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The Electronic Broadsheet


As we have seen, traditional newspapers often compare favorably with their hi-tech counterparts, and the newspaper metaphor is one of the cornerstones in The Electronic Broadsheet. Still, the newspaper format has its shortcomings and in this chapter I discuss how my ideal newspaper would be different from the newspapers we know today.

3.1 Dynamics

Newsprint is a static medium. After the ink is put on paper it doesn't move--except onto the fingers of the reader. This has two important implications: articles don't get updated and the medium can't show moving pictures. Television signals, on the other hand, transmit moving images from the broadcaster to the receiver instantly. Assisted by satellite technology, television newscasts are able to report live from any corner of the world. During the recent Gulf war, television networks transmitted news from the Middle East continuously and were the primary source of information--even military leaders admitted getting news from CNN. Traditional newspapers will never be able to compete with TV screens under such conditions. In retrospect, however, one must admit that little of the live coverage from Saudi Arabia was high quality reporting , and many hours were wasted watching a newscast that could have been compressed by a magnitude without losing significant information.

The case illustrates both the strong and weak side of television newscasts; they can capture the moment in real time like no other medium, while the linear nature of the newscast makes browsing impossible.

The ideal newspaper will be a dynamic medium both with regard to article updates and moving images. News will reach readers moments after it is made available, and video sequences should be a natural part of the news presentation. Both these demands imply that the transmission medium of the ideal newspaper will be electronic.

3.2 Personalization

Usually, the term "news" is used about events on a local, national and global level. It is important to read newspapers and watch newscasts on TV to be considered up-to-date, but it's not sufficient. Messages from your bank and your manager is also important information--information that is normally transferred through other channels. The bank sends you a monthly statement while today's managers may send an electronic message. This kind of information is also essential to keep abreast; an extended definition of news should include all information a person needs to be considered up-to-date . The ideal newspaper will display selected information from the extended definition of news.

3.2.1 Filters

One approach to personalized news selection is to "filter" a stream of incoming articles. Only those stories that presumably interest the reader get through. The filter is a necessity since no one is interested in reading thousands of articles per day.

The idea of removing articles from the view of the reader is hard to accept for some people; they claim it will narrow horizons. It is important to keep in mind that the pool of news that articles are selected from is many times larger than the size of a newspaper. Therefore, the range of articles may, depending on the reader's profile, be wider than the range of articles found in newspapers today.

Also, current newspapers use filters: the editor selects information that is to be published in the newspaper, and the choices are made on the basis of an imaginary average reader. Anthony Smith observes:

"Only about 10 percent of the total information collected every day in the newspaper's newsroom and features desk (all of which is held on-line, i.e., in continuous direct communication with a computer) is actually used in the paper, and yet, according to most surveys, the reader only reads 10 percent of what has gone into his paper. It seems, therefore, that the whole agony of distribution is undergone in order to feed each reader just one percent of the material that has been so expensively collected." [Smith 80]

Also, see section 3.2.3.

3.2.2 Research Agents

Reading news is sometimes a creative process that spawns further interest in the topic. The newspaper should be able to automatically recognize these interests--or, there should be an easy way of conveying the interests. In addition to updating the dynamic filters, sometimes a more active and immediate approach is necessary to fetch relevant background information. While the electronic news pool is ever growing, it mostly covers new events. News articles do not provide sufficient background material to get a thorough understanding of the problem discussed from reading one article. Background data is peripheral to news coverage.

However, background information is needed to be considered up-to-date and therefore falls under the extended definition of news. Using the filter metaphor, one would have to send all possible background information through the filter to find relevant data. Obviously, this is not possible. Instead, agents provide a convenient metaphor for active data gathering.

An ideal future newspaper doesn't necessarily need to provide all relevant background data when reporting on a subject; few people would have the time to exploit the data fully. Instead, articles should include references to relevant information, e.g. a record number into an electronic library. The system could then dispatch "agents"--small pieces of code that would fetch background information from electronic sources when requested.

By representing the user, agents reveal sensitive information about interests and reader habits. By systematically registering agents' requests and their owners, a library can build an extensive database of a user's reading habits. Therefore, privacy issues should be stressed when designing these systems. See also section 3.6.

3.2.3 Serendipity

An issue of great concern for visitors seeing the Newspace project is serendipity. While browsing traditional newspapers, articles catch their eyes, even if they initially were not interested in the topic. They suspect that this will not happen in an electronic newspaper (re: section 3.2.1). Their concern is justified: an article selection mechanism that only selects stories from subjects the reader already is interested in will narrow horizons. One way of addressing the issue is to design a conscientious selection mechanism that always picks a certain number of stories outside the current scope of the reader. The "consciousness" quota could be based on:

* priority: if a story about WWIII comes in, the reader should know about it even if international conflicts is not on the list of interesting topics

* local/global context: both local and global news are important for raising good world citizens. Both these categories should be represented in all personalized newspapers, although some may question the authority behind forcing subjects onto a reader.

* a random factor: some totally random articles will enliven any newspaper

Serendipity will be addressed in the user modeling / article selection module of Newspace, but the presentation format also concerns the issue. When using a large monitor with room for many articles there is also room for mistakes. An article that is totally out of place when covering a tabloid-sized screen may very well be ignored by readers on the 2k. The interface is forgiving, and the selection mechanism is allowed to take chances.

3.3 Format Transcoding

Paper is a very flexible medium that can be folded, torn, and eaten. Since traditional paper distribution was eliminated as the transmission channel for our ideal dynamic paper (see section 3.1), we must replace it with something just as flexible. This can not be accomplished with any single known technology--even if we extrapolate ten or twenty years ahead. Instead, the new newspaper should be able to transcode news into different output devices. If the reader needs a foldable paper to go, the natural device would be the closest laser printer. If the reader wants something portable, but dynamic, a notebook computer makes sense. If the reader is stationary, a large paperlike screen is the medium of choice. Transcoding between various formats is not trivial since the functionality offered by different hardware vary, e.g., most notebook computers do not yet have color screens. See chapter 11 for a discussion on some of these issues.

3.4 Two-way Communication

Users of electronic mail enjoy two-way communication; "reply" is an intrinsic function in all electronic message systems. Traditional newspaper distribution channels, on the other hand, are inherently one-way links. If subscribers want to respond to newspaper articles they must use other channels--like sending a letter to the editor or canceling the subscription. Using digital links to carry news will make two-way communication between information producers and information consumers feasible. There are several people a reader could want to respond to after reading an article:

* The author--the name of the author is often mentioned in today's newspaper, but there is seldom a reply address. The ideal newspaper article should include an electronic address.

* The editor--some of the functions of today's editor will be taken over by a computer in tomorrow's newspaper. Still, there will probably be someone screening and juxtaposing information claiming the title "editor".

* People described or quoted in the article.

* People who read the same stories as yourself--they are likely to have similar interests and opinions.

One example to illustrate the last point: an article about a proposed highway project in your backyard is likely to pop up on your front page. In order to fight the development plans you have to team up with other people that are against the plans. By sending a message to everyone who read the article you are likely to reach people in the same situation as yourself. One could limit the target group by sending the message to those that read the article and lives within 2 km.

Even though this functionality is technically possible, the question is not merely technical. It raises the issue of who owns the information in the user model database. See section 3.6 for a discussion on this topic.

If all described channels for reply become available, the clear distinction between information producers and consumers might fade since consumers will be able to easily distribute information themselves.

3.5 Statistics

Since the personalized newspaper will adapt to and follow the changing interests of the readers, the front page presented to each reader will vary vastly. Today, a subscriber of The New York Times (NYT) knows that opinions expressed in the editorial sections reflect prevailing beliefs in the American society. The "underground press", on the other hand, prints alternate views and the reader is well aware of the biased opinions. When news articles from these two sources suddenly appear side by side, the distinction will be harder to make.

One way of addressing this problem is to emulate the pre-electronic form of the medium, e.g., print all NYT headlines all-caps like the paper version does today. This can provide the reader with certain clues, but distinctions will not be unique and can be overrun by user preferences.

Another interesting solution is to collect readership statistics electronically. A reader could be given an estimated "mainstreamness" factor per article, and an overall "rating". The factors indicate how similar/different the news presented is to other people's presentations. The data will also be a rich source for sociologists. Collecting the information needed for such a utility is not trivial, and a number of ethics questions can be raised, but the idea is intriguing.

3.6 Ownership of User Modeling Data

Personalized newspapers consult a user profile when selecting articles to be displayed in the newspaper. The profile by definition contains personal information about the reader and this information is often sensitive. One question that quickly arises is who owns the data. Many groups may be interested in collecting information found in the personal profile; a group that easily comes to one's mind is advertisers. Personalized advertising may enrich the content of the newspaper and provide funding. Still, personal information should be closely guarded.

I believe that each reader should be considered the owner (where "ownership" means roughly the same as copyright) of all personal information stored in the profile, including name, address, reading habits and areas of interests. This question is complex and the scope if this thesis does not allow for the discussion the topic deserves, but I would like to point out one way to possibly obtain the functionality without releasing any personal information. The electronic conferencing system known as USENET [Coursey 91 ] handles more than 11Mb of messages every day, and it is not possible to find out what messages a user reads unless you have access privileges to the user's files. Each site subscribes to a set of conferences and the corresponding messages are transmitted whether someone reads them or not. By moving the selection process close to the reader one can buy privacy at the cost of bandwidth. As bandwidth grows cheaper, privacy will remain valuable.

3.1 - Dynamics
3.2 - Personalization
3.2.1 - Filters
3.2.2 - Research Agents
3.2.3 - Serendipity
3.3 - Format Transcoding
3.4 - Two-way Communication
3.5 - Statistics
3.6 - Ownership of User Modeling Data

The Electronic Broadsheet - 30 JUN 95
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