Folding newspaper into online format

Saturday, March 5, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- There are familiar broadsheet newspapers, ideal for leisurely reading. And there are newspaper Web sites, where seekers of quick information point, click and sometimes curse incessant pop-up ads.

Now the world's oldest journalism school is introducing newspaper-looking content that electronically transcends ink and paper in a new way. The experiment is called EmPRINT, and analysts say it could be what newspapers may look like in the future.

Starting this weekend, the University of Missouri's daily newspaper, the Columbia Missourian, will experiment on 10 consecutive Sundays with the page-turning serendipity of stories and advertising laid out like a newspaper -- but readable with clarity on computer screens.

EmPRINT stands for Electronic Media Print. Designer Roger Fidler also says with a smile that the spoken version, "M-print," evokes the host school, Missouri, and its new journalism institute, which nurtured the experiment.

Unlike a newspaper, there is color photography throughout the electronic product and no worries about botched printing runs or missed carrier delivery. The digital format allows for links to deep layers of additional information, including an advertising index that keeps the reader no more than two clicks from an advertiser's Web site. Readers may provide immediate feedback to editors, writers or advertisers.

Unlike a Web site, no scrolling is needed to roll text up and down, and there's no annoying pop-up advertising, visual clutter or a need to stay online. It can take less than a minute to download perhaps 150 pages of EmPRINT content, from stories to advertising, using a high-speed computer connection.

The reader may then carry the newspaper around on a laptop or electronic tablet, reading stories in Adobe Acrobat. Or EmPRINT may be run off on letter-sized paper for more conventional consumption.

"This isn't really anything like a Web site. It's more like a book or newsmagazine reading experience, but it's your familiar local newspaper," said Pam Johnson, founding director of Missouri's recently launched Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, which is sponsoring the EmPRINT experiment even before the institute moves into a renovated $18 million campus complex.

"It's a beautiful marriage," Johnson says, "and I think we're seeing the steps to the future of newspapers. This is a major step."

EmPRINT's design is the realization of a dream Fidler had in 1981, and cultivated through years of pioneering new media for Knight-Ridder and other sponsors. Considered a visionary in converging newspapers with evolving technology, Fidler is the Reynolds Institute's first visiting fellow.

Fidler said his past research on electronic newspapers "was a terrific fit" with Missouri's journalism program, including a daily newspaper that is a working laboratory for students with professional supervision and editing.

"My focus has been to make all the technology as invisible as possible and focus on the reading experience," Fidler said as he sat in a corner of the Missourian's busy newsroom, alongside several computer screens with EmPRINT prototypes and templates.

"I know some will say this is killing newspapers, but paper is just a display medium for newspapers, just as papyrus was a display medium long ago," Fidler added. "I see this as the evolution of newspapers into the electronic era."

The Missourian's general manager, Dan Potter, said advertisers that don't usually buy space in the print version have signed up for the EmPRINT experiment, which runs until May 8.

Reader feedback is sought. So is reader information -- online registration, including name, year of birth, ZIP code and income ranges, is required to sign up for EmPRINT.

"We can take this back to advertisers and show them exactly who's reading," Potter said.

Newspapers usually sell "run of paper" ads, which can show up anywhere in the publication, hopefully catching the reader's attention.

For EmPRINT, the Missourian has sold "run of story" ads, which appear in a strip alongside stories, the same ad image remaining as a reader flips through the pages of an article.

"When I was a student here at Missouri in the mid-1970s, I had a professor who predicted newspapers would be dead in five years," Potter said. "Well, they're not dead -- just at a very mature place in the business cycle and in readership. EmPRINT fills a new niche and can bring in new readers."

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