Your paperboy called. He says he’s made of fiberoptic cable. And your micropayment is late.

Here’s why the “but-I-like-inky-fingers” crowd should relax: After most news organizations get their online operations in full swing, but before newsprint goes completely extinct, e-paper will emerge as the daily medium for information. This is old news, but with all the hand-wringing over what to do about a business model for the new newspaper, I think it’s time to take a look at the bright (pun intended) future of the physical newspaper.

Imagine a plastic screen, flexible enough to roll up and put in your back pocket as you shuffle down the stairs to the F train, inexpensive enough that you can replace it when you lose it, and contrasty enough that you can read it in full sunlight without hiding the screen with your arm like a 3rd grade math test.

the real thingLeft, Belgian newspaper De Tijd on an iLiad eReader from iRex Technologies. Picture this, but flexible.

That’s the future physical newspaper, with your preferred paper’s stories downloaded via wireless Internet access to your screen from anywhere where there’s access. (Hint: Everywhere.) Wait, what? Wasn’t I supposed to say that you’ll be able to completely configure this thing to download news from any source you want? Maybe I was, but I’m not sure if that’s what news organizations really want to hear. Here’s a couple permutations…

Let’s start with the closed model, in which different news orgs each have their stable of papers and sources, set up in an iTunes-like environment, where readers can subscribe to their news feeds from within your range of sources. If you’re McClatchy, you’ve got feeds from all your papers available for readers to subscribe to. If you’re Hearst, you’ve got text and video from your local news stations. If you’re CBS, you’ve got national and local news in the form of video and text. Users set up their subscriptions on a home computer, laptop, or other device at first, but once they’re reading their daily e-paper, they should have the ability to unsubscribe from a feed or subscribe to a related feed with a few pushes of a button.

Oh, in this model, readers pay the news organization for the service, with different prices based on how often they want their feeds updated and how many feeds they want to subscribe to.

In the open version of this idea, your iTunes-esque service will be more like a standard RSS feed aggregator, and readers will be able to subscribe to feeds from anywhere they want. In this version, though, newspapers might want to make premium content available only to the readers who use their branded reader or their branded subscription service.

In both versions, micropayments could come into play. Want to read that whole Tom Friedman column? That’ll be 59 cents, please.

Frankly, micropayments sort of nauseate me, but that’s just because I’ve grown accustomed to getting all my information for free, online. With a new format like an e-paper, it will be much easier to get early adopters to pay a little bit for their news. Maybe one way to find a balance here would be to charge only for the stories on the fringes — top news or most popular stories shouldn’t cost you anything, but maybe more detailed feature stories, interviews, and local news from places other than where you live should cost a little something more.

What will an e-paper page look like?

Well, I suppose a PDF-ish newspaper layout should always be an option, but if you’re aggregating a bunch of sources, you’ll probably need some sort of system to decide what gets to the top of the page. (For some reason, I just heard a thousand editors cringe.)

Okay, so the editors get to be involved in the system. I know that some online editions are published automagically at 3 a.m., with placement on the page based on a variable set by the editor. Content management software allows editors to easily set priorities and categories for stories. So let’s use that as part of our placement system, but then add a function of popularity in there as well, and possibly a memetracker-type element that would let readers know if a story was getting a lot of action in the blogosphere, or if it had been picked up by a lot of other publications.

So what we would have laying out the pages is an algorithm based completely on a human process of selection, prioritization, and conversation. Sounds like a newspaper, right?

This futurist stuff is pretty fun. Maybe I should apply for this job

What do you think? Is this for real? Will this just be a high-end luxury toy? Would you rather get email updates on your Blackberry or Google News on your mobile phone? How would you use a mobile newsreader like this? Would you miss turning the pages?

5 Replies to “Your paperboy called. He says he’s made of fiberoptic cable. And your micropayment is late.”

  1. RCA said the same thing when they tried to push eBooks on us. You saw how that evolved. Do you really think it will be different this time?

    Personally, I still subscibe to the physical paper. Sure I read news online all day and know most of the national news by the time I get the paper, but there is something about holding a paper newspaper in your hands in the morning.

    I don’t think paper newspapers will be going away anytime soon.

  2. Heh, that day I was trying to read the Daily while walking to class but it was windy. So something like this would’ve been nice if it worked well. I don’t think I’d miss paper. Then again, I’m the kind of person who quickly weaned myself from using index cards to write term papers and now do all of my writing in the computer.

    Anyway, I think it’ll eventually happen. Dunno if it’s now, but more and more people are increasing the percentage of their reading on computer screens at the expense of paper. So I think it’ll be soon.

  3. Shaminder said: “…there is something about holding a paper newspaper in your hands in the morning.”

    What, exactly, is that something?

    For me, it might be the comics, or the fact that the newspaper is often somewhere where my laptop isn’t, or where there’s no free wi-fi.

    The newsprint I handle most often turns out to be the local alt-weeklies, and I’m rarely reading the articles in those.

  4. Well, I suspect that “something” is merely comfort. It’s something we’re used to, much like how some people cling to LPs. This is something not really shared by the next generation, who will someday find comfort in their ancient iPods and outdated computer monitors.

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