Back to the Future of Electronic Newspapers

25:11 minutes

In 1994, the World Wide Web was in its infancy. The Mosaic web browser had just been introduced, and web technology was young enough that a mention of “hypertext” required a long explanation. Newspapers were beginning to move online, mainly via services such as AOL and Compuserve. And Science Friday convened a panel of industry experts to talk about what this new technology might mean for the newspaper industry. Would people ever really take to getting their news online? What might an electronic newspaper look like? And how would we pay for it all? One of those guests, Bill Mitchell, was the director of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News, a pioneer in the online newspaper business. Twenty-two years later, he returns to Science Friday to look back on those early predictions. And Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center, shares some present-day insights about the news industry.

Listen to the full hour on electronic newspapers from 1994:

Segment Guests

Bill Mitchell

Bill Mitchell was director of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News (1992-1995) and then editor of Universal New Media (1995-1999). He’s now an affiliate of the Poynter Institute, and is based in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Amy Mitchell

Amy Mitchell is the director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. All this year we’re marking our 25th anniversary by going into our archives, revisiting ideas from decades ago, where we made all kinds of predictions and things like that, and seeing how that’s working out for us now. And one of the recurring themes that we found from listening to our tapes– the more we listened to them, the more it amazed us– is about how the internet has so quickly changed the way we live. So we’re going to focus today on a show about electronic publishing.

The year was 1994. If you remember back then, did you use the Mosaic web browser that had just been released? Hypertext was new enough that it needed to be explained in detail. And a person’s personal online interactions, if they had any, were mostly through services like Prodigy, AOL, CompuServe– all familiar names from ’94. And we brought on two experts to talk about what this new electronic world might mean to newspaper publishing.

Would people ever want to read their news on a computer? Could people actually settle down with electronic news over coffee the way they might have with the Sunday paper? I talked to John Morton, a newspaper industry analyst at Lynch Jones & Ryan, and Bill Mitchell, head of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News, a pioneer in online newspapers. And here’s a bit of that 1994 conversation.

Let me start with you, Bill Mitchell. When I look for the San Jose Mercury News online and I click on it, what do I see?

BILL MITCHELL: You see something that would disappoint you if you had just looked at the paper on your breakfast table. Really because of the limitations of technology at this point, we can’t begin to compete with the convenience, comfort, and price of the printed paper. But we’re beginning to explore ways in which we can do things electronically that you really can’t do with a paper.

IRA FLATOW: Such as?

BILL MITCHELL: Well, you can search in an electronic environment, you can store in an electronic environment. You can do things that take the, kind of, virtually unlimited space that, given the price of newsprint and concern about polluting the atmosphere with lots of old newspapers, just don’t let you do with a newspaper alone.

IRA FLATOW: So are you saying, then, that the online version is not meant to replace the morning paper?

BILL MITCHELL: Not for the time being. Not until the technology gets a whole lot cheaper and a whole lot more interesting to use than it is at this point.

IRA FLATOW: John Morton, 10 years from now– let’s put your crystal ball into action– or 20 years, where do you see the newspaper online business being, and what will people be doing in their morning?

JOHN MORTON: Well, I think it’s going to go two ways, and one is probably going to continue very much the way they’re doing it in San Jose, which is as a supplement to the newspaper on newsprint. But we’re also going to have a development which you’ll actually see a newspaper printed on, say, a flat panel display screen. And it would be in your home, for example, and using some kind of a clicker, you can turn the pages on that just as surely as you do it now with newsprint.

That’s a long way off. The technology is available, but not inexpensive enough, unfortunately yet. But probably that is going to come at some point. I’m not sure anybody can predict exactly when, but it’s probably going to be at least 20 years from now.

IRA FLATOW: You know, the advantage I see, besides the news retrieval capabilities that you talked about, Bill Mitchell, is for me as a user, I think the great advantage of having online papers is that I will be able to read a paper in any part of the world. Eventually I can click in Germany or England or France or anyplace else and I could read what those newspapers are saying about the news as well as I can read what the San Jose newspaper is saying about it.

BILL MITCHELL: That’s very true, and it’s beginning to be true already on America Online, for example, with the Chicago Tribune and the Mercury News and the New York Times coming soon. So I think that is already beginning to happen.

JOHN MORTON: Yeah, but I think something that’s important to remember about this– that the percentage of the population that’s interested in doing that right now is very small, and it’s likely to remain very small. What really tunes people into newspapers, however they’re presented, is basically local news, and that’s what’s going to drive interest in newspapers on newsprint or on flat panel displays or a portable pocket book-sized receiver– however it’s delivered.

IRA FLATOW: And has advertising been worked into the online newspaper yet?

BILL MITCHELL: Just barely. Just barely introducing that, so not much to report on that front yet.

JOHN MORTON: But, you know, the strangest thing about advertising is going to kind of conjunction, I guess, between television ad newspapers. When they do start delivering whole newspapers on, say, flat panel screens, there’s going to be advertising and it may even be animated, which is sort of hard to imagine. But there’s a lot of talk about having the electronic newspaper’s advertising animated just as if it were on a television.

BILL MITCHELL: I think that’s very true, and I think you’ll find some new categories of advertising, such as transactions, that, especially with the flat panel technology, will be relatively simple.

IRA FLATOW: What makes you think that people want this? I mean, there have been books on disks out now for years, but you don’t see people running to libraries or buying the disks and putting them in their little Sony book readers and reading them anywhere. At least I haven’t seen anybody.

BILL MITCHELL: I think the demand for it, as John said, is pretty limited at this point. Even in Silicon Valley, probably only about 20% to 25% of our households have computers and modems, the equipment you need to get a newspaper or an extension of a newspaper online. So the demand is very limited at this point.

IRA FLATOW: My, how have times changed. Only 20%, 25% of people had modems back then, 22 years ago, back in 1994 when that was recorded. Bill Mitchell was director of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News. He went on to be editor of Universal News Media before joining the Poynter Institute. Bill, welcome back to Science Friday.

BILL MITCHELL: It’s great to reconnect after a couple decades, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You sound like just a day ago.


IRA FLATOW: Also with me today is Amy Mitchell. No relation to Bill. She is the director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center. Amy, thank you for being with us today.

Happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Now, we invited John Morton to rejoin us today, but he said he’d rather stay retired.

AMY MITCHELL: Good for him.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, we wish him all the best. Bill, in some ways we were all so right and in some ways we were all so wrong about things.

BILL MITCHELL: Well, in what ways do you think we were right wrong?

IRA FLATOW: Well, I think we were right that people would want to read some kind of newspaper in some way, but we weren’t so great about the details of how it would happen and about the proliferation of all these different newspapers.

BILL MITCHELL: That’s true. One of the big features that we thought would be very popular at [? Merck Center ?] was the opportunity for people reading the print paper to look at little codes at the bottom of the stories in print to read other versions of the same story. If we ran an AP story, we’d link to New York Times, Washington Post, and Reuters story available online. Turns out maybe journalists were interested in that, but readers not so much.

IRA FLATOW: And we weren’t so fixated on having an exact replica of the newspaper. We thought about, hey, you’d just see a picture on your screen of a newspaper, right? And you would sort of look at it that way, and there might be some hypertext in it.

BILL MITCHELL: Yeah, I think over time what we learned was that the best way to publish electronically is to publish to the strength of the relevant platform. Instead of finding other versions of the same story, for example, what’s happened, especially over the last 5 years or so, is that news organizations using applications like Document Cloud and others are enabling their readers to go deeper as opposed to broader on a particular story, to find original documents, things like that.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Mitchell, you’ve tracked the state of the news media. Your next issue of that report from Pew is due out in the coming weeks. But in general, where is the newspaper industry today? Is it heading like it was predicted when we did this show 22 years ago?

AMY MITCHELL: Well, one of the other segments that I listened to talked about the tactile allure of newspapers of print in particular, and that, at least for much of the younger generation, has pretty much gone by the wayside– that people don’t feel attached to that printed page. And in fact, young people would find it messy and inky.

And what happened in its place was, aside from your big, large desktop, which people didn’t really feel a personal connection to, the development of mobile devices, of the smartphone in particular, made the computer a very personal kind of tool, and one that people felt very connected with. And so that’s a part of the way that that personal connection to news translated into the digital realm. We now have 7 in 10 adults that have smartphones, and about half of those that are getting news on them.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we did spend a bit of time talking about a quote “flat panel display screen,” where you would turn the pages of the paper sort of like an ebook reader of today. I guess it was sort of predicted, but maybe Bill, what do you think?

BILL MITCHELL: I use the iPad Mini app for the Boston Globe and the New York Times, for example. We get it in print on Sundays, but during the week I use the iPad Mini. I find it to be a great interface for consuming news, although I’d be interested in Amy’s take on this because my sense is that tablet use has not taken off in a way that it was expected that it might be in that the smaller interface of phones has become much more popular.

AMY MITCHELL: Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. Tablets, they kind of hit a plateau, and people tend to use them more at home. They haven’t become the mobile device just because they’re bigger. It takes up more space, it’s another thing to carry. And that pleasant reading experience through improvements in technology– HTML5, some of the other improvements– have made the reading on the screen, and particularly on a phone, more pleasant than what had been pre the tablet era.

IRA FLATOW: I want to bring my listeners in. Our number 844-724-8255. I’d like to know how your use of electronic journalism has been affected over the years, about electronic newspapers. How do you use it? You can also tweet us @SciFri, S-C-I-F-R-I. And again, the phone number– 844-724-8255.

We did talk about in that segment that the electronic newspaper would be a supplement rather than a replacement for that paper. I think that’s sort of true at this point, wouldn’t you think, Bill and Amy?

AMY MITCHELL: I think when it comes to audience, they’re often going first. Newsrooms– and Bill could probably talk about this straighter to the point that I can, but they certainly became digital first several years ago in the way they’re approaching their news reporting, the timing of it, sort of the daily meeting schedules, the tempo inside the newsroom. A lot of that culture of the printed page has stayed around inside newsrooms and made it somewhat challenging to be able to transition to producing in a digital realm.

At the same time, even as your audience is much more there in the digital space, a lot of your dedicated, loyal readers may still be tied to your print product, and very much revenues are still tied to the print product, and that is a real challenge for the industry as it tries to transition to digital. [? It ?] still sees that 3/4 of its ad revenue, even if much smaller than a decade ago, are still coming from that printed product.

BILL MITCHELL: Yeah, there’s a real disconnect now between user preference and source of revenue for the companies producing the news, and that’s, I think, the core challenge of journalism at this point.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with a Bill Mitchell and Amy Mitchell– no relation– about the future of electronic journalism and newspapers as seen from 1994. Let’s see if we can get a phone call or two in here. Let’s go to Tampa Bay, Florida. Hi, Forrest. Welcome to Science Friday.

FORREST: Hello. Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Hey there.

FORREST: Well, my comment was simply that I’m a dance historian, and I wanted to say that newspapers archives and digital newspapers have changed research for us historians. The access information over the printed history through digitalization allows us to delve deeper into a much wider field of information than ever before. It’s really exciting. And future generations are going to be able to see everything.

IRA FLATOW: That’s an interesting point. As long as, I guess, we can keep the records from vanishing.

BILL MITCHELL: That’s a great point, Ira. One thing we discovered early on in [? Merck ?] Center was that old news was worth more to people than current news because they could get current news any number of places and ways. They had a very tough time finding out the details of that incident that happened 2 years ago, and they could now discover in our electronic archive.

IRA FLATOW: Amy, back then, people didn’t usually deal with the newspaper online individually, but they went through a service like America Online or CompuServe. Is that the role that Facebook has taken on today, sort of?

AMY MITCHELL: Yeah, I mean, in a way, it’s the delivery mechanism, if you will. So it’s the way people are finding news. There are still people that are going to directly to the websites, and those, again, tend to be your loyal audiences that come back to you day in and day out. But most audience to newspaper websites and others are coming through social media or coming through search.

So that is the way that people are getting exposed to these stories today, which is another, I think, thing that perhaps wasn’t forecasted, is the way that the newspaper would not translate to the web as a bundled paper. Thinking, well, we’ll just take this, and people will take the whole thing like we gave them the newspaper and be able to sift their way through it. And instead, we saw very much the unbundling of news, and it becoming a story by story kind of consumption and an audience connection point.

IRA FLATOW: Bill, if you were going to do it again, where did the industry go wrong here?

BILL MITCHELL: The conventional wisdom says that the original sin of newspapers at the beginning of a digital revolution was failure to charge money for when they put their content online. I think it’s something else. I think it’s failure to figure out a way to build the kind of network and then the kind of platform that Amy just described that Facebook has become. It wasn’t so much the narrow issue of charging or not, it was creating the kind of interface that would enable news organizations to provide their customers with all sorts of things– news, advertising, transactions, in profitable ways– just what Google, Facebook, Amazon have done.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s sort of what Steve Jobs did with the iPad and the iPod originally. He created the whole system, not just delivering MP3 files.

BILL MITCHELL: Yeah, if only we had figured out that the best way to present a newspaper would be on a portable phone that could also be a camera and a music player as well as a newspaper reader, we would have been set.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’d all be rich, too, if we had thought about that. We’re going to take a break. We’re going to come back and talk lots more with Bill Mitchell, who is now at the Poynter Institute, and Amy Mitchell, who’s at the Pew Research Center. Our number, if you’d like to talk about the future and the past of newspaper journalism– 844-724-8255 is our number.

And we also do stuff differently at Science Friday than we did 22 years ago. We now have our own web service at the same time as we just had the radio show back then. We’ll take a break. We’ll be right back. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about how electronic publishing and the newspaper industry has changed since 1994. It’s part of our Science Friday 25th anniversary year celebration. We’re looking back into our archives. And one thing that hasn’t changed– back in 1994, our callers were just as sharp as they are today. Here are some of their thoughts and concerns about electronic newspapers 22 years ago.

All right, let’s go to the phones and let’s start with James in Madison. Hi, James.

JAMES: Hi. I’m wondering when personalized newspapers with extra articles on topics that the readers express an interest in will appear or become economically viable. I’m thinking about printed stuff you get in the morning, it’s just my paper would be slightly different than my neighbor’s.

IRA FLATOW: So you’d specify from one newspaper or from lots of newspapers the kinds of articles you’d want clipped?

JAMES: Yeah, either one.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Are we going to see that kind of thing, Bill Mitchell?

BILL MITCHELL: Well, we’ve taken a step in that direction with local zoning, which newspapers have been doing for years so that if you live in the eastern suburbs, you would get a different local section than if you live in the northern suburbs. But I think what James is talking about is something much more sophisticated, where he would give us a profile of things that he’s especially interested in, whether it’s Wisconsin politics or the Boston Red Sox, and we would fulfill the particular demands of that profile.

Those kind of things have been available in a business-to-business market for some time. They’re relatively expensive. I think we’re going to see a great deal more of that, but more in the electronic area because of the far less cost involved than we will in trying to do that in a traditional newspaper.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Al in Minneapolis. Hi, welcome.

AL: What happens when the newspaper has all this information from the credit card companies? Are we getting ad selection and targeted ads?

IRA FLATOW: More junk mail, you mean?

AL: Electronic junk mail in our electronically selected newspapers. Or alternatively, if we have systems that will eliminate the kind of advertising information, if we have a computer that will select only the articles, can we eliminate the ads? And then how do we pay for it?

IRA FLATOW: Any thoughts on that, John Morton?

JOHN MORTON: Yeah, well, I do have. And I suspect it’ll be a combination of two things– a monthly fee, much like a cable subscriber’s fee, which will take the place of, say, a subscription, and advertising. And believe me, the advertising will be configured in such a way and sent out in such a way as that you’re not going to be able to blip it off. It’s going to be on the page there and you’re going to see it whether you like it or not.

IRA FLATOW: Well, if you’re going to be paying that $10 a month for this service, that’s a lot of newspapers you could have bought for that, not to mention the cost of the terminal and the printer and everything else that you might be attaching to your computer that you would need to read it online.

JOHN MORTON: Well, sure, but the cost of computer chips is reduced by half about every 18 months. There will come a time at some point after the end of the century when it will be affordable to put these kinds of things in the home, maybe even with the help of the newspaper on a monthly payment basis just like the telpehone–

AMY MITCHELL: Let’s say that the San Jose Mercury News wants to give away the news reader, a little device you hook up to your telephone, so that you can read that newspaper, get the reader– it’s like, you know, giving away the razor to sell the blades.

JOHN MORTON: That’s what Minitel in France did. I mean, they gave everybody one of these telephones with a screen on it.

BILL MITCHELL: I don’t know, I think the more likely solution is a device that’s useful for many purposes. Same way that the people use their computers to do work at home or to do other things, the fact that they can also use it to get information from their newspaper I think is the more likely solution than dedicated devices. That was one of the limitations of our earlier experiment with Viewtron.

IRA FLATOW: Steve from Sacramento. Hi, Steve.

STEVE: Hi. I sort of cooked up an idea possibly to replace the tactile or the visual of paper as maybe defining virtual reality.

IRA FLATOW: I hadn’t thought about that– that you could actually go to a place in a newspaper virtual reality-wise.

MIRANDA: Live from the scene.

IRA FLATOW: Experience that. Thanks for calling, Steve and Miranda.

STEVE: Welcome.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks. What about virtual reality? Or is that not a newspaper anymore, but a different publication that you’re putting out?

BILL MITCHELL: Why shouldn’t it be a newspaper? Pretty intriguing idea. We’re still wrestling with getting [INAUDIBLE] online. But beyond that, I think it’s pretty intriguing.

IRA FLATOW: That was Bill Mitchell and John Morton and our really sharp callers back in 1994. And we’re still talking with Bill Mitchell. Back in 1994, he was director of electronic publishing at the fabled San Jose Mercury News. Also with me today is Amy Mitchell– no relation. She’s the director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center. Research And Bill, Amy, I counted one two, three, four things that they predicted that were spot on.

AMY MITCHELL: That was pretty dang good.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, we got the ads, targeted ads, then they talked about the ad blocker, and they talked about consolidating the news from different sources into one place, and we’re just beginning with virtual reality. So wow.

BILL MITCHELL: Yeah, pays to listen to readers and callers.

AMY MITCHELL: There you go. And one thing that was interesting is that when you think about the personalisation element of it, we went to the customizable homepage early on on news websites, and then you had search where you can find what you’re looking for, related articles that might pop up. And now we’ve hit almost this, kind of, backlash where the personalisation has hit a point where it’s not a conscious selection in some cases, but selections that are made for you by others, whether it’s your friends or algorithms that know what you’re doing or people that are programming the algorithms. But it’s, you know, well, I don’t know if that’s what I really want or not, with it being so individualized.

IRA FLATOW: Bill, can you put on your crystal ball once again, next 20 years? Have us all back here again?

BILL MITCHELL: You know, I think I would build on what Amy just said because I think that’s the critical trend we’ve got to address at this point. With algorithms and exactly what’s happening with, for example, the Facebook news feed and trending stories, we’re getting a stream of articles [INAUDIBLE] that fit our profile and that we’re interested in, but rarely challenge our perspective or point of view. And I think you we’re going to figure out a way to live together in any kind of harmony with one another, we’ve got to have some sort of common document where all people in the community are looking at some sort of common document that challenges all of us. And I worry about the extreme personalization that we’re headed into now.

IRA FLATOW: Let me just push back a little bit on that. I hear what you’re saying that we only get stuff that we’re interested in, but some newspapers and tabloids are so one-sided, also, that people read them are not reading the other newspapers in town.

BILL MITCHELL: Certainly. That’s certainly the case. I think what we need is a Facebook feed that you can check the option “surprise and challenge me” once in awhile as well as just “satisfy my existing instincts.”

All right. We’ve run out of time. I want to thank both of you– Bill Mitchell at the Poynter Institute and Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center. We’ll meet back here in 22 years, OK?

AMY MITCHELL: Sounds good.

BILL MITCHELL: See you then.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a date.

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