THERE are no printing presses at Individual Inc. No grouchy managing editors. No delivery trucks. Yet every weekday this small company here puts out a newspaper.
It's an unusual publication, because every reader gets a customized edition either by fax or electronic mail. Some people think Individual's newspaper, called First!, represents the future of newspapers.
"I think it's the front edge of the new wave of the information society," says Kenneth Allen, senior vice president with the Information Industry Association, an organization that tracks trends in information technology. "It restores control to the individual."
When Roger Fidler of Knight-Ridder Inc. travels, he sometimes carries his idea of the future newspaper under his arm. It's a computer screen about the size of a thick Vogue magazine. So far, he has only a prototype. But he expects such machines to start appearing in two to three years. 'Paperless' newspapers?
These experiments are part of an intensifying search for future news formats. Newspaper entrepreneurs and researchers say the industry is due for dramatic change. "The next era will be customized and personalized media," says Yosi Amram, Individual's president.
Consider the newspaper you are holding. It bristles with high technology behind the scenes. Reporters and editors use sophisticated telecommunications systems and computers to gather, edit, lay out, and transmit the news. The process is far more high-tech than even a decade ago.
Nevertheless, at the last step, most newspapers do what they've been doing for hundreds of years. They print the news on paper and distribute it by hand.
"The newspaper business is technologically one of the most sophisticated around," Mr. Fidler says. But "We put it on 1800s technology."
Can a newspaper, though, be paperless?
Yes, says Walter Bender, director of the Electronic Publishing Group at the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Paper is just one way to transport the idea of a newspaper. Decouple the idea from its physical medium and all sorts of possibilities emerge. Customized information
Individual Inc. uses electronic mail and fax to deliver its customized product. Several news experts believe electronic mail delivery shows real promise. Using a sophisticated network, Individual's computers sift through a dozen news wires daily. Then they compare each wire story with the computer profiles for each customer. The relevant stories are ranked. Duplicates are dumped. The top five or 10 stories are sent to the customer by 8 a.m. the following day.
Three-year-old Individual counts some of the nation's largest corporations among its customers.
"We're extremely pleased," says Paul Allgyer, who subscribes to First! and is technical marketing manager for Motorola's microprocessor division in Austin, Texas. "It's an easy way for us to see the first thing in the morning what's going on."
"It has almost become a daily ritual of coming in [in the morning] and checking the news wire," adds David Settle, another First! customer and manager of competitive analysis with Convex Computer Corporation in Richardson, Texas. Mr. Settle now reads fewer trade publications and concentrates more on technical reports, he says.
The technology, however, remains expensive. At an annual cost of $4,500 for five stories a day, First! isn't going to challenge the New York Times anytime soon. There are cheaper and less sophisticated ways to customize news. Electronic services such as Dow Jones News Retrieval and CompuServe allow users to set up an automatic search for key words.
"The first hurdle to overcome is pricing," says Chris Elwell, an analyst with SIMBA Information Inc., a Wilton, Conn., information company for the publishing business. Newspapers get most of their revenues from advertising - which First! does not carry.
The second hurdle is that much of the "news" on the wires involves only the things that a company wants said rather than the whole picture, he says.
"This thing's going to have limitations," adds George Harmon, chairman of the newspaper program at Northwestern University's journalism school. "You would never think in a million years to program in [to the computer] Pee Wee Herman and all the other oddities that are happening even as we speak. We rely on a battery of editors to do that and give us the product." Dial a political bias
Eventually, Professor Bender says, a newspaper will incorporate both kinds of news - the mass-media type filtered by human and computer "editors" and the personalized news, such as "Your flight to Chicago is delayed." He foresees a time when there will be some kind of dial that will allow readers to get a conservative, middle-of-the-road, or liberal slant on the news.
But don't throw out the newspaper model, these experts warn. It is a highly organized way of presenting the news that will have a long life in electronic form.
"One of the things the newspaper does so well is it makes it easy to disregard 90 percent of the information," Bender says. Readers can scan headlines without reading stories that don't interest them. If there's a fascinating story on Page One, there's often a related article conveniently placed on the jump page.
Fidler's system would give readers a newspaper-like page displayed on a computer screen the size of a magazine page. The headlines, graphics, and abstracts of the stories would be readable. If readers wanted to see the complete story, they could "click on" the story using a hand-held computer device, known as a mouse, and pull up the full text.
"When you pick up a newspaper, you don't really know what you want," he says. "What I'm trying to re-create is this browsing medium," Fidler says.
The machine would have certain advantages over paper and ink. Instead of photographs, the reader could view a video clip. Touch an ad about, say, an African safari and you would hear the roar of a lion as well as a video travelog.
Electronic newspapers of the future will also know their own content, Fidler says. They will be able to tell their readers that either nothing important happened or that there's 30 minutes of important reading.
There is a danger in all this customization. Mass media provides the grist for a national conversation. With everyone getting different news, that commonality will erode. It already is eroding, thanks to the declining appeal of newspapers, news experts say.
"They [newspapers] are in fact becoming a niche medium, catering to more and more of the intelligentsia," says Stephen Isaacs, associate dean for academic affairs at Columbia University's journalism school. "When you have the ability to pick and choose ... that commonality goes away," he says.
Other news experts are a little more sanguine.
"Information is not really the most important thing to a general audience," Fidler says. "What they're really looking for is a way to relate to other people. It's hard for me to imagine that those of us in a society don't have shared interests."