Pioneer puts digital concepts to work
In 1981, Roger Fidler wrote an essay for the Associated Press Managing Editors about what newspapers might be like in 2000 and beyond.
Fidler, now the director of technology initiatives for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, envisioned a successful digital alternative to print that would be portable, durable and easy to use and would preserve many of the features that people have come to appreciate about print media.
The display device in his mind needed to weigh less than 2 pounds and be easy to carry.
His prediction was laughed at in the age before IBM personal computers were produced.
Now, a product he has developed is one of an array of products newspapers are exploring that marry the conveniences of the Web with the characteristics of a newspaper.
“We will eventually see all-digital publishing, but we’ll have print and digital co-existing for quite some time,” Fidler said.
“Papers that only publish in print will disappear over time. But not any time soon,” he said.
Digital publishing isn’t just dumping stories onto a Web site.
The product Fidler has developed includes a series of sophisticated PDFs that allow users to jump back and forth between stories but doesn’t involve a lot of scrolling around to read full stories. It also has the interaction of the Web.
He calls it eMprint, and it was field tested in 2005 at the Columbia Missourian.
EMprints are portrait oriented and designed to take full advantage of the Tablet PC, which has a rotating screen, or the upcoming generation of portable devices.
Display devices can’t just take the traditional newspaper and scrunch it down. That product would be hard to read and involve a lot of navigation and scrolling, besides not adding any significant value to the work.
The key to getting people to read full stories on screen is to provide a mobile reading device that is lightweight, is comfortable under any lighting, can store the information and has a lengthy power life, Fidler said.
Some wonder why more devices are being developed for digital publishing when people already carry cell phones and laptops, Fidler said. The thought is that all technologies will merge into one, he said.
“That is not the vision of convergence as I believe,” Fidler said. “As technology develops, we end up with more (devices) rather than fewer. History has shown that.
“We like our gadgets.”
Fidler said one of the highlights of eMprint is that the format has a beginning and an end. The Web is endless, but people don’t like to search on and on forever.
Readership patterns on the traditional Web show that readers don’t go much deeper than one story, he said.
Fidler said he can convert the print edition of the Columbia Missourian to eMprint in eight hours, but the time involved depends on the size of the publication and how sophisticated the newspaper wants it to be.
For example, to convert the metro edition of the L.A. Times fives days a week would probably require four full-time employees.
Additional advertising was sold for the Missourian and 5,000 people signed up. The newspaper has about 7,500 subscribers, and about 10 percent of the eMprint readers held subscriptions to the newspaper.
Readership of eMprint has been stable, but the newspaper doesn’t have a large marketing budget, which is a challenge seen across the industry, Fidler said.
“We think a house ad in the print product is enough to market a product,” he said.
EMprint continues to be published twice. Newspapers must begin exploring digital publishing, Fidler said.
When new reading devices are readily available, any entrepreneur can become a publisher because the cost of starting a newspaper will be dramatically reduced.
Which news organizations survive will depend on the talent newspapers can hire to be reporters, editors or sell advertising.
To see how these news organizations are implementing multimedia or other new technologies, visit these Web pages:
Columbia Missourian eMprint edition.
The Times of Northwest Indiana text message alert partnership.
Spartanburg Herald-Journal audio slideshows.
Daytona Beach News-Journal.