Cyberspace newspapers are here to stay. As daily news organizations adopt new technology and adapt to the online environment, will journalism's highest values survive the change?

The newspaper of the future

Maury M. Breecher

Soon, experts say, your local paper won't be printed on paper. Pointing to a "mediamorphosis" in which newspapers are recreating themselves on the Internet, mass communication analysts have shown that online dailies are not only proliferating but gaining independence. Over half of all daily U.S. newspapers have already established Internet versions. In addition, according to the recently released Fourth Annual Media in Cyberspace Study, a third of all print respondents say their publications' Web sites are allowed "at least sometimes" to scoop their parent organization. Furthermore, according to the study's co-authors Don Middleberg, a public relations consultant, and Steven S. Ross, a Columbia associate professor of journalism, 20 percent of the newspapers with Web sites report that "at least half of their content was original," as opposed to 7 percent in 1996.

The newspapers' move to cyberspace is a defensive one. Although today's papers enjoy record profits, storm clouds are gathering, threatening ink-on-paper publications. Production costs are rising. Readership, especially by young people, is declining. Meanwhile, news seekers are increasingly flocking to the Internet for breaking stories. A recent MSNBC survey (February 1998) indicates 20 million people go online daily "to obtain news." As a result, "Most newspapers are moving rapidly onto the Internet . . . to protect their local information franchises," writes media analyst John Morton in American Journalism Review.(1)

Online newspapers have a built-in speed advantage over print editions, yet hastily reported cyberscoops can prove embarrassing when they are wrong. For instance, the Dallas Morning News had to retract a news item that ran January 27 online and in an early print edition. The item reported that a Secret Service agent was prepared to testify that he had seen President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in a "compromising position." The Wall Street Journal had to retract a similar story posted on its Web site. The February 4 story stated that a White House steward had told a federal grand jury he had seen Lewinsky and Clinton alone in a study near the Oval Office. On February 9, the paper retracted the story. Many experts worry that the traditional value of "getting the story fast, but getting it right" will suffer in a medium defined "by immediacy, interactivity, burgeoning competition, and unflagging pressure to produce revenue," according to Dianne Lynch, chair of the journalism department at St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vermont.

It is doubtful that newspaper operations on the Internet are profitable just yet, but they hold great promise as moneymakers. The flow of both papers and readers to the Internet is expected to continue. The "Millennium Survey" released April 3, 1998 by Editor & Publisher's interactive version predicts that online delivery will be "the primary source of all business news for executives by 2005." Increased circulation is expected to attract more advertising dollars. Internet ad revenues, approximately $40 million in 1997, are expected to reach $500 million by the year 2000. An even greater bonus awaits newspapers that can successfully move their readership to the Internet. Today's newspapers spend 75 percent of their gross income buying newsprint, then printing and delivering paper editions. Newspapers of the future may dispense with massive printing presses, fleets of delivery trucks, and even newsprint in favor of delivery via the Internet or its successor technologies.

Columbia alumnus Alan Meckler, founder of MecklerMedia's Internet.Com, a Web-based news service, states, "Sometime in the next five or six years we will see newspapers shrinking the number of pages they print. Many will struggle for survival because they will lose their advertising base, especially their classified advertisements."

Almost all the factors necessary for the demise of weaker print newspapers are in place, Meckler told 21stC. "Only two elements are missing: more bandwidth for faster transmission of information and a continuous connection to the Internet. When those missing pieces arrive, telephones of the future will become easy-to-use e-mail and Internet site communication devices that can be adapted to quickly download news and other information."

Both missing pieces are expected to be in place, at least in some U.S. cities, by the end of the year, says Christopher J. Feola, a Columbia associate professor of journalism who directs the American Press Institute's Media Center. He explains that a consortium of computer and communication companies, including Microsoft, Compaq, the regional Bell telephone companies, and other Internet players recently announced agreement on a standard for a new Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). Since DSL allows separate signals for voice and data, Internet subscribers will be able to maintain continuous, 24-hour connection to their news provider without losing use of the telephone. "With an always-on connection, newspapers could publish their news directly to your computer," Feola stated.

Of course, today's computers and modems, even lightweight portables, are too cumbersome and expensive for some people to use on a regular basis. Commentators foretell a time when people will carry relatively inexpensive, wireless receiving devices that will combine the ability to download and display news with the functions of today's pocket phones and electronic organizers. "The need for a portable display medium is critical," says Roger Fidler, a Columbia alumnus and adjunct professor of journalism at Kent State University. "Electronic newspapers must be portable and completely intuitive."

Fidler believes the new device will be a tablet with a high-resolution, flat-panel display. He envisions something similar to today's portable CD players in some respects, but flatter, as well as small and light enough to fit into a standard attach, case. Instead of inserting a CD-ROM, Fidler says readers would insert low-cost, daily updated "memory cards" into the tablet to view not only the news but also different forms of written information including books, magazines, manuscripts, contracts, e-mail, and other types of documents. "These panels or tablets will be computer appliances designed specifically for reading or browsing. There will be no moving parts, no programs to load, and no keyboards. All navigation will be by touch-sensitive technology." Columbia's Feola asserts that such devices will ultimately allow readers to obtain news at any time of the day or night.

No matter what kind of technology evolves, the future of electronic news providers will depend primarily on the quality of their content, says John Pavlik, Director of Columbia's Center for New Media. The Center's mission is to "advance the art and practice of journalism in the digital age" by focusing on the content of new media. Pavlik believes newspapers that morph into new-media news organizations will continue to provide accurate, responsible, in- depth reportage. "New media are able to provide news in greater depth because those technologies have the ability to present 'layers' of information at many levels of complexity and richness." Already, most newspaper-sired Web sites provide additional layers of content to their stories via hypertext links, Pavlik points out. To augment the news, those sites offer not only the basic narrative reports and sidebars found in today's newspapers, but also link subscribers to supplementary narratives, maps, tables, figures, drawings, and other data. "In the near future, subscribers will also be able to interactively request even more information," adds Pavlik.

There will be so much information available that the average reader may feel overwhelmed, according to Jennings Bryant, Professor and Director of the Institute for Communications Research, University of Alabama College of Communication. "On the other hand, democracy may be strengthened if educational institutions do their job teaching future journalists skills of critical thinking, interpretation, analysis, and synthesis." To produce accurate and readily understandable news accounts with many layers of information, print journalists of the future will need the same critical thinking skills they require today but will also have to learn new skills such as hypermedia design and navigation, abstract writing, and video/audio editing. Some fear that learning these new skills will crowd out or detract from the learning of higher-order thinking. Schools such as Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism have learned how teach both.

The defining nature of a newspaper "has nothing to do with ink and paper, but is instead its ability to provide a needed service: low-cost, responsible fact gathering and interpretation, "says Bryant. "As they recreate themselves on the Web, traditional newspaper companies have one great asset over newer Internet news providers. They are the brand names. They have credibility with readers. To maintain that credibility, these Internet journalists have to resist the temptation to be first in print. It is more important for them to validate, analyze, and interpret the news. Like their print predecessors, online newspapers have to be responsible gatekeepers of information."

1. "Protecting the Local Franchise Online." American Journalism Review, April 7-13, 1998.

Related links:

  • "Survey: Execs to favor net news over print," Business News, April 2, 1998

  • Neil Hickey, "Will Gates Crush Newspapers?" Columbia Journalism Review, Nov.-Dec. 1997

  • Journalists' Source List, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

  • Free! Freedom Forum Online, technology section

  • American Journalism Review Newslinks

  • New York Times

  • CNN Interactive

  • Washington Post

  • The Times of London

    MAURY M. BREECHER, M.P.H., Ph.D., is a freelance science journalist and a contributor to the L. A. Times Syndicate, Reuters Health Information Systems, and other publications. He is co-author (with Shirley Linde) of Healthy Homes in a Toxic World (NY: John Wiley, 1992).