because people don't like to read anymore--they clearly do--but because they like to read for pleasure, not information.

Maybe they get their news and information from TV and radio and quick visits to Web sites, but when they sit down to read, it's to read something they love, like a novel or history or Elle, and not something they think they HAVE to read.

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Wheaton, Md.: Would electronic newspapers be forced to compete nationally? Would the Post have to beef up its California and NYC coverage to try and penetrate those markets?

Frank Ahrens: That's a good question. The Post is at heart a local paper because that's where our ad base has been. The New York Times, for instance, has gone from a local to a national paper. The Graham family, which controls The Post, always has been deeply committed to covering the Washington region. Also, I think something like 80 percent of the traffic on Washingtonpost.com is local.

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Bethesda, Md.: I've long wondered what the post-consumer recycled content of pulp is in standard newsprint. Do you know that figure (or an estimate)? I started exclusively reading The Post on the Web about six years ago because I didn't want to participate in the energy waste of paper processing and delivery. It's surprised me how long the pulp version has lingered.

Frank Ahrens: I don't know how much of the pulp is recycled. But I think more people are starting to think like you.

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Saving trees: Sure, you save trees but what about the archival thrill of saving a newspaper from the day you were born, or even framing it?

Frank Ahrens: You know, that's another interesting point you bring up.

I was watching the news on TV the other night and noticed that TV still uses newspaper headlines to convey big stories, rather than, say, screen-grabs from Web sites. The physical image of the newspaper is a common language that will not soon disappear.

And that goes to what Russ was saying earlier...the newspaper is in many ways the ideal delivery size. If it can be constantly updated like the Web, then that seems an appealing journalistic and commercial idea.

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Olney, Md.: Will we see newspaper consolidation? Could the Post operate cooperatively with the N.Y. Times some day?

Frank Ahrens: Unlike radio and television, there are no cross-ownership regulations that prohibit papers from buying each other other than anti-trust concerns.

You're seeing more and more cooperation already. For instance, flip inside today's Post Business section and you'll see staff-written stories by the Wall Street Journal. They publish some of our stories in their Asia and Europe editions. As costs continue to rise, I think you'll see more and more partnerships like this.

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Frank Ahrens: That's a good place to wrap up (fish wrap-up?) our discussion today. Thanks much for the excellent questions and comments and, above all, please keep reading.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


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