Columns Could Ride on 'Digital Highway.' (Access to Newspaper Columns Via Home Computers Prime Topic of Discussion at National Society of Newspaper Columnists Convention)
Astor, David, Editor & Publisher
Accessing columns on home computer/TV screens is discussed at the NSNC convention in Portland, Ore.
THERE WAS DISCUSSION about everything from cutting-edge technology to over-the-edge readers at the recent National Society of Newspaper Columnists convention in Portland, Ore.
The NSNC technology session focused on the "digital highway" and what it might mean to newspapers and columnists.
Panelist Pam Edstrom, who directs the Microsoft account for the Waggener Edstrom public relations agency, explained that the "digital highway" will eventually link millions of homes into a two-way, interactive electronic system.
She said Americans will use "a TV set with the guts of a personal computer" to do things such as renew their driver's licenses, learn their Social Security status and find a new doctor without leaving the house. Consumers would receive a payment for accessing an advertisement, sports fans watching a baseball game could call up the lifetime statistics of the player at bat, and people interested in reading a column could display it on their screens.
"It's an interesting thing to think about," Edstrom told the NSNC audience. "Why not just charge 10 cents a column and broadcast it to everyone in the United States? You would be paid individually by people who read your column. You wouldn't necessarily need to be part of a newspaper."
"How can we survive earning 30 cents a year?" joked one audience member.
Edstrom, who has traveled extensively with billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates, said delivering columns via the "digital highway" would have other benefits. She mentioned that people calling up a column could also access the writer's past columns, biography, photo and more. In addition, said Edstrom, readers could give a columnist "immediate feedback,"
Texas City Sun news editor/columnist Cathy Gillentine, speaking from the audience, observed that this might be too much feedback. She noted that she already receives enough letters and calls to know what readers think of her writing and would have little time in a workday to deal with more reaction.
Portland-based artist and playwright Tad Savinar, another session panelist, agreed that technological developments can be a mixed bag.
"I embrace technology, but I wonder at what point the information we're given to absorb becomes overload," he commented. "There becomes very little time to think about what we're receiving because we're so busy receiving."
Savinar also noted that the "digital highway" could "create an even larger gap between the haves and have-nots."
Self-syndicated columnist William Colli'ns of Connecticut, speaking from the audience, said new technologies do not always change things as much as people might fear.
A third panelist, veteran ad agency executive Mark McNeely, said the fact that reading a newspaper is a more "comfortable" experience than looking at a computer screen means that newspapers are likely to survive competition from the "digital highway."
Indeed, he said newspapers should not blame new technologies for readership declines. "Newspapers say, |This is not really our fault; we're being eclipsed by the new technologies.' That's hogwash. Blandness is the problem."
McNeely said a major reason why he feels newspapers are bland is the "increasing corporatization and bureau-cratization" of the business.
The speaker did tell the NSNC audience that columns are one part of a newspaper he does not consider "boring."
"You're the exception," said Mc- Neely, who helped launch the successful Ford Taurus campaign when he was with Ogilvy & Mather. "Columnists are the Hong Kongs of the newspaper business - islands of acerbic commentary and pulsating life among a gray mass .... You provide the emotional context and connection to the world for your readers. The new technologies can't offer that . …