Kent's Special Effects
Kent State has a program that is ahead of the rest of the world. The result could lead to no more dogs fetching papers . . . and national recognition.
Many times when people hear cyberinformation, electronic publishing and Kent in the same sentence, they ask, “Why Kent?”
This is Internet humor, right? Little ol’ Kent, worldwide leader in electronic publishing innovation? At the vanguard of tomorrow’s information society?
Shouldn’t the Kent State University Institute for Cyberinformation be located in a hot-wired hot spot such as California’s Silicon Valley? Shouldn’t advancements in electronic publishing emerge from a lab at MIT in Cambridge, MA and be mainlined into New York City, heart of publishing? You bet your megabytes.
“You would assume that this type of thing would come from a more technologically active area,” said Robert Palermini, Los Angeles Times senior vice president and chief technology officer. No one knows better than Palermini, however, how faulty that assumption would be.
Kent State University, with support from the LA Times and Adobe Systems Inc., is poised to teach the world a new way to read an old favorite, the newspaper. With its KENT Format for the Tablet PC, a magazine-sized electronic device has the potential to become the next big thing. It could replace small laptops as the portable computers of choice, with Kent’s Institute for Cyberinformation supplying a 21st century reading standard.
The Kent Electronic Newspaper Tablet Format differs from other electronic options such as newspaper web sites and facsimiles of newspapers created by its competitors such as NewsStand. It looks like a newspaper but responds like an interactive, hypermedia web site. It is a news-andadvertising layer cake.
Touch a Tablet PC pen to a headline and two-sentence summary on a page that looks like the LA Times, and the story opens up and fills a flat-panel liquid crystal display similar to an 8 1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper with type so sharp it leaps off the screen. Touch a photo, and a mini-movie with audio unfolds. Touch an ad and more detailed product information appears.
This 21st century newspaper could just as easily be a product of Boulder, CO or Redmond, WA, the Seattle suburb that is home to Microsoft Inc. Those are places where Roger Fidler, director of Kent State’s Institute for Cyberinformation, has worked or has considered taking his considerable creative talents and clear-eyed vision of an imminent electronic news future.
Fidler, age sixty, saw this future early on. “He was taking electronic publishing seriously when it was just so much blue sky for nearly everyone else,” said Jeffrey W. Fruit, interim director of Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
This is not surprising. Fidler always has reached for the stars. While attending the University of Oregon, he turned an interest in astronomy into a job writing and illustrating a science column for the local newspaper. That led to a full-time reporting job and a thirty-four-year journalism career that is the foundation of the KENT Format.
Thanks to the foresight and responsiveness of Kent State President Carol A. Cartwright; John West, director of the Liquid Crystal Institute; Pam Creedon, former director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and others, Fidler is a Kent professor. In essence, though, he remains what he has been since Cartwright, West and Creedon recruited him 1996: a professional in residence.
Since he began writing about electronic publishing in 1981 and building prototypes in the early 1990s of the Tablet PC, which a dozen companies have recently introduced, Fidler has been a unique combination of journalist and techie. Had people with Fidler’s sensibilities created the first computers, they might have made better choices, including a portrait or vertical orientation instead of the landscape or horizontal. But these were techies. They didn’t write sentences. They wrote programming code.
“They didn’t really think about people reading documents,” Fidler said.
Fidler’s KENT Format does. It is reader friendly.
“Our approach,” Fidler explained, “is to take all the techie noise out of reading, whether it is a newspaper, book or magazine, and have the experience closer to that of ink and paper.”
And why not?
“The newspaper is a highly evolved medium for browsing for general information,” Fidler said.
Ultimately, though, the medium—ink on newsprint, slick magazine or acidresistant book pages—isn’t the message. “It’s about a slice of life and time,” Fidler said.
Only the presentation is changing— and in a way that could rekindle the reading habit many people seem bent on breaking. In 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 63 percent of U.S. households headed by someone 25 to 34 years old bought a daily newspaper. By 2001, the figure had tumbled to 33 percent. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, Scarborough Research of Manhattan found only 41 percent read a daily newspaper in 2002.
“We get young people in our journalism program who tell us they have never had a newspaper in their home,” Fidler said. “That’s a little scary.”
It does not mean, however, that young people have their heads buried in the sand rather than newspapers. Carrie Garzich, a 23-year-old graduate assistant from Tallmadge who works with Fidler on the KENT Format project, says she “hardly ever picks up a printed newspaper.” Her life, her reading, her very existence is virtually electronic. She long ago traded her paper tablet for her Tablet PC to which she can attach a keyboard, a printer (she still likes paper copies) and do all the things she can do on her desktop or laptop computers— and more.
With firms such as OverDrive, an ebook company in the Cleveland suburb of Valley View, adding e-textbooks to its growing line of popular e-books, portable reading devices such as the Tablet PC could become the all-purpose instruments of the future. They make personal digital assistants look like postage stamps and offer more comprehensive functions than earlier electronic readers. They could, Garzich believes, even lighten a person’s load.
“Dockers, I think, has pants in which you can fit all these different devices—cell phones, PDAs,” she said. “Well, I don’t want that many things. I want one thing. I would like one little purse that holds just my tablet.”
In addition to such convenience, Institute for Cyberinformation studies suggest that the Tablet PC with the KENT Format tabloid-size template can be eye candy for all ages. In a 2001 study done in cooperation with Adobe and Crain’s Cleveland Business, 73 percent of the evaluators rated the e-newspaper as a good or very good reading experience. “It is as appealing to older people as it is to younger,” Fidler said.
First-generation Tablet PCs cost between $1,700 and $2,700, which makes them more expensive than many laptops. They are, however, versatile. A person can write on the screen, and the tablet will convert the cursive to the printed form. They’re also convenient to use in such tight quarters as the middle seat on a crowded airplane or at one of those handkerchief-size tables at which hostesses seat you in New York City if you are alone.
When Fidler traveled to New York in January to meet with national advertising executives, he found himself at breakfast at such a table but he still had room for both his plate and his Tablet PC on which he had a digital NewsBook, another Kent concept.
“People wanted to come over and say, ‘What is that?’ You could see the eyes on it,” Fidler said. “But you know how New Yorkers are. They don’t like to acknowledge that they might not know something.” Especially something from Kent, Ohio.
The NewsBook-on-Tablet PC concept is simple. Take the best that newspapers have to offer—such as a Pulitzerprize winning series that often seems too long or to go on for too many days or weeks to be reader friendly— and bring them together with slick magazine-quality images on the Tablet PC. Fidler was reading “Enrique’s Journey,” an LA Times story of a Honduran boy who crosses Guatemala and Mexico alone in search of his mother who has fled to the United States. The NewsBook could just as easily have been the Akron Beacon Journal’s Pulitzer Prizewinning “Question of Color” series or “Wheels of Fortune,” its 1997 yearlong examination of Akron’s rubber century.
With attachable keyboard and docking station, the three-pound Tablet PCs have the muscle (hard drives up to 40 gigabytes, more than 250 megabytes of RAM and processor speeds of between 800 megahertz and 1 gigahertz) and tone (120 dots per inch) for any computing or reading job. Apple’s Newton, a similar but smaller 1990s device that was ahead of its time and did not gain general acceptance, and the prototype that Fidler put together a decade ago resemble today’s more-viable tablets.
If Fidler is right and the tablet “becomes the new laptop” and facilitates a new reading experience, this will not have happened overnight. Fidler has been predicting this moment for more than twenty years, always pegging it to the turn of the century.
“Roger is indeed a pioneer in electronic publishing,” said John West, director of the Liquid Crystal Institute. “His name is recognized and respected around the world. He was advancing electronic publishing and wrestling with important issues long before its current popularity.”
Though Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman, has become a champion of the Tablet PC using his Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system, it can’t have surprised him to find Fidler’s fingerprints all over the idea. When a Microsoft representative met with Fidler more than two and a half years ago to share with him Microsoft’s prototype tablets,
Fidler hauled out his own earlier prototype: “The similarities were just unbelievable,” Fidler said. Fidler isn’t a hardware geek, though. He’s a newspaper guy who understands the techie stuff. So is his graduate assistant Garzich, a “Jill of all trades.”
She knows what’s under the electronic hood. She’s a master of Adobe’s InDesign software with which Fidler’s team puts together electronic pages that are immediately recognizable as those of the print newspaper from which they’re drawn. “She’s a brilliant student,” said Fruit, the interim head of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “She probably knows the KENT Format better than anyone except Roger.”
Underpinning the KENT Format is an appreciation of the editorial judgment exercised in choosing and displaying the news. Fidler comes by this approach naturally.
During the Vietnam War, he gained both news judgment and design skills as art director and Sunday magazine editor of Stars & Stripes’ Tokyo edition. By 1973, Fidler was working on one of the first editing terminals in a newsroom. At the Detroit Free Press, he became one of the first editorial systems managers in the country, doing, in a sense, what he is doing now— building bridges between paper-andink and electronic production.
In 1979, the late Jim Batten, then a Knight Ridder vice president and later chairman of the Beacon Journal’s parent company, invited Fidler to develop in South Florida the first consumer online service, Viewtron. It resembled today’s America Online. It offered e-mail, video clips and graphically rich presentations on computers or televisions. The market, however, proved insufficient, and Viewtron folded in 1986, three years after Fidler had left to develop the first computer graphics service (today’s Knight Ridder-Tribune Graphics).
“Many people thought electronic publishing was done,” Fidler said.
In fact, it had only just begun.
As an information-hungry market developed in the 1990s, the World Wide Web grew. It is a lesson Fidler remembers and teaches. “It’s the old 30-year rule,” he tells doubters. In the first decade of a new concept, there are failures. In the second, potential begins to outweigh risks, as in the case of today’s mobile reading devices. In the third decade, which would begin with 2010 for the Tablet PC, Fidler predicts the devices will be ubiquitous.
Fidler’s prediction is built on experience. Not only did AOL and others finish what his Viewtron had started but Fidler also was the linchpin in electronic publishing format development that occurred in Knight Ridder’s Information Design Laboratory in Boulder, CO. It is a continuation of this work that Kent’s Institute for Cyberinformation is advancing in a way that offers new promise for Northeast Ohio.
“What is now a niche promises to grow into a major form of publishing,” said John West of the Liquid Crystal Institute. “Our early participation can make Kent a world leader in the field.”
When Knight Ridder shut down the Information Design Laboratory (it lost its champion with the death of the visionary Jim Batten), Fidler attempted to convince the University of Colorado to take on the lab. The school did not see what West, Cartwright and Creedon saw in the potential synergy between liquid crystal research and cyberinformation.
“The development of flat-panel displays,” West said, “provides the essential hardware on which electronic publishing is based. Northeast Ohio has the potential to gain jobs in both display production and in support services for electronic publishing.”
Years ago, Kent State missed early opportunities to transfer its liquid crystals expertise into jobs for the region. Development and production took off in Japan, not in Northeast Ohio.
“The first wave of liquid crystal research did not catch the attention of American investors,” Kent State President Cartwright said. “Another country really saw the light and picked it up. I don’t think we’ll lose the next wave.”
Cyberinformation is the edge of that next wave, and Kent State is determined not to miss the ride again.
“This is a place that moves from theory to practice very comfortably,” Cartwright said. “Roger Fidler’s work with the Institute is a prime example of Kent State’s commitment to research and development with realworld applications.”
Fidler is the bridge from the theoretical to practical. “His editorial, design and technology background and his passion for the tablet makes him the leader in this area,” said Palermini, the LA Times technology chief. “When we look at reading a newspaper on a screen, it’s pretty clear that a broadsheet paper wasn’t designed for a small screen. We wanted to experiment with what it would take to adapt what we do to fit a computer screen and deliver a good user experience.”
Other newspapers, including one of Ohio’s larger that Fidler is not at liberty to identify, are considering trying the KENT Format. The LA Times trial began this spring of 2003. Initially, editors and page designers will be required to transform print editions into electronic ones. But Fidler, Garzich and others have begun to shift their focus from adding value to the reading experience to work-flow issues—how the process can be automated so it appeals to smaller newspapers with fewer personnel and financial resources.
Some newspapers have begun to charge for access to their Web sites. Advertising alone has provided insufficient support. Fidler anticipates newspapers producing KENT Format editions will charge for single copies and subscriptions, with the eventual price perhaps two-thirds of print editions. A subscriber will be able to download the newspaper and go offline to read it. It will be cheaper for newspapers to deliver their product but they must figure out how to make the transition from print to digital, including amortizing their printing presses and distribution facilities and vehicles.
“I think the economics of electronic publishing over the next ten to twenty years will be so compelling,” Fidler said, “that it will be very hard for publishers publishers to justify keeping both a digital and print operation going.”
If Fidler is right, the question becomes which format digital becomes the standard. NewsStand President Kit Webster told Newspapers & Technology, the international journal of newspaper technology: “What we’ve found from talking with publishers is that most of them are not that excited about changing their formats.”
A facsimile of their print pages is less of a challenge. But even Webster concedes the added value of the Tablet’s PC pen input and slate style. Once glitches of first-generation machines are eliminated—and earlier reviewers have found them to be numerous but not prohibitive—Fidler expects subscribers to prefer tablets to printed newspapers for everything except “housebreaking the dog.”
“This,” he said, tapping a tablet screen, “is going to replace the proverbial cocktail napkin.”
Carrie Garzich and her generation will scribble their ideas on tablets, and, as likely as not, some of those ideas and the young people who have them will push electronic publishing to another level. In addition to traveling the world talking about the KENT Format, Fidler also teaches his own classes at Kent and speaks to others. Garzich literally bumped into him in a hallway during her senior year and Fidler began selling her the Institute for Cyberinformation and its work.
“It has been amazing what I’ve learned,” Garzich said.
She isn’t alone among Kent State students. “I think it is beginning to seep into the collective consciousness here,” Fruit said. “It’s our goal to bring the resources of the university to bear in support of cutting edge work like Roger’s.”
Kent State may become a center for electronic publishing. It intends to offer a summer institute. When Fidler speaks in New York City to national advertisers, in Barcelona, Spain, to the World Newspaper Conference or in the Far East, people no longer refer to Kent in terms of May 4, 1970, the day Ohio National Guardsmen killed four people during a Vietnam War protest.
“I’m not getting much ‘Why Kent?’ now,” Fidler said.
The publishing world knows why Kent. It’s because of Roger Fidler.