The Magazine

The Next Great American Newspaper

From the June 23, 2003 issue: Replacing the New York Times.

Jun 23, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 40 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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ROUGHLY SIX YEARS AGO I gave a talk at a D.C. think tank complaining that it was outrageous for the conservative community (that vigorous, virile young beast) to allow New York City to subsist on the thin gruel of the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, both left of center. Don't books matter? Doesn't critical opinion at the center of the publishing (not to say the cultural) world count? The Times Book Review feels its responsibility and tries to be fair--I don't know whether a conservative weekly would try as hard--but it is what it is. The fault lies not in the Times but in ourselves. If conservative thinkers and tycoons cared a tenth as much about culture as they do about politics, the situation would have been Righted decades ago. Response to my talk was reassuring: Good idea, important! But relax, everything is under control. The problem was gone into years ago by experts and found to be insoluble.

Times have changed. For a generation this country has needed a whole new set of institutions, and today they are finally (albeit obliquely) arriving and taxiing in. Talk radio has been solid for years. Fox News (which has ties to this magazine too numerous to disclose) assaulted dug-in cultural positions from an unexpected direction--and suddenly a New Generation of Americans (my own boys, for example) were watching TV news. I'd thought TV news was dead. And a few weeks ago, THE WEEKLY STANDARD itself addressed ground zero of American culture by calling for a new daily newspaper in this country. "We need, and deserve, a great daily newspaper. . . . Careful and truthful, lively and unpompous, confident and not smug--and, of course, fair, balanced, and unafraid. Who will found it?"

It can happen and is bound to. The conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is a vital asset, but Manhattan was always intended for a Times and a Herald Tribune--one Democratic Alpha Male newspaper and one Republican. (There is also the new and first-rate Sun; more below.) But the Herald Tribune died nearly 40 years ago--of labor trouble, not lack of readers. That it has never been replaced is one of the strangest, saddest anomalies of modern cultural history. (And yet not that strange; rather all too typical of the Establishment's favorite response to the challenges of the 1960s--roll over and die.)

America's next great newspaper is a wonderful idea--but it will have to be published on the web and not on paper, and as a new style web newspaper, not one of today's conventional web-based losers. It is coming--and (in the nature of things) it will redefine the news story and the newspaper.

Why on the web and not on newsprint? It's much cheaper to produce and distribute that way, and your distribution network puts you, automatically, in homes all over the world. The web is a medium young readers can manage. Young people don't read newspapers; chances are they don't even know how. But they know how to play with computers. (Possibly this is the only thing they do know. Or almost the only.) And, most important: A newspaper sells timeliness if it sells anything. The idea that newspapers can no longer compete in the "fresh news" market because of all-news cable channels is silly; radio has been delivering bulletins for eighty years, but people continued to read newspapers anyway, for as long as they were worth reading. Because a web-paper is a "virtual" object made of software, capable of changing by the microsecond, lodged inside a computer where fresh data pour in constantly at fantastic rates, a web-paper can be the timeliest of them all--and it can be a great paper if it plays to its natural advantages and delivers timeliness with style.

Why a "new style" web newspaper and not today's style? Because today's web-papers are wedge-ins, stop-gaps, crack fillers, with all the character of putty in a plastic spritz-tube; people read them not for pleasure and illumination but to extract a necessary fact or kill time when they are stuck at their desks. Their builders don't seem to have grasped what makes the newsprint newspaper one of design history's greatest achievements. (Do they ever read a newspaper?) No web newspaper will match all of newsprint's best qualities, but web designers should understand those qualities so they can concoct new ones that are (in their ways) equally attractive. The mere timid transfer of newsprint-style newspapers to the web--standard operating procedure today--is bound to yield failure, just as primitive movies had to be boring so long as directors merely pointed their cameras at a stage and slurped up Broadway plays. Movies needed their own, new ways to tell a story. Web newspapers do too.

The average web newspaper's biggest problem nowadays is the problem of nearly all websites: They are boring, as vastly useful and dull as the computer itself. If "America's next great newspaper" is a web-paper, it must (nonetheless) draw your fascinated attention; make you itch to tune in. It must be interesting to watch--not a pint-sized bulletin board like today's websites, where (occasionally) someone tacks up something new, with dancing cartoon-ads thrown in to drive you crazy; instead like a porthole you look through to an intriguing, ever-changing scene on the far side. It should work equally well as a newspaper or as news radio that reads itself aloud, following your simple voice commands. It should be capable of slipping smoothly and naturally off the screen into something more comfortable, the printed page.

In technology terms, it is all surprisingly easy.

Nothing on this wish list detracts from the brand new, newsprint New York Sun--long may it prosper. For all I know, "America's next great newspaper" is the Sun--but on the web. (It's on the web today, of course--but in conventional antique style.)

SPACE is newsprint's domain; time is the web's. As an ordinary thing-in-space, the newsprint newspaper will always be the better, more convenient object; the web-paper is a mere slippery goldfish behind the glass of your computer screen--you can peer at it, and handle it by remote control. (Study a menu, inch the cursor around, press a numb-feeling mouse-button. Computers are obnoxiously fussy.)

As an object-in-time the web-paper will be king, if we let it be--but what kind of object is that? If a still photo is an object in space, a parade seen from a fixed location is an object in time--its grand marshal two hours in the past, its rear end 20 minutes into the future. And (it just so happens) the news is a parade, it is a March of Time (Time-Life's famous newsreel series), a sequence of events--and thus perfect for a (new style) web newspaper. How can history's parade (or any parade) not be interesting? A proper web-paper will be a parade of reports, each materializing in the present and marching off into the past.

A newsprint paper is a slab of space (even a closed tabloid is larger than most computer screens) that is browsable and transparent. Browsability is what a newspaper is for: to offer readers a smorgasbord of stories, pictures, ads and let them choose what looks good. "Transparent" means you can always tell from a distance what you're getting into (Are there lots of pages here or not many? Important news today or nothing much?)--and you always know (as you read) where you are, how far you've come, and how much is left. The newsprint paper is an easy, comfortable, unfussy object. You can turn to the editorials, flip to the back page, or pull out the sports section without thinking. It's light and simple and cheap: Spread it on the breakfast table and spill coffee on it, read it standing in a subway or flat on your back on sofa or lawn, on the beach or in bed. You can write on it, cut it up, pull it apart, fold it open to an interesting story, and stick it (folded) in your pocket to show to someone later. These small details add up to brilliant design.

A web-paper could be a first-rate "object in time"--but today's are cut-rate conventional papers instead, imitation newsprint. Today's typical web-paper is like a newsprint paper where you can only see one midget-sized page at a time, and can never touch it--someone holds it in front of your face. You have no idea how many more pages there are, or how the pages are arranged. Since you can never touch the thing, you are constantly issuing finicky little orders: Turn the page, show me the arts section, make that damned ad stop blinking.

Today's web-papers offer one main advantage over newsprint: They let you search. But how often do newsprint readers want to search, or need to? They know where to find what they want; anyway, they mainly browse. They want to be distracted, enlightened, entertained. First law of information: browsing trumps searching. But (second law)--effective browsing is visual browsing, what you do when you pick two interesting magazines out of thousands at a newsstand; or read a newsprint paper and let a photo, headline, ad, or cartoon catch your eye.

The web-papers of tomorrow should be "objects in time," and here is the picture. Imagine a parade of jumbo index cards standing like set-up dominoes. On your computer display, the parade of index cards stretches into the simulated depths of your screen, from the middle-bottom (where the front-most card stands, looking big) to the farthest-away card in the upper left corner (looking small). Now, something happens: Tony Blair makes a speech. A new card materializes in front (a report on the speech) and everyone else takes a step back--and the farthest-away card falls off the screen and (temporarily) disappears. So the parade is in constant motion. New stories keep popping up in front, and the parade streams backwards to the rear.

Each card is a "news item"--text or photo, or (sometimes) audio or video. "Text" could mean an entire conventional news story or speech or interview. But the pressure in this medium is away from the long set-piece story, towards the continuing series of lapidary paragraphs. There's room on a "news card" for a headline, a paragraph and a small photo. (If the news item is a long story or transcript, only the opening fits on the card--but you can read the whole thing if you want to, by clicking the proper mouse-buttons.)

So: a moving parade (or flowing stream) of news items--new ones constantly arriving in front, older ones moving back. (Actually it's one long parade reaching back to the newspaper's founding; you can rewind it like videotape.) You can only see one full card at a time; the others are partially hidden by cards in front. But you can guess what's on the partially hidden cards, because you can see their top edges and left margins. And when you touch a card with the cursor, a complete version pops up instantaneously. The news stream uses foreshortening to make the most of screen space: One glance encompasses the most recent 20 or 30 postings, the latest quarter-hour to several hours of news, depending on the world's pulse at the moment and your preferences.

Everything on every card is indexed, everything is searchable should you care to search--the news parade is (equivalently) an "information beam" you can focus as precisely as you like. Type "Tony Blair" and you get a Tony beam--still a moving stream edging backwards into the sunset, but all Tony, all the time.*

MOST IMPORTANT, the news story itself is redefined. Today's standard news story is a monolithic slab of text, updated a few times perhaps and then plopped into the archives.

It is an odd bastard at best, a triumph of efficiency and marketing over literary logic. It is radically front-loaded; it starts with its most interesting sentence and then tapers (line by line) to a sharp point of boredom, losing momentum with every paragraph--thus a spike-shaped monstrosity perfectly formed for its mission, to be pounded like a piton into the rock wall of a reader's indifference.

The new style news story is a string of short pieces interspersed with photos, transcripts, statements, and whatnot as they emerge: It is an evolving chain; you can pick it up anywhere and follow it back into the past as far as you like.

Instead of writing one longish piece, reporters will write (say) five short ones--will belt out little stories all the time, as things happen. They will shape their news stories to the shape of the news, of experience, of time. The string of aphorisms--prose in stanzas--is a perfect form for fresh and timely news. Perfect also for a nation where concentration spans seem to halve every year. Yet (on the other hand) it is no accident that two of the three greatest writers of modern times should have loved writing aphorisms. (Freud didn't, but Nietzsche and Wittgenstein did.) Not a bad way to write, not by any means.

YOU CAN READ this news stream, or switch it to auto-pilot and (following your simple commands, if you're driving a car, say, or lying around) it will read to you. Eventually the web paper will migrate from the web server to your own computer. The main office e-mails you each new "card"; software on your computer receives each new arrival, indexes it, adds it to the moving parade. Now (by the way) you can read many newspapers simultaneously; each sends you its own stream of cards, and your local software shuffles them together in time-order. (Yes, you can already arrange to receive news updates by e-mail--but without the right kind of display, you have nothing. Third law of information: The interface is the application. The right picture is everything.)

Takes up lots of space on your computer, right? All those "news cards"? Requires lots of computing power to operate this fancy display? Absolutely. But the high expense (and good performance) of the eventual on-your-desktop version is a feature, not a bug. The industry (after all) has a problem: Each new PC generation arrives on your desktop equipped with vaster and vaster, emptier and emptier closets for information you don't own and couldn't locate if you did; the per-bit cost of storing data is near zero already, and the question is what to do with all that storage space. And each new PC generation arrives with faster and faster processor chips, which spend more and more of their time doing nothing. Eventually people are likely to notice, and start asking questions. "Why do I need a new computer? What's wrong with the old one? What important thing will the new one do that the old one can't do just as well?" At which point the computer industry as we know it will start falling apart. The tycoon who founds America's next great newspaper will help save the computer industry too.

And it would be so damned easy to found, it's almost painful.

I LIVE NORTH of New Haven in the middle of the Great Suburb (a global feature, like the Amazon or Sahara) that covers the northeast and plays a big role in setting the nation's cultural mood. Around here we set out food for the birds, and the New York Times sets out information for us. People nibble at it without enjoying themselves or pondering over much. Mostly it never occurs to them that the Times is slanted, because the Times is the rock-solid floor of their world, it defines horizontal. (Thus Dan Rather's celebrated observation--which must have cracked up Sulzberger and his editors--that the Wall Street Journal is right-wing but the Times is middle-of-the-road.) Of course the Times is, in reality, too big and varied to be condemned as just "slanted," period--there are plenty of Times reporters whose integrity is absolute--but its national and world news coverage is slanted and getting slantier. Yet here in the Great Suburb, no one will give up the Times until an attractive alternative presents itself. I do hear more disapproving murmurs than I used to--but only because of the newspaper's ever more blatant anti-Israel tone--which, however, people take for mere bigotry; they've seen it all before. They rarely ask themselves whether such bigotry might not be part of a larger infection incubated on the editorial page and now spreading up and down the narrow airless news columns, making the whole paper mildly feverish today--and delirious tomorrow.

Yet things could change for the Times as fast as they did for the networks once cable TV started to grab. One day CBS was on top of the world, next day it was muttering darkly about strategies for survival. Things happen.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and professor of computer science at Yale. According to Reuters, his book "Mirror Worlds" (1991) "foresaw" the World Wide Web.

*You can see (sort of) what this looks like at a website where commercial software I helped build for a somewhat different purpose is on display (scopeware.com). But my point is the principle, not the product.