IN a small, comfortable office suite here, a quiet revolution is under way.
The modest, five-person office houses the Knight-Ridder Information Design Lab, brainchild of electronic publishing wizard Roger Fidler. It has counterparts around the country working on different aspects of the same problem: What will the newspaper of the future be like?
"We have two missions," says Peggy Bair, applications manager of the Information Design Lab. "The first is 10 to 20 years out: It is an electronic newspaper that will run on a flat-panel [electronic] device about 8-1/2 by 11 inches, no more than 1/2 inch thick, weighing about a pound, with a gigabyte of memory [equal to 3,000-4,000 average-size books]. It will be a portable assistant, a portable reader."
"Secondly, in the short term, we will be working on de facto standards for user interface for the electronic newspaper," Ms. Bair says. "If every newspaper in the country develops its own standard, no two newspapers are going to be navigated the same way."
Many major newspapers in the United States are investigating this form of electronic publishing.
While several devices for transmitting the news of the future are in the works, tomorrow's newspaper will most likely come to readers in a "pen-based flat-panel" device such as the one envisioned by the Knight-Ridder lab.
The "front page" will look a lot like the front page of most newspapers today. But the front-page stories will probably be abstracts. To read the full-text versions of the story plus supporting stories, maps, and sidebars, the reader will touch the abstract with a special stylus or pen.
Also sitting at home or at the office will be an on-line "docking station," where new information will be stored. The flat panel will be recharged and receive news updates (including each day's paper) in the docking station. Readers will be able to take it to work or read it on the park bench. Take-along panels
"This technology is going to become a ubiquitous computing device," says Mark Timpe, Information Design Lab's systems manager. "Every house will have two or three. Business people will have their calendars, schedules, and documents to edit ... they can make notations, edit, and enter information using the pen."
The device may have fax and modem capabilities, Mr. Timpe says. "If you want to send a message or an article of interest to a colleague, or send a hard copy to your own filing system, you can. You will take the panel out in the morning and it could have a couple of different newspapers and a magazine. You'll be able to go to a library and download a book." Libraries would never be out of a book, he notes; at the end of a two-week period, the panels could self-purge.
Bair predicts that eventually the electronic newspaper will eliminate newsprint. She points out how expensive it will become to haul away and recycle newspaper, and what a drain newsprint already is on timber and water resources.
Flat-panel technology may eventually become so cheap that newspapers might give panels away with new subscriptions. Over the next two to five years, however, they will remain very expensive.
Newer screen technologies will have a much-higher resolution, and the screens will approach the look of ink on paper very quickly, Timpe says. For those who want larger print, a magnifier could be clicked on. The electronic newspaper will eventually respond to simple voice commands and will be able to read stories aloud (maybe even in Walter Cronkite's voice). Short video segments will add another dimension.
Timpe displays a computer version of the newspaper the lab is working on, explaining that there are many possible means to make the electronic newspaper work, including cable and fiber optics. The image is in color and the format looks like a local newspaper.
"We tried to maintain the `look' of the newspapers and create a bridge of familiarity for the current newspaper readers into the electronic medium," Timpe says. "The structure has been evolving over the last 200 years. It doesn't make sense to change that." A different writing approach
On the left of the panel is the newspaper "metaphor"; on the right, the navigation tools and instructions for getting around. (See photo, left.) "Every newspaper has a core product," Timpe says. "Then it has expanded sections, entertainment guide, expanded world section, etc. If you didn't like sports, you wouldn't have to look at the sports section."
Attached to a story on Bosnia might be a map, a short video, graphics, an assessment of the latest developments, or abstracts for the previous 10 days' coverage (for an additional fee).
Since electronic newspapers will be able to hold so much more information, Bair says journalists will have to think about newspaper writing a little differently.
In most papers, there are formulas for the amount of news, depending on the amount of advertising. The new technology will still have plenty of advertising, but the amount of news will not be linked to the number of ads sold. The editors will be able to include as much as seems necessary.
"Newspapers have never been an endless well of information," Timpe says. "We still need the humans to go out and cover the story and give us their view of the situation - the basic functions of a reporter we don't see changing."
One controversial aspect of the new electronic newspaper lies in how easy it will be to tailor the news to individual taste. (See related story, above.) Readers could fill out a profile indicating what sections they want to read, and the panel would go directly to those sections, or highlight the abstracts it thinks readers are most likely to be interested in.
Privacy will become an issue, too, Timpe says. Readers might enter all their personal information in their panels. Advertisers may ask readers to fill out questionnaires so the advertisers can suit their ads to specific individuals.