READ ALL ABOUT IT! (ON PAPER)

By: Steve Outing

Like many Internet using news consumers, my news reading habits have changed significantly in recent years. Each morning, I now check my e-mail box for HTML news service deliveries which have been dropped in my mailbox overnight.

Now, the latest twist in digital delivery will probably change it again. Because instead of checking your e-mail and reading your news deliveries on screen, you can start to have news delivered to you directly at your printer. The idea behind a new technology developed by printer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard (HP) is to print documents without you having to hit the “print” command. They just appear in your printer tray — in full color — at the time you schedule regular deliveries. (You might consider this to be a more sophisticated version of fax publication services offered by some news publishers a few years back.)

This latest and greatest Internet technology is called Instant Delivery, and beta testing of the service is scheduled to begin on November 1. (If you go to the Web site now, you won’t see anything beyond the single home page.) HP has initially signed up several major publishers to try out the service: MSNBC.com, National Geographic Interactive, Slate magazine, Time Inc. New Media, USA Today Online, the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, and Marvel Interactive.

Effort to spur printer sales

Instant Delivery will debut along with the introduction of HP’s latest color inkjet printer, the model 895Cse, which will sell for around $400. Buyers of that printer will receive a CD-ROM which contains software to set up the automatic deliveries of content from those publishers. (The software also will be available for download from HP’s Web site and via the sites of publishers affiliated with the program.) The service also will be compatible to other HP printers, and should work on other manufacturers’ printers as well — though HP won’t support the service when not used on one of its printers. The client software works only on Windows PCs, for now.

It’s an intriguing and obvious concept, and a potentially powerful one. Obviously, reading on a computer screen is not particularly pleasant, given the state of today’s computer monitors. Many online users print out things they want to read in order to lessen the eye-straining time they spend in front of computer monitors. But, of course, to read something from the Web on paper you have to first search it out (or have it delivered to your e-mail box), then print it. You’re far more likely to read a regular piece of news content if it’s automatically placed on your printer in paper form, than if you had to go to the effort of retrieving and printing it.

To what audience will this new digital/print delivery most appeal? At this point, the Instant Delivery program is being treated as an experiment by its beta publishers. Jim Kinsella, general manager of MSNBC.com, thinks that the concept will appeal mostly to business users, who want news but can’t watch TV news during business hours. MSNBC.com will launch the service with a free “QuickNews” delivery feature — a simple top headlines at a glance document, delivered at the times of day a user specifies. Next will probably come direct-printed personalized news from MSNBC.com.

“MSNBC.com is evolving to be TV on the Internet,” Kinsella says, in the sense that the Web news service is the thing they plug into at the office when they can’t plug in the television. News delivery direct to a color printer is an ideal technology for the business person who wants to read an up to date news summary when they first get into the office in the morning, he says. The business person also might ask for another update at lunchtime.

Portable documents for meetings

Tom Baker, vice president and general manager for the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, says his business audience has long printed out content from the site — often to take with them into meetings for when they get bored. Indeed, a frequent question from site users has been how to get better printouts of the site’s content. “It’s funny how interested our (online) subscribers are in printing things,” he says.

The Journal site will first offer a direct-to-printer feature for the “Personal Journal,” an area of the site that allows subscribers to receive a customized page with headlines and stock activity based on their interests. Baker thinks that having this content automatically and regularly delivered straight to paper probably will increase usage of the feature. He hasn’t decided what else to use the Instant Delivery service for, but he’s bullish on the idea.

At USA Today Online, the project manager on the Instant Delivery project thinks the service will be strong in the home and small office/home office (SOHO) markets. Maryfran Tyler, distribution manager for the site, says the first service USA Today will offer will be a one-page summary of the latest news. Offered without charge, the single page will include a lead news article; 4-5 news briefs; a weather map; a quick read on Wall Street activity; key sports scores; and a USA Today Snapshot graphic (but not the same one that appears in the newspaper). The aim will be to have the page sitting on subscribers’ printers by 6 a.m. eastern (U.S.) time each day.

The 1-pager is designed as a quick read of the top headlines a consumer might want to know about, but it also will serve as a marketing device to encourage inkjet-printed-copy readers to visit the USA Today Web site for further detail. So the print-delivered page will include URL addresses for various sections and content available online.

That’s the one disadvantage of the concept, compared to HTML e-mail deliveries of news content read on the computer screen — another digital delivery concept that’s just starting to be employed by more publishers. When an HTML e-mail message containing a news summary gets read, it contains live links pointing back to the publisher’s Web site. HTML e-mail is likely to generate more Web site visits than can a printed-paper product.

Not quite prepared for publishers

HP spokeswoman Pat Kinley says the Instant Delivery technology is proving to be quite a popular concept with publishers, but unfortunately the systems are not yet in place to accommodate all the publishers who might want to create delivered-to-printer services. “The response caught us a little off guard,” she says.

Publishers wishing to use the technology to create delivered content services can do so for free. Kinley says that there’s no business model at HP at this time that expects revenue to come from publishers; rather, the technology is designed as a value-add that will sell more HP color inkjet printers. When the beta test starts on November 1, there should be a “contact us” link on the site where interested publishers can find out how to take part.

Kinley says “we are welcoming all comers right now,” including small publishers. The Instant Delivery concept should be particularly attractive to newsletter publishers, who might eliminate some of their costly print subscriptions by moving some subscribers over to direct-to-printer delivery.

The HP technology supports delivery in various formats. USA Today Online plans to send out its news summary in PDF format, but other publishers will simply send out HTML pages (with images included). Another feature of the client software is that it allows users to schedule regular delivery to their printers of any Web page — independent of publishers making specific content features available for to-the-printer delivery.

Consultant’s view

Vin Crosbie, a digital delivery specialist and president of Digital Deliverance, an internet consulting firm that works in the HTML e-mail field, says the HP technology is not perfect because it relies on proprietary software that consumers must download — rather than the open standards of HTML e-mail services, which require nothing more than an e-mail client that supports HTML.

“But one thing is sure,” says Crosbie. “The newspaper of the future will be printed in consumers’ homes of offices. It will be printed out automatically or on demand, in full color, and contain more personalized content for each user. No longer will publishers have to buy, print and distribute paper. This new product from HP is just another step toward that evolution.”

WSJ raises online rates by $10

The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, which has some 250,000 paying subscribers, will raise its annual rate from $49 to $59 starting in November. That rate applies to non-subscribers of the print edition of the Journal; newspaper subscribers will continue to pay $29 per year for a subscription to the Web edition.

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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.

This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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