You want to take a look at the newspaper of the future?
You'll need an America Online disk, a personal computer and a modem. Sign on, and three clicks of your mouse get you to Mercury Center, the cyberspace home of the San Jose Mercury News.
On screen, you're facing a colorful array of icons representing different features: "Entertainment," "Sports," "Communication" and others. For the moment, though, ignore the pretty pictures and turn your attention to the "What's New Today" box--a list of regularly updated breaking news stories.
"Another Storm Blowing In." Hmm. You scan the first three paragraphs. You get the idea. You're ready to move on. . . .
But wait. The hourglass icon pops on the screen. This is the symbol that tells you--albeit in a cute, graphic sort of way--that the computer is moving more slowly than you are. It's not ready to take your next command. The delay lasts only a few seconds, but it's maddening. It underscores just how quickly your eye moves down the page of a newspaper, grazing for tidbits of interest.
And where are the cues to guide your eye? Cartoony symbols are the only pictures. The computer screen, with its seemingly endless series of windows--it takes four additional choose-and-clicks to get to a feature on "Wayne's World"--seems cramped. And all the headlines are the same size. How are you supposed to tell which stories are most important?
Well, maybe that's not so bad. Here on the "information superhighway," you get to decide for yourself what's important. That nine-inch story on the Oxnard slayings in the Dec. 4 issue not enough for your sensationalist sensibilities? Type in a code listed at the bottom of the article and read more about how the suspect once ran for Congress.
It's stuff like that--the features you can't get in a regular newspaper--that make this electronic paper so cool.
You can see stock quotes in almost real time. If you know what you're looking for, you can type in the subject and get all the relevant stories. (Except, for no apparent reason, your search for Michael Jackson stories comes up with a list including, "Bromeliads Easy to Grow.") You can pull up articles from back issues without spending hours in the library--though it does cost an extra 80 cents per minute.
And, in what amounts to genuine interactivity, you can talk to reporters and editors and other readers. Check out some of the hundreds of posted messages from other users on subjects ranging from the Middle East to the comics, and you begin to think maybe this could be better than a newspaper, or at least different.
But then you remember the time.
At $9.95 a month for America Online--plus $3.50 an hour after the first five hours--you're not going to wait around for the digital sand to sift through that hourglass. And as you read the dozens of suggestions to editors posted on the Mercury Center's "Feedback" bulletin board, you wonder why they don't just concentrate on improving the newsprint edition.
As one reader puts it: "I would like to request more news, more articles, more pictures, more of everything except advertising on Sundays."