Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

 Posted July 11, 2003

The future of news: Quality reporting,
but only for those who can pay

University of California at Berkeley Librarian and Journalism Professor Thomas C. Leonard interviewed by John McManus

What does your crystal ball say about where news is headed in the next 10 to 15 years?

I think that there will be far more sophisticated and detailed reporting of anything we might want to know about, but that it will be harder to find these reports in the ordinary large audience media, both in broadcasting and in print.

I think that information and opinion — or, for that matter, entertainment that might appeal to our peculiar and, we’d like to think, sophisticated sensibilities — will be out there. We’ll have to work a little bit harder to find it. We might have to pay a little bit more in subscription to get it delivered. But publications and broadcast outlets that are put out there for the general public are going to be a little more disappointing.

Paying more for quality

What you’re saying is: this information will be available, but it’s not going to be in the Chronicle or the Mercury or on Channel 4, 5 or 7?

That’s what I mean. Broadcasting is one thing, and maybe this very targeted broadcasting will end up on, if not digital cable, then on Web, and we’ll have to subscribe to it in one way or another, to subsidize it in one way or another.

In terms of print publications, I think that you will be able to have delivered to your doorstep, as you pretty much do now, the great daily papers of the country. Of course it depends where you live, and it depends which ZIP code you live in. But I would imagine that that would become more and more important.

The brand new idea is to print out a version of the newspaper in the library, and put it out fresh in the morning so that people can see it. And this, of course, is videotext. That failed for American newspapers in the ’80s. But it’s actually being reborn as a commercial operation, and it may actually make sense for a library to do this, though it’s been proven beyond a doubt that ordinary consumers don’t want to have to print the world’s newspapers, or even the San Francisco Chronicle.

So what I’m suggesting to you is that there will be new means of delivery of these products that will in some sense serve everyplace. But I think that what will be lost will be a general-purpose, common-denominator publication maybe even for a community, but I hope not.

The paperless newspaper

Do you foresee the advent of a thin-screen tablet that you can use to call up any newspaper, and you can take it to the restroom with you — the kind of device that will perhaps free newspapers from the enormous costs of printing and distribution?

Well, we all know how much money has been spent on computer tablets and other digital paper ideas. We know that all of those bright ideas haven’t quite worked in the marketplace.

But serious people think eventually that problem will be solved. And that is the biggest wildcard: somebody invents the digital paper that basically you can hold in your hand and take a bath with and read like you read a magazine. One can imagine that it will give you the sensation of turning pages and you’ll see what you would see in a magazine, with ads and all the rest. But nobody has such a product, and nobody knows that even if it sort of worked, it would feel as good as paper.

In theory, that’s the great breakthrough for journalism.

But in terms of just today’s paper, or last month’s Sports Illustrated, a digital delivery medium that has the look and feel of paper would transform the diffusion of news, and would be an enormous godsend to publishers. In theory they could be out of the business of chopping down trees and processing them and sending them by expensive means to their readers’ door.

It’s worth a lot to be able to package together material in that way. I think most people in journalism should be happy at the prospect of getting rid of all the rest of it — marketing and distributing a bulky medium.

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