New England has enjoyed breaking news from the Boston News-Letter since April 1704. The Hartford Courant established in 1764 is the oldest continuously published newspaper in the US. Newspapers -- yesterday they kept our fathers and forefathers in the know. Today they bring us up-to-date headlines and stories. Tomorrow they will be recycled or used to pack glasses and dishes, wrap fish, kindle fires, or catch paint drippings.

But how about the day after tomorrow? How will the institution of the newspaper adjust to the digital world? With technology reshaping so much of today’s life, what transformation does the computer world have in store for the good old newspaper?

Will it be paper vs. digital or delivery vs. display media? Already there are enough developments in communications technology to make one wonder about the fate of the paper and ink news world. Will newspapers be able to retain their position as king of the news-publishing castle?

Web Connected Newspapers

Many newspapers have already realized that the Internet is a force to be dealt with. Faced with “if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em,” most have decided to jump on the NetWagon. A recent report by Editor & Publisher indicates that 148 of the 150 top-selling newspapers in the US are now online. Around the world, most major newspapers have developed an Internet presence.

Realizing that digital products could soon be ready to cannibalize newspapers, the newspapers themselves are increasing online investments and developing online relationships. Web products are being created to complement print products. To see the extent newspapers have joined the online world, visit the Web site for Online Newspapers for a list of online papers by state and The Internet Public Library  for a list of online newspapers by country. You may be surprised by the sheer number of online newspapers that are available free of charge over the Internet.

Best Online Newspapers

Newspapers are finding that online reporting is not necessarily the same as on the street reporting. The pressure for online stories is even more intense than ink and paper articles. Digital newspapers are constantly faced with updating content and reporting news as it happens. They are also expected to develop deeper, richer content against real time reporting demands.

Newspapers are also realizing that a good online newspaper is different than a good print edition. Recent surveys surprisingly reveal that pictures are more important in print newspapers and that people read more of the text when reading online. Design of online publications is also very important. Several newspapers that have successfully made the transition during the past few years are the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. The EPpy Awards given by the Editor and Publisher magazine have honored these and other excellent online publications with such categories as Best Overall US Newspaper Online Service with Circulation, Best Promotion of a Newspaper Online Service, and Best Classified Section in a Newspaper Online Service.  

Print News with Online Connections

New ideas for connecting the print world and the online world abound. A newspaper in Charleston, SC, linked its readers to the Web. Subscribers of The Post and Courier received newspapers that contain tiny bar codes on articles. Readers then used a pen-like wand to scan and pull up information related to that article from the Web. The bar codes contained Web site addresses or URLs. The scanner was connected to the reader’s computer through a port on a keyboard. After the scanner is run across the bar code, it fired up the browser and finds the proper Internet site for the reader. The editor of The Post and Courier, Tom Pickens, sounds like a crystal ball prophet, “Everyone is looking to see where the Net is going, and newspapers, as the main provider of information in the country, need to be involved in the development of the Internet. We as an industry have to be there.”

Future Online Services

One prediction is that in the future, digital/Internet news will take two forms: an online TV/Web-based service and an offline document-based digital periodical.

The online TV/Web-based services are themselves becoming more digitized everyday. In an earlier AARP current news article, I introduced Ananova. Ananova is a virtual newscaster created by the British Press Association and even endowed with a personality. This somewhat glamorous, wide-eyed 5’ 8” digital lady delivers news and breaking news bulletins with a Mid-Atlantic accent. Ananova’s green hair, robotic voice, and slightly jerky movements give evidence that she is a computer-generated character. But she is a good one. Programmers have successfully given her three dimensions, creating her real-time animation with proprietary rendering software. Ananova is programmed to show the expected emotions and actions related to the news articles that she is reading. Her expressions and superficial-looking smile are tagged to various words in the articles to help the computer animation program know when she should smile or look serious. Visit the Ananova Web site www.ananova.com, and see what you think.

Online consumer news/information services will be designed for high-bandwidth, highly interactive, continuous access. The emphasis will be on full-motion video, lots of animation, and audio in a more television-like entertainment quality.

Electronic Ink  

The second form of future digital news is the offline document-based digital newspaper or periodical. These future publications may well replace our old ink and paper newspapers and change the way printed news is delivered. Imagine a digital newspaper that could be electronically delivered, yet would look just like the paper and ink newspaper of today.

Although a few years away from being commercially viable, a company called E Ink may hold the future of the newspaper industry.

E Ink was founded on technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

E Ink allows for the same instant refreshing and changing of images that the computer screen provides. However, E Ink uses paper instead of a computer screen. E Ink images look like they were created with the same ink used by newspapers and magazines. The special paper is coated with millions of tiny beads that contain different colored particles that respond to electrical charges. The liquid “ink” is charged to form a pattern of letters, words, and pictures.

A daily e-newspaper could be beamed in to you each morning. Using wireless technology, content could be downloaded instantly onto the electronic pages. Imagine putting your newspaper down on a small charging plate every morning and having yesterday’s paper erased and today’s newspaper appear before your eyes. This e-paper can be bound together into book or newspaper form. A complete library could fit in a single volume.

In the future, offline news and information services may be intended for downloading - fast, simple, and convenient downloading. Readers will enjoy the professionally edited and packaged digital newspapers and periodicals as they are received on their offline devices using E Ink and electronic paper.

Are you part of the generation that enjoys coffee and the morning paper as a ritual? Although some forecasters think the E Ink form of news will replace our daily newspapers, do not despair. Even with E ink editions, newspapers in the US may still offer the weekend, general-interest, and leisure-reading editions with lots of advertisements. Also, globalization and the trendy corporate mergers of today may well lead to the emergence of several super sized international digital newspapers. Imagine a newspaper that could claim more than 200 million daily readers worldwide. I’ll have to buy some stock in that company!