THE time was when a publisher of a metropolitan newspaper could look out from his tower and see the rooftops of most of his subscribers. The time was when a pioneer printer-editor with a flatbed press could start his own newspaper.
How times have changed.
Or have they?
Within the next few years, say experts on newspaper technology, publishers will have staffs with databases and technology that will let them ``see'' what each household wants - and give them the ability to deliver different daily newspapers to different households.
``In the next five years readers in some metropolitan markets in the United States will be able to get a daily paper with the basic national and international news package, a zoned local section with a seven-mile radius that includes advertising, and a section with news of particular fields selected individually by each subscriber,'' predicts William Rinehart, former vice president-technological for the American Newspaper Publishers Association.
Robert Haiman, the director of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., says he's excited about computer technology that will give papers much greater power to manipulate their circulation base. But he also is worried.
``If we can segregate out each paper, then advertisers will pay a lot of money for this,'' he says. But ``how do newspapers figure out the way to meet need of advertisers without sacrificing the public agenda?''
Bright college students and computer jocks working only with a Macintosh computer already are involved in desktop publishing of specialized newspapers.
``We'll see lots of new papers starting, principally because the technology that makes this possible costs very little,'' Mr. Haiman says. ``It's tough to raise the capital needed to publish a traditional paper. But the advent of desktop publishing creates an opportunity for a 20th-century version of the Revolutionary-era printer with a shirttail full of type. His 20th-century counterpart needs only an Apple computer.''
What the experts foresee
Among the predictions from newspaper experts for what's coming before the end of this century:
Greater exploitation of newspaper databases. ``Primarily local business information could be put into a retrievable form - a real estate letter, for instance - and sold by a newspaper,'' says Everette Dennis, the executive director for the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University.
More newspaper writers will make use of other organizations' databases in investigative reporting, says Dr. Dennis (see story Page 14).
Erasable laser-disk storage technology will make it possible that ``one disk, four feet wide, [could] store every word ever printed by man. This will greatly reduce the cost of computer storage,'' Mr. Haiman says.
Satellite-delivered digital photographs. The Associated Press now is moving to convert the entire United States newspaper industry to this technology. In two years, Haiman says, editors should be able to ``instantaneously see the pictures [shot in the field]. This will revolutionize the picture side of papers.''
``There will be no more color film photography by 2000,'' Haiman predicts. ``Cameras will have two-inch reusable computer disks so that pictures can be seen instantly, and they can be instantaneously transmitted back to newsrooms.''
Amid all this technological change, Mr. Rinehart offers a note of caution. ``Some editors and publishers go `ga-ga' over new technology. They think that a page full of color will sell the paper.
``But it's the news that really sells the paper.''