Cambridge, Mass. — I shall not leave off Printing. I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my press and melt my letters.m -- From Benjamin Franklin's "An Apology for Printers"
Watch out -- technology is after your printed newspaper.
"We are experiencing a massive shift in the patterning of information systems ," says Anthony Smith, head of the British Film Institue and advocate of the so-called "electronic newspaper," addressing a packed lecture hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He explains: "Until now, we have operated by the Gutenberg principle -- that if you want information to circulate in a society you multiply the physicalm number of copies of that information until it equals the number of people who wish to receive the information. That principle has taken 500 years to run its course. Now electronic systems are a very real alternative."
If the electronics salesmen have their way, you will soon be reading news on your TV screen or home computer. Telephone lines would feed the news into your home or office from central computer banks. Futuristic researchers are dreaming up ingenious new ways to project script onto screens, make "type" larger, devise optical illusions so that the jagged edges of computer letters appear smooth and sharp. Even newspapers themselves are rushing in to find a niche in the enterprise.
But would it really be betterm to read the newspaper on an electronic screen?
Is it conceivable that gazing at fixed frames of electronic script could equal the pleasure, the serendipity, of scanning, pausing, and skimming a printedm newspaper?
Even the man who started the New York Times' computer-based information bank has his doubts.
"The printed newspaper is far too attractive to be displaced," John Rothman says. "After all, you can't take a TV or computer screen along with you to read in the bathtub, while you're at the barber or on your way to the theater. Linking into computer bases is absolutely great for helping your retrieve data. But that's a far cry from saying that the average householder who gets his daily newspaper for 25 to 40 cents will want to dial up an electronic newspaper and read it on a screen for what now costs much more. I feel that we're really facing here some technology in search of an application and a market."
And so the great newspaper debate of the '80s is on.
Electronics could challenge the very existence of the printed newspaper, particularly if electronics lure away classified advertising.
"That's the Achilles' hell," said Martin Ernst from his office at Arthur D. Little Inc. (ADL), the Boston technology think tank.
"Up to 70 or 80 percent of the cost of many major newspapers is now supported by [classified and other] advertising. The key question is whether electronic media will undercut that support."
While the prospect staggers veteran newspapermen, "prophets" of the electronic newspaper like Anthony Smith are not so worried.
The former BBC journalist and author of "Goodbye Gutenberg" thinks a shift to electronics could actually resolve some of the problems news systems now face.
First, it could cut out some of the waste built into the printed press, he suggests.
"The average newspaper daily acquires in its computer 10 times as much material as it prints. Of that, the average reader absorbs 5 to 10 percent. . . . So you end up transporting information in a tremendously labor-intensive way, relying on gas-burning vehicles or often unreliable human resources like small children on bicycles to a very large number of people who don't want much of it anyway."
Timeliness, he says, has also brought its problems.
"That has been the essence of news publication right from the 17th century, when it became clear that it created a regular channel between editor and reader. However, today dailyness of information is something of an illusion. Most of the information in newspapers is weeks old. Most is not contingent upon date of publication. On the other hand, much news, like stock prices, is perishing within a few minutes but in newspapers is allowed to survive much longer. Electronic media could serve the social need for quick-perishing information in a more appropriate timescape."
He argues, too, that the circulation of printed papers has nowhere to go but down. So far the big papers have grown by catering to more and more audiences -- women, minorities, teen-agers.
"But at some point," he maintains, "a saturation has been reached. There are no more social groupings to be added. It's impossible to satisfy all minorities so that they become dis-satisfied with the major papers."
But not all analysts see the situation in such apocalyptic terms.
"It's not an either-or situation -- the electronic media will not simply take over," says Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, known for his penetrating studies of the rise of the computer age.
What we're really seeing, he argues, is a "mutually adaptive process of responses," in which newspapers, electronics, and the public must decide what kind -- or kinds of newspaper they want.
Enterpreneurs are tempting homeowners with whole packages of services -- some include everything from computer games to "how to" home information, recipes, local shopping information, movie reviews, stock market prices, horoscopes -- even detailed sporting news replete with the latest team injuly lists. Some feature two-way systems that allow users to do their banking shop, send messages and letters electronically from home.
An estimated 80 experiments are being conducted worldwide, according to publishers of Online, the communications magazine. ADL analysts expect them to sweep the United States by the end of the decade.
The first major experiments in the US began in the summer. They include "CompuServe" based in Columbus, Ohio, which offers the Columbus Dispatch newspaper and the Associated Press wire to some 6,00 home computer terminals around the country. Next year it will carry news from nearly a dozen major US newspapers. For a $5-an-hour fee the user can call up an index on his home computer and decide what he wants to read.
Other packages of services are being offered by the Source company in McLean, Va., and Viewtron in Coral Gables, Fla. The latter, which will place 30 home computer terminals in some 150 homes and is run by the Knight- Ridder newspaper company, is the first American system to carry classified ads.
In Park City, Texas (near Dallas), users of another system can call up the Dallas Morning News along with a hefty portion of financial news from Dow Jones and Merrill Lynch.
Experiments with two-way systems have been under way for several years in Britain, France, Japan, and Canada. The most advanced, Prestel, is operated by the British Post Office. Its 7,500 users in businesses and private homes have access to data provided by some 300 sources.
Such systems that link up home video screens with computer banks through telephone lines or cable are known as "viewdata" or "videotext."
Another type of system, "teletex," works like television in that the viewers use their television sets and a decoder to draw on the system. In England nearly 90,000 homes get the service from either the British Broadcasting Company (Ceefax) or the Independent Broadcasting Association (ORACLE).
Even before such experiments were envisioned, the newspaper industry had been conducting its own minor revolution. Many major papers have wholeheartedly embraced computer systems for producing their product. (Some like Tokyo's Asahi Shimbun all but make decisions by computer.) Now electronics is dramatically changing the way newspapers cover the news.
There has been a shift, for instance, away from simply reporting the quick-breaking "hard" news that TV and radio handle so easily to an in-depth approach. Special sections and editions are all part of the press's attempt to do what the electronic medium cannot.
It's partly a simple matter of survival. But some veteran newsmen think that such changes will give electronic systems a run for their money and demonstrate that the print media can still attract new readers.
Take the New York Daily News's new evening edition. Sold only in Manhattan, it will cater to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers cooped up in offices all day long, who, as they head home at night, want to find out what's happened in the world, what the weather forecast is, and what events are scheduled for the evening.
One of the two largest news conglomerates, Gannett, anticipating the competition from electronic news, has decided to publish an experimental national newspaper in 1981, transmitting its pages to printing plants via satellite.
Other newspaper organizations may even start turning the new electronic systems to their own advantage, ADL's Martin Ernst suggests. A paper could both sell its news stories to the electronic carriers and offer package deals to advertisers. the advertiser could be given space not only in the pages of the newspaper, but also in the "electronic papers" which pick up the news.
The upshot could be a newspaper industry that comes to see itself more as "information provider" than "print journalist." The implications for Western democratic societies at large could be enormous.
Anthony Smith believes it would put people at large in far more control of far more information, and far more control over whatm they will read.
On the other hand, the newspaper has traditionally promoted an informed citizenship. And if people call up on their screens only topics they enjoy reading about, newspapers could lose much of their effecitiveness -- no longer able to spotlight what people needm to know about current events.
Editors like Ed Diamond of the New York Daily News are not so happy with that prospect.
"I wonder how world news is going to get covered. And I worry about the loss of the serendipity quality of the newspaper. You don't start out attempting to real all that's presented to you, but if your eyes fall on the headlines and you look further, you might just learn something new and useful. That's educational asset worth keeping."
Others warn of the danger of monopoly. If script-news were shifted to electronic systems that use telephone lines, then the Bell System -- which already holds one communicatios monopoly -- would become monopoly carrier of "print news" as well.
In the final analysis, the fate of "electronic newspapers" depends on whether the man at home wants them and can afford them.
Whether such systems will sell -- even if they become cheaper -- is still the big question, says Kathleen Criner, who is looking into the subject for the American Newspaper Publishers Association, centered at Dulles Airport outside Washington.
"So far we have a strong sense that the capacity to send and receive messages , transact business, and interact with various data bases will prove very attractive. But it doesn't seem like people will use these systems for long reading. Even 20 years from now I don't think that people will want to sit in front of a television screen to read news, especially if it means higher costs."
Newspapers may also find that essential advertisers will not abandon them. For the moment, newspapers can achieve far more attractive graphic displays. And advertisers may not put all their eggs in the elecronic basket.
"Merchants like to use ads to bring people out to their stores so thaty they will look around and get interested in more things," John rothman says. "And people themselves are anxious to get out to the marketplace and browse. Ads in anym setting will suit that purpose. This idea that the entire country should be wired up electronically and that we'll conduct all our business from home is hard to conceive -- a sort of mass epidemic of agoraphobia."
Still, the electronic news buffs are determined to make their product appeal to the average citizen.
The technological breakthrough of their dreams would be an inexpensive gadget that would allow the reader to hold an "electric newspaper" in his hand -- a kind of electric flat plate display terminal.
Some industry observers believe IBM will soon market such a screen -- three inches wide, a bit larger than a magazine -- that could display about 10,000 characters, although its cost would presumably still be well out of reach for the average homeowner.
ADL analysts also suggest that once the space shuttle gets going, new satellite construction could dramatically reduce the cost of teletex by the 1990 s.
Finally, some experts dream of far some sweeping technological change to bring down costs. If the dream comes true, the electronic newspaper could become much cheaper than news in print.
The present phone system must overcharge for the short bursts of signals used in electronic news systems, Richard Solomon, an MIT communications specialist, laments.
"To reduce costs," he says, "we really need to develop a hybrid between the current switch telephone system and the large-information capacity of cable TV networks."
Theat could take a good 20 years to install across the country.
Tony Smith, of course, is undeterred.
During the '80s, as he sees, it, people will have become so at home with computers that they will be prepared to draw regularly on information banks. They will be "psychologically prepared" for a quantum leap in sales and popular usage of electronic information systems by the '90s.
He could be right. But he'll have an awfully hard time convincing an awful lot of people who still like to read their news on paper.m