Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

What Digital Formats Do Consumers Prefer?

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

What Digital Formats Do Consumers Prefer?

Article excerpt

There is much discussion today in trade journals and at academic and professional conferences about the future of print media. Much of it is focused on the possible role of digital information delivery systems, particularly the World Wide Web. Others, most notably Roger Fidler, have argued for an electronic tablet, or Portable Document Viewer (PDV). The number of newspapers with companion web sites grows almost daily, and PDVs are now available on the consumer market. SoftBook Press has released SoftBook, and NuvoMedia has released Rocket eBook. Everybook Inc. plans to release Everybook in 1999. All three of these PDVs will initially be used for distributing and reading books, but any of them could be used for distributing newspapers or other publications.

Despite all this commercial activity, little if any research has been done to test potential readers' attitudes about these technologies. In what format do consumers wish to read a newspaper? What do they like and dislike about potential newspaper formats now available? This study is a preliminary test of readers' preferences for a traditional newspaper vs. two different approaches to a digital newspaper.

Literature review

As Roger Fidler points out in his book, Mediamorphosis,

   The incentives for publishers to complete the transition to digital systems
   are great. Today, more than half or a typical publisher's overall costs are
   associated with manufacturing and distributing.... Newsprint alone averages
   about one-quarter of the cost of publishing a newspaper in the United
   States.... There can be little doubt that as soon as digital systems begin
   to match the quality and cost of mechanical technologies ... most
   publishers will move quickly to make a full transition.(1)

Indeed, the latest count by Editor & Publisher found that 2,297 newspapers worldwide now have web sites. Delivery of news via the World Wide Web has a number of advantages, not the least of which are cost and speed. There are, however, drawbacks to the web as well, particularly for newspapers. First, most online users are reading web newspapers on desktop computers in fixed locations. As Fidler has indicated, "As with traditional print media, digital forms must be comfortable and convenient to read while lying in bed, riding on a subway, dining in a restaurant, or sitting on a park bench."(2) The closest a web site can get to portability is if a user downloads the site and reads it from a laptop computer.

Second, reading from a traditional computer screen is hard on the eyes because of resolution and the imperceptible flicker of the screen refreshing itself. Fidler notes: "(S)creen resolution ... is not a critical issue for viewing moving images, but it is crucial for reading text. Consumer acceptance of a digital display medium for reading documents will depend on the development of portable displays with a contrast and resolution near that of ink on paper."(3) He goes on to suggest that a technology such as cholesteric liquid crystals, which do not require constant refreshing nor harsh backlighting, may ultimately emerge as the preferred medium for digital publishing. He suggests that the technology will take the form of a Portable Document Viewer - a lightweight device with a vertical touch screen about the size of a standard 8-by-11-inch sheet of paper.

Third, online newspapers typically do not take advantage of the design lessons learned after hundreds of years of newspaper publishing. Most newspaper web sites are not designed on a page basis, and even if they were, traditional horizontal computer screens require scrolling up and down to read the entire text of a story. It is interesting to note that the earliest computer developed for personal use, the Xerox Alto developed in the early 1970s, did not present this scrolling frustration. Anticipating the principal use of PCs being word processing and document display, Xerox technicians developed a vertical monitor that could display the entire contents of a standard 8-by-11-inch page. …

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