Knight-Ridder’s Blurry Tablet Vision

By: Steve Outing

The tablet is dead! Long live the tablet!

As you probably heard last week, Knight-Ridder Newspapers shut down its new media research center, the Information Design Laboratory, on July 31. The Lab was best known as the home to director Roger Fidler’s vision of a portable digital tablet as the newspaper of the future.

Founded in October 1992 in Boulder, Colorado, the Lab grew to a staff of 9 before the corporate office in Miami slashed that number by two-thirds earlier this summer. The final blow came last week when Knight-Ridder chairman and CEO Tony Ridder closed the Lab. Knight-Ridder’s newly formed New Media Center in San Jose, headed by KRI vice president of technology Bob Ingle, will serve the primary new media research role for the company.

The principal motive for closing IDL and shifting resources to San Jose, according to company insiders, was that corporate decision-makers wanted to focus more attention on current online/World Wide Web opportunities that will reap profits more quickly. (Given the current state of the newspaper industry, that’s hardly a surprise.) Fidler had guided IDL to focus mostly on the digital tablet business, a long-term opportunity for the newspaper industry at best.

Fidler moves to University of Colorado

I caught up with Fidler recently and found him in good spirits despite the Lab’s closing, and ready to take on his next challenge. He will join the faculty of the University of Colorado this fall as a guest lecturer, and help establish a new media lab at CU’s school of journalism. The CU lab will be similar in scope and purpose to IDL, but deal more broadly with electronic publishing, Fidler said. He will be working with CU professor Bruce Henderson and consultant Dennis DuBe on creating the lab. Knight-Ridder is not expected to have a role in the project.

Fidler’s long-awaited book, “Mediamorphosis,” is in the final stages and should be available next spring. The Mediamorphosis concept will be the basis for a course Fidler expects to teach at CU in January. This book has been eagerly awaited by many of us in the newspaper new media business, but Fidler explained that the demands of running IDL delayed its completion.

Of the flat-panel newspaper concept, “The vision is not going to die with the closing of IDL,” Fidler said. He will continue to speak and consult with other companies. He is to remain on the Knight-Ridder payroll as a consultant for at least 2 years and is free to work with outside clients.

The winds shift to San Jose

Three members of the IDL staff — project manager Teresa Martin, designer Bill Skeet and programmer Curt Stevens — now work at the San Jose New Media Center under Ingle. The 6-person shop is serving in a support role as Knight-Ridder aims to put the rest of its 27 daily newspapers on the Web in the next year. Some of the technology work being done by the San Jose crew can be seen at Mercury Center Web, in the form of an enhanced classified ads section (check out the clickable real estate map) and a searchable archive of San Jose Mercury News back issues (coming soon to the Web).

Rather than focus on far-off opportunities, the San Jose lab has a very short-term mission of getting KRI’s papers online. According to Teresa Martin, the KRI online newspaper services are likely to leverage what has been learned from the Web services at San Jose and the Philadelphia papers. The online newspapers will be created in partnership with InfiNet, an Internet provider half-owned by Knight-Ridder, and are likely to have a relationship with Netscape.

It would appear that the Web has won the hearts of Knight-Ridder execs. KRI not only bought into InfiNet, but also is part of New Century Network, the online newspaper consortium being organized by 9 of the largest U.S. newspaper companies. For a paper to be an NCN member, it must be accessible from the Web and be able to access the Web.

‘Hackers’ hacked: There’s a lesson here for newspapers

As reported in today’s Raleigh News & Observer and spotted by Paul Jones of the University of North Carolina, some real-life computer hackers pulled a prank with the promotional Web site of the movie “Hackers.” The cyber-culprits figured out how to access the pages and left their own versions, giving photos of stars Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie mustaches and neon hair, replacing mug shots of the co-stars with their own pictures, rewriting text and replacing links.

It’s an amusing item, to be sure. It becomes less amusing when you realize that newspapers, like movie studios, are high-profile targets for hackers with such “fun” in mind. Newspaper online services on the Web are particularly vulnerable. If someone can figure out the user code and password to get to your site’s pages, it’s a simple matter for that person to pull off a similar prank. And it takes a minimum of technical skill to do what the Hackers hackers achieved.

The lesson should be obvious: Choose secure passwords and change them often. Unless you like to be embarrassed.

Here’s the original page. And here’s the hacked version. (The movie studio is keeping the hacked page online, as a promotional tool.)

Steve
Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note at outings@netcom.com.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com

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