June 18, 2003

The News Parade

David Gelernter, technologist, Yale professor, Unabomber victim and columnist for the conservative bastion The Weekly Standard (and therefore disaffected reader of the New York Times), has conjured up a vision of "America's next great newspaper" that, focusing on the nut of the idea and not on the politics of the nut, is intriguing.

Befitting his role as futurist, Gelernter writes in exclamatory fashion:

"America's next great newspaper is a wonderful idea -- but it will have to be published on the web and not on paper, and as a new style web newspaper, not one of today's conventional web-based losers. It is coming -- and (in the nature of things) it will redefine the news story and the newspaper."

Gelernter pounds on several themes to support his idea. Some of them are familiar (the Web offers timeliness, virtuality and appeal to computer-nurtured younger generations) and others proffer solutions to current marketplace dilemmas (home computer users are not upgrading their machines because they have plenty of processing power and storage, therefore PC makers should get behind development of apps that push memory-sucking news content to desktops).

Of all Gelernter's perspectives, and he dishes out an all-you-can-ponder buffet of opining, the tastiest to me is his characterization of the difference between a print newspaper and a Web newspaper:

"Space is newsprint's domain; time is the web's. As an ordinary thing-in-space, the newsprint newspaper will always be the better. "As an object-in-time the web-paper will be king, if we let it be -- but what kind of object is that? If a still photo is an object in space, a parade seen from a fixed location is an object in time -- its grand marshal two hours in the past, its rear end 20 minutes into the future. And (it just so happens) the news is a parade, it is a March of Time (Time-Life's famous newsreel series), a sequence of events -- and thus perfect for a (new style) web newspaper."

As viewing stand for the news parade, Gelernter outlines a "flowing stream" of rich-media news items fed to your PC, indexed, contextualized and riding aboard an "information beam" that is access agnostic (via keyboard or voice command). He argues the technology for this is "surprisingly easy." I'm not tech savvy enough to be a judge of that. You'll have to read his piece yourself.

What I like is his idea of redefining the construction and delivery of news. I agree with him that today's Web newspapers, while far advanced from their hand-tagged beginnings in the mid-90s, are still mostly electronic reproductions of their print parents. To truly take advantage of the Web as an "object in time" Gelernter argues for a reformatting of the news story into a "string of short pieces interspersed with photos, transcripts, statements, and whatnot as they emerge: It is an evolving chain; you can pick it up anywhere and follow it back into the past as far as you like."

Of course, technologists and futurists, as objects in space themselves, typically don't share the same portion of the real world as the rest of us, so I'm sure the hooey factor of Gelernter's idea is high. Nonetheless, I like the audacity of it, the leap from what-is to what-could-be. The newspaper industry needs that type of thinking.

Until Gelernter's news parade marches across our computer screens or PDAs, we'll have to be content with the inky original, which, incidentally, Gelernter writes of fondly:

"A newsprint paper is a slab of space that is browsable and transparent. Browsability is what a newspaper is for: to offer readers a smorgasbord of stories, pictures, ads and let them choose what looks good. "Transparent" means you can always tell from a distance what you're getting into (Are there lots of pages here or not many? Important news today or nothing much?)--and you always know (as you read) where you are, how far you've come, and how much is left. The newsprint paper is an easy, comfortable, unfussy object. You can turn to the editorials, flip to the back page, or pull out the sports section without thinking. It's light and simple and cheap: Spread it on the breakfast table and spill coffee on it, read it standing in a subway or flat on your back on sofa or lawn, on the beach or in bed. You can write on it, cut it up, pull it apart, fold it open to an interesting story, and stick it (folded) in your pocket to show to someone later. These small details add up to brilliant design."

 The Weekly Standard The Next Great American Newspaper

Posted by Tim Porter at June 18, 2003 11:13 AM