Jay Small

I am a digital-focused executive living near Nashville, Tennessee. And I’m a guitarist who has played in a few variety bands.
When they’re too much to tweet, sometimes I post thoughts and ideas here.

Real R&D: An answer for the newspaper business

This article by Jay Small was originally published in 2001 in the Future of Print Media Journal at Kent State University.

Technology fans are easier targets for sarcasm than technology skeptics. Think about it. A technofan’s boundless enthusiasm for the latest and greatest gizmos, games and gewgaws begins to resemble a happy addiction. A technoskeptic, confident in mainstream appliances and leery of new inventions by nature, comes to a discussion well armed with a hundred logical reasons not to try the Next Great Thing. Plus, a technoskeptic probably has a much more useful arsenal of insults β€” they’re part of any skeptic’s job description.

As a long-time journalist who now works for a consumer electronics conglomerate, I represent both camps: sometimes forward-looking gizmophile, other times quipping naysayer. I balance a greedy love of subwoofers, streaming media, plasma displays, digital signal processors and all sorts of flashing, buzzing toys with a simple desire to go home at night and spud out in front of some ball game on my plain old TV. I read personalized, instant e-newsletters on a computer screen while at work, but happily thumb through an old-fashioned printed newspaper at home. I have a digital satellite system with access to 200-some channels, but when it’s on, more than half the time it’s tuned to the same news channel.

I sometimes buy electronics for features I think are cool but will never use. That’s the technofan. But I sometimes satisfy myself with old technology long after better alternatives are available, to save money. That’s the technoskeptic.

Many people in the computer and electronics industries wish all consumers were technofans because they’re the ones who buy cutting edge products with the highest profit margins. The risk is that technofans’ enthusiasm fuels development and production of many proclaimed Next Great Things, which the technoskeptics, along strict party lines, will refuse to rush out to buy. Therefore, manufacturers resort to escalating hyperbole, which feeds technofans’ happy addictions while providing inventory for the technoskeptics’ insult warehouses.

Case-in-point: Microsoft, working with a couple of major electronics manufacturers, is launching a product called Ultimate TV. It combines Internet features like e-mail with a hard-disk-based video recorder, all in a set-top box. In effect, WebTV meets TiVo.

It’s the Next Great Thing for technofans. For technoskeptics, this development raises four questions:

  1. How many set-top boxes does it take to give consumers every feature they could possibly want on or anywhere near their TVs?
  2. Why do they call them set-top boxes when almost no current TV cabinet is designed with enough flat space to put a box on top?
  3. If this product is, as its name suggests, Ultimate TV, what are we supposed to think when the inevitable Ultimate TV 2.0 (or Ultimate TV Plus, or Ultimate Ultimate TV, or Ultimate TV: We Really Mean It This Time) comes out?
  4. Will that release, in fact, force us to rename the first version (wire editors, please note) Penultimate TV?

The preceding rant came from my technoskeptic persona, or possibly from my spleen. We’ve sent a sample to the lab for analysis. Meanwhile, while trying to find roadmaps to the Next Great Thing for the newspaper business, I recently read an article written by flagrant technofan Alice Hill for ZDNet News, a Web-based technology magazine.

In it, Hill laments a lack of innovation in home electronics. She says we’re under-teched. Cordless phones, she discovers, have more or less the same features they had 10 years ago.

“Where’s the color LCD interface, the option to receive faxes and e-mail?” she asks. “Was caller ID integration the height of improvement? And what about the fact that we still have those ugly antennas?”

The ubiquitous television, Hill continues, is also a stagnant platform.

“Blinding technical achievements: When I mute the sound, it goes into closed captioning automatically,” she writes. “I can also plug in my camcorder from a front panel instead of hunting around the mess of connectors in the back.

“My screen is flatter and I am also theoretically digital-ready. This took decades, and the rest is still pure 1970s.”

Medically, this sounds like a case of technofan withdrawal. Hill looks around her house at objects that do what she bought them to do and says that’s not good enough. The technoskeptic, on the other hand, appreciates something Hill forgets: the fact that those devices perform their intended functions better than older models at a lower cost.

So computer and electronics companies can’t just think about the technofan – they apply their engineering resources to address late adopters, as well.

Research and development engineers connect emerging technologies to theoretically profitable consumer applications, competing with other companies’ engineers to create whole new categories of electronics. These engineers are the auteurs of digital satellite systems, high-definition television, multimedia computers, DVDs and rich-media gaming consoles – all still comparatively new product lines, with their high ends pointed directly at technofans.

The Other Kind of Engineering

But another kind of engineering – cost engineering – comes into play as a product line matures. Cost engineers simply squeeze the same sets of capabilities out of less expensive components and assemblies. Cost engineering can be every bit as innovative as R&D engineering, but its results show differently. It’s the reason high-fidelity VCRs now sell for $69 instead of $1,999. Clearly, cost engineering is aimed at the technoskeptic.

Newspaper publishers, whether they know it or not, regularly practice cost engineering. Every newsprint conservation project, pagination system, recycling program and carrier route remap fits this category. Its an effort to reduce (or steady) the cost of putting out products without reducing quality, but not to create a substantially new product or feature. And there’s nothing wrong with cost engineering on a mature product.

So, yes, cordless phones are still just cordless phones. Except that you can get a clear-sounding, long-range phone today for less money than a bulkier, harder to hear, battery-sucking model 10 years ago. That’s great news for the technoskeptic, apparently not enough for the technofan.

How should we suppose these two personality types would view a typical daily newspaper? Much the same, I’d guess.

Technofans probably pay little heed to a printed edition, except perhaps as a portable, analog diversion in an otherwise digital world. They would seem more likely to use a newspaper’s Web site and expect the publisher to provide content and features well beyond the print product. Remember that a technofan wants a cordless phone that also faxes, plays video and makes mounds of julienne fries. Why not a digital newspaper that also tracks the technofans bank account and MP3 music collection?

Technoskeptics, it seems, would be satisfied with the print edition as long as (a) the carrier hits the porch every day, and (b) those @$%^#!! editors dont pull Crankshaft off the comics page again. They may have a PC and even use the Internet but spend the lion’s share of online time in e-mail or other communications functions, not on the Web.

If you’re a newspaper publisher, which audience do you want? Both, I presume.

Your marketers probably prefer the buying habits and demographics of technofans overall – and any newspaper probably has more room for market growth with them than with technoskeptics. But I think it’s just easier for newspaper folk to relate to technoskeptics (journalists’ classroom-honed skepticism is legendary, making them kindred souls). Thus it is easier to develop content and services tuned to their interests.

A Comfortable Kinship With Technoskeptics

Unfortunately, I think we fell back into this comfortable skeptic kinship when we first approached the Internet and digital media. Think back five or six years, to the time when the newspaper industry ramped up its collective efforts to seize the potential of these emerging technologies. Those of us who were new media managers in those early days love to talk about our freewheeling experimentation with Web sites. Looking back, I think the only reason it was remotely free-wheeling was that the corporate brass (a) spent only a blip of their operating funds on our skunkworks, (b) didn’t have Internet-ready computers and therefore (c) never saw what we were doing.

And our experimentation was nothing like the R&D engineering youll find in the electronics biz. Compare how the two industries approached key developments in new media (stereotype disclaimer: yes, I realize a few newspaper online efforts are exceptions to the following general statements, but all too rare):

The Web: It looked a little bit like a newspaper, so the newspaper industry built or bought systems that put articles and pictures on it so it would look even more like a newspaper. But to the electronics gang, it didnt look much like anything they had dealt with before – so they designed entire new platforms (WebTV, Web phones and Internet appliances) to bring it out of the PC and into the living room.

E-mail and chat: Newspapers bolted chat channels and message boards onto their Web sites, trying to keep them loosely tied to news topics, but wrung their hands over the sometimes crude nature of unmoderated communications. Some finally have learned the distribution power of permission e-mail. The electronics gang brought e-mail into mobile phones, chat into pagers and myriad synchronized Internet applications into personal digital assistants.

Streaming media: Newspapers tinkered with sound bites on their Web sites. A few even worked out deals with local TV stations to share video clips. The electronics biz, meanwhile, is still heads-down figuring out the transition that will make these digital media formats readily available in audio shelf systems, portable players and mainstream televisions. Already you can buy a dedicated Internet radio that can pick up 4,000 stations and customize your music choices. Soon we’ll see satellite radio receivers with commercial-free music in our cars.

You get the idea. The electronics gang saw the Internet as fertile ground for R&D engineering on entirely new products and applications. Our industry kicked into cost engineering before it had ever done the real R&D. Now newspapers are pained by meager Internet ad numbers, the near disappearance of paid content online and new cost pressures in the core print business. So the real cost engineering begins: new media staff cutbacks, Web site retrenchment and attempts to automate content producers’ handiwork.

We missed the R&D step where we were supposed to connect emerging technologies to theoretically profitable consumer applications. Oh, we spotted the emerging technologies; just like everyone else it was hard to miss the Internet bus. We just failed to define appropriate consumer applications before starting our freewheeling experiments with news content.

So we learned, the hard way, that consumers don’t see our Web sites as one-to-one replacements for the printed newspaper. They don’t like having to log on, find our sites and then poke around through nonstandard user interfaces to find articles of interest. Though they hate the way advertising is presented on the Web, they miss the advertising they could get in the print product. And they feel they’ve paid enough just for Internet access, so by God, theyre not going to pay again to read one newspaper there.

Its a good thing for newspapers, then, that the rest of the world economy is learning the same painful lessons about the Web. Its a fine library, but not a very good entertainment medium. Interactive digital media have to get much better before they can grow out of the adolescent novelty of the Web.

Thus, the electronics business is cranking hard to build new, Internet-connected, consumer-friendly media devices. I believe some of these devices will make fine homes for newspaper-style content, among other things.

What’s the Next Great Thing? I don’t think there’s only one. A steady stream of Next Great Things will keep technofans happy, and a few will even suit technoskeptics if they meet basic needs.

After 5, 10, 15 or more years of these Next Great Things, maybe not so many people will still need those drab cordless phones. But they will still need phones in some form. Though I cant speak for Crankshaft specifically, it follows to assume they’ll still need most of what makes up a newspaper in some form.

Its up to the industry to do the R&D β€” the real R&D β€” to find that form and the business model that supports it.

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