Waves Of the Future: Delivering the News

By: Steve Outing

One reason that I enjoy my work is that I get to gaze into the future to
see what’s coming for the media world. The view can be hazy, and what I
see often turns out to be a mirage. But it’s fun (and useful) to look,

Technology has been changing the media world quite rapidly recently. While
the wired Web has been around for several years now, other forms of media
– most notably wireless – are coming on strong. So let’s take a
look at where technology is taking us and how it will impact news publishers.

Too many devices

When it comes to wireless devices, there are too many. Among the early
adopters of wireless technology, it’s not uncommon to find them carrying a
mobile phone (which might have wireless Web access and be capable of
receiving e-mail); a PDA (a Palm Pilot, Handspring Visor, etc.); and
perhaps a digital audio player.

Coming on strong in the coming years will be larger portable devices like
e-book readers, which will take on some of the tasks currently performed by
phones and PDAs. They’ll have your personal address book and calendar;
they’ll be used for reading news reports and periodical subscriptions;
they’ll be able to play music and voice audio (MP3 files); you’ll surf the
Web with them, and send and receive e-mail; and maybe they’ll even have
voice phone capability.

So does the future mean that we’ll all be lugging around with us 1) a
phone, 2) a Palm Pilot, 3) an e-book reader, 4) an MP3 player, and 5) a
laptop computer? That’s not likely. Instead, some technology futurists tell
us, these devices will likely merge – each taking on similar
functionality. A future-generation phone will be able to do what a PDA can
do; a PDA will be capable of making voice calls, plus be a wireless reading
and listening device for news, books, music, etc.; and an e-book reader
will do all of that, but sport a larger screen that makes the news-reading
experience closer to that of paper.

What’s your e-pleasure?

As the old saying goes, different strokes for different folks. Rather than
carry multiple devices, many of us will select a favored wireless media
device. For some, a PDA like a Palm Pilot will be their main portable
computing unit – its screen big enough to be a reading device for news
consumption, and an earpiece used for making voice wireless calls and
listening to audio content. Others will opt for the larger format of e-book
readers (which I’ll call “e-readers,” since they are capable of doing far
more than reading books). E-readers, as they take on more capabilities,
could eliminate the need for many of us to carry laptop computers when we

Teen-agers increasingly will carry small wireless devices like the Cybiko, a popular
handheld computer that allows users of the device who are physically near each other
to communicate – the 21st century version of trading notes in class.
Devices targeted at teens will primarily be about letting them communicate
with friends and playing games with each other via wireless communication, but
they also will be a teen’s digital window on the world – just as a
wireless Palm Pilot is for an adult.

The type of device one chooses will depend on many factors, including gender.
In a recent conversation with Patsy Warmack, Ph.D., an executive
with Wireless Multimedia Solutions who
spends part of her time dreaming up how wireless devices will be used by
future consumers, she suggested that women who carry purses are more likely
to be willing to carry larger devices than men. A PDA that doubles as a
phone needn’t be held up to the user’s ear, but rather an earpiece with
built-in microphone is used. Warmack suggests that such earpieces could
even be disguised as earrings.

You can be first

What’s this got to do with news? Increasingly, our favored portable devices
will be how we first learn about what’s important to us – not
newspapers, not TV, and not radio. News publishers need to recognize this
and start delivering their content to the devices that tomorrow’s consumers
will come to depend on. Soon, many people will first learn about a major
headline story via their wireless device of choice.

This is particularly relevant to newspaper publishers, because this trend
puts them on an equal footing with traditional broadcast media to now be
first to deliver breaking news – or personalized news that a
particular consumer cares about.

I spend a lot of time working at my computer, and my awareness of a
breaking news story often is an e-mail alert from CNN.com – a free
service I’ve requested. The alerts contain a single headline and a
suggestion to read more at the CNN Web site. Already today, many
wireless-device early adopters learn about big news first via their mobile
phones or PDAs.

In a wired and wireless world, the competition between news providers will
be to reach the consumer whether he’s sitting at a computer, or away from
home or office but “connected” to the world via wireless connection.
Everyone from newspapers, to TV stations, to cable networks, to independent
online or wireless news operations will seek to be the first to reach
consumers with hot news – wherever they may be.

Once reached, the consumer can be directed to the Web site or wireless news
service for the full story. It’s that initial contact – being first
with the news – that news publishers need to work on, for this will be
what drives users to consume more than the headlines.

Give news a voice

In the scenario we’re painting here, headlines often will be delivered in
audio format. Audio is less important on the wired Web, which is dominated
by text, than on wireless devices. The next generation of small-screen
devices like mobile phones, PDAs, or Cybikos should be well suited for audio
content, so news publishers need to think about providing succinct audio.

As an example of content that a newspaper might provide, think of a short
audio daily horoscope delivered to various types of audio-capable wireless
devices. Or a weather forecast localized to a user’s postal code.

David Carlson, an online news visionary and director of the
Interactive Media Lab at the University of Florida at Gainesville’s
journalism school, predicts that periodicals of the future will have an
audio option for readers. News publishers will need to offer both text and
audio, he says, because portable-device users will want to listen to news
content while driving. There’s no reason in a wireless-Internet world for
newspapers to cede audio news to the radio industry.

Carlson remains optimistic that automated text-to-speech technology will
soon advance to make audio news content an inexpensive proposition. But, he
notes, five years ago he was predicting that we’d all be talking to our
computers now instead of typing.

News content for the wireless-device set also will be more personalized.
Portable-device users will want news content specific to their interests,
and specific to their physical location. Carlson thinks that wireless
devices’ soon-to-come ability to know where their owners are physically
located at any time will be a profound change. Content can become more
specialized – and therefore more valuable to the individual –
with location capability.

It’s the content, stupid!

In the end, all this talk about what technology people will use in the
future to consume news gets away from the more important issue: What will
the news and content that publishers produce look like, and how might it be
different than what we have today? While it’s fun (and useful from a
strategic planning perspective) to try to look ahead and divine how
tomorrow’s readers will interact with our content, the quality of the
content and its usefulness in people’s lives is of greater importance.

Says Andrew Nachison, director of the New Media Center at the
American Press Institute, “Obviously there’s a lot of interest in wireless
these days. I’d like to see a similar level of interest in brilliant
writing, reporting, and analysis. Deliver me information however you want.
Wires not required. Fine. Now forget about the gizmo for a moment. What’s
being delivered?”

Other recent columns

In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to the
last few columns:

The Many Possible Directions Of Future Media, Wednesday, Dec. 6

Will Consumers Pay for Wireless Content?, Wednesday, Nov. 29

Reprints Leap From Print To Web, Wednesday, Nov. 15

You’re Probably Charging Too Much Online, Wednesday, Nov. 8

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Got a tip? Let me know about it If you have a newsworthy item

about the online news/interactive news media business, please send me a


This column is written by Steve

Outing for Editor & Publisher Online. Tips, letters and feedback

can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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