It’s interesting how things like this can define people’s lives. You often don’t know at the time that something you’re doing is going to influence your whole destiny. That one article that I did for APME in 1981 really ended up defining my career, even though there are other things I did that I think were equally significant or perhaps more significant. But the tablet is what I will probably be associated with for the rest of my life. They might even put a tablet on my tombstone.
CB: What about the evolution of tablets and e-readers has surprised you?
RF: What has surprised me most is the rapid development of broadband wireless. That was something nobody was even thinking about back in the 1970s and 1980s. Cell phones were just starting to be developed in the late eighties and it was assumed that wireless would be very expensive for quite a while. So replacing newsstands with digital kiosks seemed like the only alternative for giving people access to fairly large files. That wasn’t something you’d be able to download with dial-up modems. We figured it would be easier for people to use kiosks at airports, train stations, shopping malls, and bookstores to have newspapers and magazines transferred to their reading device very quickly. That made sense back in the 1980s and 1990s. Clearly, broadband wireless technology has overtaken all of that.
Another thing I underestimated was the storage capacity that would be available on small devices. In the 1981 article I was talking about a device that could store several hundred pages of a newspaper. I did not anticipate that the storage capacity would be in the gigabyte and possibility terabyte range at this point. The hard drives that were being used in the 1970s and early 1980s for newspaper editing systems were very expensive. I remember large platters that stored eighty-eight megabytes, which today would be nothing. We kept being told that solid-state memory was going to be a very expensive thing to develop, but clearly that didn’t turned out to be true.
CB: And what do you think of the news industry’s foresight, writ large, along this front? Were publishers quick enough on the uptake where mobile reading devices were concerned?
RF: From 1992 through 1995, when I ran the lab, we were visited by newspaper executives from around the world. We met with analysts who told us that the lab was worth several points to Knight-Ridder in the stock market because it indicated to investors that newspapers were thinking about the future and preparing for it. I was invited to speak at conferences all over the world. So the enthusiasm was there.
The tablet concept immediately resonated with most publishers. They could see the potential there—that if they could produce a product for these devices, they could save in printing and distribution costs. But when the Web became a very popular medium toward the end on the nineties, publishers’ focus shifted to producing Web sites and managing their Web content. Many newspapers made the mistake early on of believing that if they just built up traffic on their sites, they could generate lots of revenue from advertising. Of course, that hasn’t materialized, and now it’s easy in hindsight for most publishers to look back and say we probably shouldn’t have given all of our content away for free. But at the time it seemed like a logical course.
CB: You launched the RJI Digital Publishing Alliance around the same time as the Kindle was launched in November 2007, right? What has the Alliance learned and/or accomplished since then?
RF: We actually had our first meeting a year earlier in October of 2006. We brought people to the Reynolds Journalism Institute from different newspapers and organizations to talk about whether there was a need for an organization to take a more proactive role in the development of content for emerging e-readers. By that time there were already a couple of e-readers on the market, but none of them were wireless. We also were conducting a field text of my digital newspaper concept using the Columbia Missourian, a community newspaper affiliated with the Missouri School of Journalism.