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 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.