Newspapers of the future will keep the news, but get rid of the paper. At least that is what Roger Fidler predicts. Fidler is director of media development at the U.S. newspaper group KnightRidder Inc. of Miami. For the past 12 years, he has been working on a project to transform the traditional newspaper from a folded sheaf of newsprint, delivered to millions of doorsteps each morning, into a portable notebook-sized computer. And in addition to delivering the previous day’s events and other features, it would perform a multitude of other high-tech services at the tap of a stylus. While enabling readers to skim the usual collection of news stories, the electronic newspaper could also display video clips and provide sound. Advertisers might include an entire catalogue that readers could call up merely by tapping an ad as it appears on the screen. “The paper is to the news what the wrapper is to the McDonald’s hamburger,” declared Fidler. “You throw it away. It’s the content that people want.”
Competition: Fidler’s electronic newspaper is one of many ideas that the industry is toying with as it tries to prepare for the brave new world of tomorrow. Newspapers are strategically situated in a business that many forecasters agree will be absolutely central to the economy of the future: information. But the industry is facing a host of problems that include competition from other news and advertising media, big-city traffic congestion which makes the daily distribution process increasingly difficult and expensive, and a voracious demand for newsprint at a time when the destruction of trees is being pushed on to the political agenda by environmentalists. So far, there is no consensus on what newspapers, whose essential format of manufacturing has altered little since the early 19th century, should do to adapt to changing technology and the evolving needs of readers. Indeed, opinions range from Fidler’s futuristic vision to the view of Charles Dunbar, research manager with the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association in Toronto, who claims that newspapers may not need to change much. Declared Dunbar: “There was a ‘newspaper’ functioning in Rome before the birth of Christ. And I expect they’ll continue to be around for a long time to come.”
But the marketplace that newspapers serve
has changed dramatically in the past three decades. A smaller percentage of the population, especially among young people, now reads newspapers regularly: since 1970, the number of Canadian households that receive a newspaper each weekday has dropped to three out of five from four out of five. People are reading more than ever, but with the multitude of
specialty magazines available there is more competition for readers’ time. Newspapers have also lost advertisers to a growing number of magazines, television channels and radio stations. And some experts predict that the continuing explosion of electronic media technologies will continue to erode the influence of all paper-and-ink publications. Said advertising buyer Peter Swain, president of Toronto-based Media Buying Services Ltd.: “There are no newspapers on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.”
The biggest doubt permeating the industry is the most fundamental one: how many people will still want to read to obtain information in the next century? Many newspaper executives express optimism about the medium-term out-
look. Said Russell Mills, president of the Southam Newspaper Group: “As the population ages during the next 15 to 20 years, we are fairly confident that newspaper reading will increase.” David Foot, a University of Toronto economist, said that one recent study of leisure activities showed that reading will be one of the fastest-growing pastimes in the next 25 years as members of the baby boom generation approach 50 and abandon more physically demanding pursuits. But the newspaper’s longerterm popularity is less certain. Some experts say that children who have been raised with television, video and computers may not enjoy reading as much as their parents. And a larger proportion of Canada’s immigrant population may not speak French or English fluently enough to become regular readers of traditional mainstream newspapers. Neither trend is likely to reverse in the coming years.
At the same time, advertisers will continue to have a growing number of alternatives to newspapers. Although the papers are still attracting the largest share of advertising revenue, their portion is shrinking. Newspapers’ share of total ad revenues has dropped to 23 per cent from 27 per cent 10 years ago. Still, some analysts note that many other popular advertising media, including television and direct mail, have problems of their own. They conclude that newspapers have an opportunity to regain some lost ground—if they act boldly. “Each of the major media is going through a metamorphosis,” said media buyer Swain. “A lot of advertisers are getting frustrated with television and I think newspapers are beginning to sense that there is blood in the water when it comes to TV.”
Electronic: Swain, for one, says that new technology like Fidler’s will be _ the key to attracting a new generation ja of young readers to altered forms of I newspapers. “Children are growing ffi up very familiar with personal comput-
0 ers,” said Swain, “and they seem
1 more interested in the tactile interac“ tive nature of that technology.” Still, if
Fidler’s vision is to become a reality, it must overcome hurdles. The technology will be highly complex and initially expensive. And reading habits may be slow to change as people adapt to a continuous flow of updated information all day, as opposed to waiting for their daily newspaper at a prescribed time. As well, an electronic newspaper might lack some of the convenience of a traditional newspaper, like being able to tear out stories for future reference.
But if Fidler and Swain are right, newspapers can look forward to profitable survival for decades to come. Canadians may have to look elsewhere, however, for something with which to line the bird cage and swat the dog.
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