Forbes ASAP, October 25, 1993
Digital Dark HorseNewspapers
Media Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest of Us All?
The perennial question of all suitors of fate and fortune now whispers and resounds through conference resorts, executive retreats and consulting sessions across the land as business leaders from Hollywood to Wall Street pose with pundits and ponder the new world of converging technologies. Symbolized in a famous mandala by MITs Media Lab, this grand fondue of information toolsto be served la carte on a flat-panel screenis foreseen to be a $3.5 trillion feast for American business sometime early next century. Few would guess that crucial to the emerging mediamorphosisas king of the flat panelwill be a slight, graying, bearded man with some 30 teddy bears, Roger Fidler.
Fidler coined the term mediamorphosis as the title of his forthcoming book. His office in Boulder, Colo., looks out on the panorama of a picturesque downtown of red brick and neo-Gothic, surrounded by the Rocky Mountain foothills and sepia sandstone buildings of a mile-high Silicon Valley. Down the hall is an Apple Computer media center which is developing graphical forms of AppleLink, the companys on-line network. Down the block is Cablelabs, John Malones research arm, which is designing the future of the cable industry.
Roger Fidler, though, is a newspaperman, a veteran of some 32 years in a business little known for technology. Beginning as an 11-year-old paperboy in Eugene, Oreg., Fidler went on to serve as a reporter, science columnist and art director before launching what is now Knight-Ridder Tribune Graphics. A multimillion-dollar business and reliable profit center, this venture provides digital graphics for newspapers and video animations for TV stations across the country over a dedicated network called PressLink, also launched by Fidler. Now Fidler and his allies working in Knight-Ridders Information Design Laboratory are concocting an audacious plan to make the lowly newspaper the spearhead of the information economy.
Most information companies and executives are betting on him to fail. Barry Diller, the former ruler of 20th Century Fox, recently circled the planet of technology on a celebrated pilgrimage from Hollywood to find where the money would be made in the new information economy. Shunning Fidlers little lab, he arrived at nearby Cablelabs and resolved on home shopping through cable TV. He bought into QVC for some $20 million and went into business with John Malone. After a more corporate investigation, featuring polls and customer surveys, Robert Allen of AT&T settled to a remarkable degree on the $14 billion market in electronic games. Since launching an alliance with Sega, AT&T has been collecting game companies as compulsively as your kid collects games. It has bought shares of Sierra Online, 3DO, Spectrum HoloByte and PF Magic.
Moving toward the news trade is IBM. But rather than collaborating with one of the thousands of newspapers that use its equipment, the computer giant is trysting with General Electrics NBC in a kind of elephants waltz into the sunset of old broadcast media.
Most of these leaders in the new gold rush toward multimedia are getting it wrong. Fixated by market surveys that map demand for existing video, they are plunging down dead ends and cul-de-sacs with their eyes firmly focused on the luminous visions in their rearview mirrors. Blockbuster, Nintendo and other game and video vendors have good businesses, for the moment, but they are ballast from the past.
News in the Microcosm
The leader who best comprehends the promise of the next phase in information technology may be Fidler of Knight-Ridder. A student of electronic technology, he has grasped an amazing and rather obscure fact: of all the information providers, only newspapers are fully in tune with the law of the microcosm.
Based on the constant rise in the computing power of individual microchips relative to systems of chips, the law of the microcosm dictates that power will continually devolve from centralized institutions, bureaucracies, computer architectures and databases into distributed systems. On the most obvious level, it caused the fall of the mainframe computer and the companies that depended upon it, and assured the ascent of personal computers and workstations. In the next decade, the law of the microcosm will assure the displacement of analog television, with its centralized networks and broadcast stations, by computer networks with no center at all. While offering a cornucopia of interactivity, computer networks can perform all the functions of TV.
With the cost-effectiveness of chips still doubling every 18 months, the law of the microcosm is not going away. Now it dictates that of all the many rivals to harvest the fruits of the information revolution, newspapers and magazines will prevail.
The secret of the success of the newspaper, grasped by Roger Fidler, is that it is in practice a personal medium, used very differently by each customer. Newspapers rely on the intelligence of the reader. Although the editors select and shape the matter to be delivered, readers choose, peruse, sort, queue and quaff the news and advertising copy at their own pace and volition.
In this regard, newspapers differ from television stations in much the way automobiles differ from trains. With the train (and the TV), you go to the station at the scheduled time and travel to the destinations determined from above. With the car (and the newspaper), you get in and go pretty much where you want when you want. Putting the decisionmaking power into the hands of the reader, the newspaper accords with the microcosmic model far better than TV does. Newspaper readers are not couch potatoes; they interact with the product, shaping it to their own ends.
Computers will soon blow away the broadcast television industry, but they pose no such threat to newspapers. Indeed, the computer is a perfect complement to the newspaper. It enables the existing news industry to deliver its product in real time. It hugely increases the quantity of information that can be made available, including archives, maps, charts and other supporting material. It opens the way to upgrading the news with full-screen photographs and videos. While hugely enhancing the richness and timeliness of the news, however, it empowers readers to use the paper in the same way they do todayto browse and select stories and advertisements at their own time and pace.
Until recently, the expense of computers restricted this complementarity to newsrooms and pressrooms. The news today is collected, edited, laid out and prepared for the press by advanced digital equipment. Reporters capture and remit their data in digital form. But the actual printing and distribution of the paper remain in the hands of printers and truckers.
Now the law of the microcosm has reduced the price of personal computers below the tag on a high-end TV and made them nearly coextensive with newspapers. Newspapers and computers are converging, while computers and televisions still represent radically different modes. It is the newspaper, therefore, not the TV, that is best fitted for the computer age.
Newspapers can be built on foundations of sandthe silicon and silica of microchips and telecom. Not only does the computer industry generate nearly three times the annual revenues of television but computer hardware sales are growing some eight times faster than the sales of television sets. By riding the tides of personal computer sales and usage, newspapers can shape the future of multimedia.
High-definition PC displays will benefit text far more than images. The resolution of current NTSC (National Television Standards Committee) analog television62 dots per inchis actually ample for most images, particularly the studio-quality forms that can be converted for digital delivery over fiber-optic lines. Even the conventional interlaced TV screenin which alternate lines are filled in every secondeasily fools the eye for video. But for fully readable text you need the 200 to 300 dots per inch of a laser printer or super-high-resolution screen. Such screens are now being developed. Overkill for most images, they could supply the first display tablets with screens as readable as paper.