Screen gems: Roger Fidler talks about e-readers and tablets

Related: Read a 1981 essay by Roger Fidler, “Newspapers in the Year 2000: Videotex services will become mature businesses…”

Roger Fidler often starts his day by reading the Los Angeles Times on his Amazon Kindle DX.

He’s up early and doesn’t like waiting for The New York Times to hit the doorstep at his home in Columbia, Mo. The paper can sometimes be late, something that’s not a problem with electronic delivery.

For Fidler, program director for digital publishing at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, the habits he’s cultivated during a lifetime as a morning newspaper reader just may be a clue about who’s likely to enjoy an e-reader.

“It’s much closer to reading on paper,” said Fidler, describing the newspaper experience on a Kindle DX screen (9.7″ diagonal, black and white). “It’s probably why I like it. And it’s probably why other print-centric people will, too.”

Fidler, of course, has more expertise with e-readers and tablets — we’ll get to the distinction in a minute — than your average newshound. He’s a seminal figure in the history of electronic publishing and a founder of the Society for News Design. Fidler was a charter member of the nascent news design organization in 1979 and had a hope in those early days, as did many pioneering publishing punks, that SND could help lead because it was made up of people who got technology.

Fast forward to now. Unless you’ve been having your own news blackout, you have probably heard about Fidler recently. Much of the media coverage of all those new devices that might “save” newspapers and magazines inevitably mentions him, recalling his unrealized, somewhat prophetic prototype some 15 years ago for a thin electronic tablet that quite possibly could fulfill our on-the-go information needs.

The start of something

When he was in charge of Knight Ridder’s Information Design Lab, which aimed to create innovative solutions and look ahead “5, 10, 20 years” for the now-defunct media giant (it was the second-largest newspaper company in America at the time; KR shuttered the lab in 1995), Fidler had good ideas about the intersection of design, technology, reading and mobility.

The problem? No one in the skittish newspaper industry adopted his cool concept.

In fact, Knight Ridder wasn’t even interested in Fidler’s futurist musings until The New York Times’ John Markoff wrote an article in 1992 that caught the eye of industry titans and venture capitalists. That’s when they called him to Miami (then headquarters for the news chain; KR later moved to the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose, where I worked for the Mercury News). The company wanted Fidler to start developing devices that might deliver the news in new ways.

Fidler, who in 1991 spent nine months at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, had become captivated by the possibilities of what emerging technology could do for news design and distribution. He carried around prototypes of what he envisioned (his office in Missouri is a treasure trove of technology past). And he had that key ingredient for firebrands of all flavors: passion.

An industry not quite ready

When Fidler suggested plans in the early 1990s for moving beyond print, it’s interesting to wonder whether he saw the kinds of possibilities that now exist — or the hurdles ahead in getting people to listen.

“I anticipated the trauma that the newspaper business would experience as readers and advertisers made the shift to digital media,” Fidler said, “but I thought newspapers would adapt more quickly and successfully than they have. One of the things I didn’t see coming was the rapid development and adoption of Internet-enabled mobile phones and broadband wireless Internet access worldwide.”

Fidler has been disappointed by the delayed development of letter-size e-readers and tablets for news, especially as technology was evolving at such a rapid pace. He’s working on making up for lost time, though, in his work at Missouri with the Digital Publishing Alliance, a consortium of all the major U.S. publishers that aims to pursue new strategies, digital content products and business models.

But is it too late? “It may be too late for some metro newspapers,” Fidler said. “I’m still optimistic that the national newspapers, such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, will find a way to thrive in this new media marketplace. I also believe we’ll see new news organizations emerge that take full advantage of digital technologies.”

That’s the driving force behind Fidler’s current work.

“I would advise not giving up on edited and packaged print-like products that blend editorial and advertising content,” Fidler said. “There are still lots of people who enjoy reading printed newspapers and magazines.”

An enthusiastic advocate for design

Talking with Fidler can be exhausting (he apologized a few times for “brain-dumping”). He’s an astoundingly energetic guy — and never more so when discussing the twin arc of his life: news and technology.

That’s what gets us on the subject of the distinctions between e-readers and tablets (see, we remembered to come back to that), including how the device Apple appears to be announcing on Jan. 27 will be a step in a different design direction.

Fidler recalls something Ray Pearce, the vice president for circulation at The New York Times, told him when he visited campus recently. The analogy goes something like this: mobile devices are for snacking and print is for dining.

Roger Fidler exhibits a career's worth of e-reader concepts, prototypes and early devices in his office at RJI. (Photo by Steve Dorsey)

In the middle, then, might be tablets.

Tablets are more likely to appeal to people who want a whole experience, with less of an emphasis on reading. E-readers are at the opposite end — basically single-purpose devices that cater to people for whom the reading experience takes center stage.

“The downside is that e-readers are visually boring,” Fidler said, repeating a lament of many people who are stunned that the Kindle still does not have color capability. “I’m concerned that the full automation — the templating of these devices — isn’t quite capturing what was excellent about print. My hope is that, as e-readers mature, design will become more important to that overall experience.”

Tablets, Fidler believes, are more about that “give me everything” experience that thrives on the multiple apps that can do anything you desire, with a premium placed on the immediate gratification of having that untethered experience.

“Mobility and connectivity are important,” Fidler said. “Any device that does not allow for easy Internet access, whether that is a tablet or an e-reader, does not have much chance of success. We expect to be connected, and our transactions are dependent on that.”

The architects of the tablet platform, those in the craft doing interaction design, are considering the range of behaviors someone using the device will have. It’s the kind of work that has been interesting for iPhone designers the last few years, predicting people’s actions on that little screen. Imagining the next iteration, on a tablet that has a letter-size screen, has implications far beyond reading.

“It’s exciting to contemplate photos and infographics, which have been left out of mobile until now, getting new life,” Fidler said. “More news people should be interested.”

News designers, Fidler believes, can help companies see around the corner. If his own career is any indicator, that seems true.

A possible path ahead

Still, what about the current downsizing and what many see as a lack of investment in new ideas?

“Predicting what will happen in the next 20 years is a lot more difficult today than it was in the 1980s or 1990s,” Fidler said. “My advice to media executives, for what it’s worth, is to make sure you have people on staff who have the intellect and time to ‘play’ with emerging technologies and grasp their potential opportunities.”

Fidler’s working hard to be sure that happens by showing the revenue potential in e-readers and tablets, the kind of payoff that will allow for journalistic experimentation.

The next gathering of the Digital Publishing Alliance will happen in early March in Missouri. The topic? Editorial and advertising standards for the next generation e-readers and tablets.

You can bet that, whatever that new Apple tablet holds, Roger Fidler will have held one in his hands to give it a thorough workout soon after it’s released. We’ll expect a full report.

Resources

Matt Mansfield is an associate professor at Northwestern University and the co-director of the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program. Before joining the school, he was a deputy managing editor for the San Jose Mercury News, owned by Knight Ridder until 2006. Mansfield was president of SND in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @mattmansfield