The Tardy Times

  Newsprint is costly; electrons aren't.
  Get ready for paperless newspapers 

IF THE MESSAGE is the medium: Chips from Canadian forests come into Elk Falls on the salmon-happy Campbell River on Vancouver Island. The huge mill mushes timber byproducts into pulp. Mixed with recycled fiber (at least 25 percent by California law), the slurry is morphed into one-ton rolls of newsprint.
    When the MV Thorseggen docks at Port 80 in San Francisco (as it did last year), the custom-built cargo ship (at right) carries 1,600 metric tons of newsprint. Trucked to the San Francisco Chronicle’s plant on Cesar Chavez Street, the rolls are hauled by forklift to its giant presses.
     The webs are cut into six-column pages, inscribed flexographically with no-rub water-based ink, assembled into sections, combined uneasily with ad supplements, loaded into delivery vans, wrapped in plastic bags, tossed on front porches, disassembled on the breakfast table and, with the life span of a mayfly, dumped a day later into the recycling bins.
    The reader gets quiet pleasure in the comfortable rattle of pages, broad exposure to all kinds of news, continuity in coverage, serendipity, confidence (most of the time) in journalistic honesty and  product portability.
DIFFERENT medium, different message: Chips from Toshiba's Yokkaichi factory come to a Japanese assembly plant in Malaysia. Mixed with other components, the chips morph into a computer.
     In most models, a cathode ray tube focuses heated electrons onto a flat screen coated with phosphor, which glows into pixels when bombarded by the electrons. Pixilated words, and other images, are inscribed electronically on the other side of the screen. No pulp plants, no paper rolls, no cargo ships, no forklifts, no delivery vans, no plastic wrappers.
     The reader gets: Word search, narrow focus (a 49er fan need not ever see, for example, a Balco story), useful links, access to news already vetted by the newspapers, email, spam, eyestrain, meltdowns, bloggy skepticism (most of the time). 
SOMEONE  had to broach the unthinkable question. It comes from Jon Fine in Business Week.
    “Which major American newspaper should be the first to throw up its hands and stop publishing a print product?”
     He's not talking about the Geezer Gazoot.
     “San Francisco Chronicle,” he writes, “I’m looking at you.”
    He predicts that this could be the worst year for newspapers since the Depression.
   “On paper,” he continues, oblivious to wordplay, “San Francisco is perfect: A Web-centric town, a cash-drain daily and private ownership.”
     Into the mix:    
  •    The Chronicle’s daily circulation was about 375,000 a year ago. But the newspaper's free SFGate site had 4.8 million page views on the day when the newspaper's old-fashioned reporting staff broke the story of Mayor Gavin Newsom's affair with his campaign manager's wife. Hmmm: 4.8 million? The newspaper then scooped itself by putting the report online a full news cycle ahead of the printed version, allowing TV, radio, the AP and the Internet to have first crack at the story. It happens every day.
  •    In Seattle, reporter Eric Pryne at the Post-Intelligencer doesn’t think the Chronicle would be first paperless paper. If a court throws out the P-I’s joint operating agreement with the Seattle Times, the Hearst-owned newspaper would be “the first American daily to make a leap that many observers predict the entire industry probably will make someday.”
  •  The New York Times instituted this year an electronic service called MYTimes,  a daily online serving of personalized pages. The newspaper’s print version costs $617 per year; MYTimes is free.
  •  In Czechoslovakia and Belgium, paperless dailies were launched last year. The English-language edition of Mainichi Shimbun, Japan’s number 3 newspaper, went from print to online publication back in 2001. So are many other dailies around the world.
  •  From Dave Cole’s newsletters, we hear that in Georgia, the Augusta Chronicle plans a free weekly community and “citizen journalism” newspaper for North Augusta. The weekly will be coupled with a  “first-class online companion” for breaking news. The Kansas City Star is starting a weekly online forum, “Prime Buzz,” with “exclusive news about politics.” The bill: $395 per year. The Bakersfield Californian offers an online free daily “compact afternoon update” to its morning edition.
  • Unhappy mutineers from the Point Reyes Light quit and staffed a rival online weekly, a baby sister to the Bodega Bay Navigator, called  the West Marin Citizen. The online paper costs $50 a year. A paper version is now available.  
  •    The Palo Alto Weekly announced a sports site linked to YouTube, titled It will include much more than scores and stories. With video technology, any sports organization can manage a “team page” with stats, standings and video interviews.
IN THE MEANTIME, paperless papers will eventually evolve, we’re told, into a hand-held gizmo that supplements voluminous text with real-time videos of fires or interviews, movies on demand, instant links to related articles or backgrounders in the archives, excerpts from musical performances to supplement the reviews, etc. Say goodbye to TV's 6 o’clock news along with the radio, the movie theaters, the public libraries and, oh yes, the newspapers as we know them. Our great-grandchildren will probably yearn for the good old days, meaning right now.
     “Killing print requires acknowledging not just that the old mode is dead but also that the future means less revenue and shrunken staffs,” writes Fine.
   “This is why it makes sense soonest at a money-losing newspaper already grappling with those realities, and one in a major city that generates enough local ad dollars to support a sizable online business.”
    It’s an intriguing thought, but don't throw away your recycling bin. Transcontinental, a Canadian company that last year signed a $1 billion, 15-year contract to print the Chronicle, has already ordered three Coleman XXL presses from MAN Roland for a plant to be constructed in Fremont.
    The presses on Kato Road will begin to thunder in the spring of 2009, when the Teamsters contract expires with the Chronicle and union pressmen sign up for retraining.
    Will the pulp mills go dark?
    Will everybody carry a book-sized cyberland/phone/iPod/camera to get the news?
    Will wordplay survive the changes?
    Can computer models give us a look into the future, or should we go to a medium to get the message?
    The newspaper business, we learn from Slate’s astute media reporter, Jack Shafer, “has been on a slow, unstoppable train ride to hell for many decades."
   He's only partly right. He means the big papers, not the little ones.
  Lynn Ludlow

The Gezzer Gazoot
Website Builder