a future written in electronic ink? 10.18.2005, 8:47 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Discussions about the future of newspapers often allude to a moment in the Steven Spielberg film "Minority Report," set in the year 2054, in which a commuter on the train is reading something that looks like a paper copy of USA Today, but which seems to be automatically updating and rearranging its contents like a web page. This is a comforting vision for the newspaper business: reassigning the un-bottled genie of the internet to the familiar commodity of the broadsheet. But as with most science fiction, the fallacy lies in the projection of our contemporary selves into an imagined future, when in fact people and the way they read may have very much changed by the year 2054.
Being a newspaper is no fun these days. The demand for news is undiminished, but online readers (most of us now) feel entitled to a free supply. Print circulation numbers continue to plummet, while the cost of newsprint steadily rises -- it hovers right now at about $625 per metric ton (according to The Washington Post, a national U.S. paper can go through around 200,000 tons in a year).
Staffs are being cut, hiring freezes put into effect. Some newspapers (The Guardian in Britain and soon the Wall Street Journal) are changing the look and reducing the size of their print product to lure readers and cut costs. But given the rather grim forecast, some papers are beginning to ponder how other technologies might help them survive.
Last week, David Carr wrote in the Times about "an ipod for text" as a possible savior -- a popular, portable device that would reinforce the idea of the newspaper as something you have in your hand, that you take with you, thereby rationalizing a new kind of subscription delivery. This weekend, the Washington Post hinted at what that device might actually be: a flexible, paper-like screen using "e-ink" technology.
An e-ink display is essentially a laminated sheet containing a thin layer of fluid sandwiched between positive and negative electrodes. Tiny capsules of black and white pigment float in between and arrange themselves into images and text through variance in the charge (the black are negatively charged and the white positively charged). Since the display is not light-based (like the electronic screens we use today), it has an appearance closer to paper. It can be read in bright sunlight, and requires virtually no power to maintain an image.
Frank Ahrens, who wrote the Post piece, held a public online chat with Russ Wilcox, the chief exec of E Ink Corp. Wilcox predicts that large e-ink screens will be available within a year or two, opening the door for newspapers to develop an electronic product that combines web and broadsheet. Even offering the screens to subscribers for free, he calculates, would be more cost-efficient than the current paper delivery system.
A number of major newspaper conglomerates -- including The Hearst Corporation, Gannett Co. (publisher of USA Today), TOPPAN Printing Company of Japan, and France's Vivendi Universal Publishing -- are interested enough in the potential of e-ink that they have become investors.
But maybe it won't be the storied old broadsheet that people crave. A little over a month ago at a trade show in Berlin, Philips Polymer Vision presented a prototype of its new "Readius" -- a device about the size of a mobile phone with a roll-out e-ink screen. This, too, could be available soon. Like it or not, it might make more sense to watch what's developing with cell phones to get a hint of the future.
But even if electronic paper catches on -- and it seems likely that it, or something similar, will -- I wouldn't count on it to solve the problems of the print news industry. It's often tempting to think of new technologies that fundamentally change the way we operate as simply a matter of pouring old wine into new bottles. But electronic paper will be a technology for delivering the web, or even internet television -- not individual newspapers. So then how do we preserve (or transfer) all that is good about print media, about institutions like the Times and the Post, assuming that their prospects continue to worsen? The answer to that, at least for now, is written in invisible ink.
Posted by ben vershbow on October 18, 2005 8:47 AM
tags: Online, Publishing, Broadcast, and the Press, The Ideal Device?, book, books, computer, e-ink, ebook, eink, gadget, gadgets, interactive, internet, ipod, journalism, media, media_consumption, newspaper, paper, print, publishing, reading, readius, spielberg, technology, web
Gary Frost on October 18, 2005 11:06 PM:
I doubt that newspaper and screen news are linked. The two formats are different enough to have unrelated functions. The newspaper documents news events, presenting an array of reports across a physical sheet. Consider it like a quilt of events. The reader's attention is navigated through a map about the size of the side of a house. The sheet is folded into a compact interleaving that invites non-linear exploration.
The screen does not document news events across a large, physical mosaic. Instead it draws any selected or searched frame of the array onto a small display zone. It is like looking at a newspaper through a small window. This is a very linear presentation, sampling the array of news events only one screen at a time.
When it comes to the news, print provides opened, non-linear presentation while the screen presentation is linear, one frame at a time.
ben vershbow on October 19, 2005 12:31 AM:
I like the quilt. Or a house -- even a large mansion affords you a sense of where you are, or at least, a sense that there are other rooms to explore. There is a greater sense of mastery over the space and so one is encouraged to explore further. The screen, on the other hand, is rather like the small window you describe, or a keyhole even. You tend to make out only what passes directly in front of you. When I read the Times in print (which, unfortunately, is seldom, except for Sundays), I find I read much more of it.