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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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.