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The paperless opinion page: the best opinion pages are as diverse as their audiences.

I have seen the future of newspapers. I saw it during a chase scene in Steven Spielberg's science fiction thriller Minority Report.

Tom Cruise was rushing through the crowd on a metro train in the year 2054 when I noticed that a nearby passenger was reading a newspaper (a USA Today, amusingly) with headlines, photos, and graphics that were moving!

Ah, yes, I thought, that's the future of newspapers: all content and no paper or ink.

Yet, as an aging newsie, I was comforted by how much the traditional broadsheet format endures in this futuristic scenario. Cleverness of design undoubtedly will gain importance on the future opinion page, amid the increasing competition for eyeballs and shortened attention spans. Spielberg's vision of a newspaper, informed partly by his consultations with the MIT Media Laboratory, pays tribute to the traditional newspaper layout, the time-honored canvas of innumerable page designers. It is hard to imagine a laptop screen that could match the convenience and the array of content that a newspaper page can offer, although it is getting at least a little easier to imagine every day.

It is also getting easier to imagine wireless connectivity everywhere. Mass communications are moving more and more of the masses to communicate--and through what better route than the soapboxes and bulletin boards that opinion pages offer? Even in our old-fashioned and currently endangered era of paper and ink, editorial and op-ed pages are increasingly interactive, bringing new voices every day into the public square of our communities and expanding their print-media reach with links, e-mail addresses, Internet polls, and weblogs.

When the Chicago Tribune, where I work, launched a daily online blog of reader's letters, within a few days it was drawing hundreds of thousands of hits per day. The same can be said for the instant rock-star popularity of our Washington bureau's offbeat blog "The Swamp." Think of it as an elegant dump site for great thoughts, factoids, and inside skinny that used to be released only by reporters' lips that had been loosened by alcohol at some nearby saloon--back in the days before urban American journalism migrated from taverns to health clubs.

One virtue that I do not expect opinion pages to lose is their diversity of writers and viewpoints, whether the pages are printed on paper or electronically transmitted on foldable flat-screens. In an Internet-generated era of increasing specialization and target-marketing to every teeny little demographic, the eclecticism of the newspaper opinion page ironically has gained value. Elsewhere the wonders of modern target-marketing and narrow-casting ironically have produced a funhouse not only for the curious, but also for those who prefer to keep their minds firmly closed. If the complexity of the real world offends you, fret not. Somewhere in today's increasingly specialized magazines, radio stations, cable TV channels, websites, and blogs you can escape the MSM (mainstream media) and find comfort zones for all of the livelong day that offer little or nothing to contradict your most cherished prejudices, preconceptions, or paranoia.

For the rest of us, there are GOM (good old media) like newspapers that still try to be all things to all people, generalist media that invite you with each turn of the page to suddenly be jerked alert and amazingly enthralled by some fascinating thing that you found on the way to finding some other thing.

The future is now. The best newspaper opinion pages already strive to offer an array of people and viewpoints (left, right, or "sensible center;' in Colin Powell's memorable phrase) that is at least as diverse as their audiences are. Variety is the spice of newspaper life--with or without paper.

Syndicated columnist Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail Cpage@tribune.com
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Title Annotation:MASTHEAD SYMPOSIUM
Author:Page, Clarence
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
Words:619
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