Science Talk

Tomorrow's Newspapers and Next Week's Cars

In this episode, MIT Communications Forum Director David Thorburn discusses the future of newspapers and news in light of new technology. Scientific American editor Steve Ashley talks about the magazine's "SA 50" picks in the areas of automobile and fuel technology advances. And we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;;

Science Talk November 29, 2006 -- The Future of Newspapers and News in Light of New Technology; Automobile and Fuel Technology Advances

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the seven days starting November 29th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we will talk about the future of newspapers with M.I.T. professor David Thorburn and we will discuss the future of automobiles with Scientific American technology editor Steve Ashley. Plus, we will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, ink-stained wretch term, back in September, I attended a talk at the M.I.T. Communications Forum about citizens, media, news and the future of newspapers. Professor David Thorburn is the director of the M.I.T. Communications Forum and I caught up with him after one of the talks.

Steve: Professor Thorburn, great to talk to you today. Tell me about this series "Will Newspapers Survive?"

Thorburn: We were approached a few years ago about considering the question of what was happening to newspapers. The topic of journalism broadly—and especially the quality of American journalism and the way it's been changing—has been a recurring theme for the M.I.T. Communications Forum for a number of years. So, we decided to pursue a more systematic version of this general concern and we focused on essentially trying to create a conversation amongst working journalists, what I call media utopians or media visionaries who have a very acute sense of how the Internet and digital technologies are transforming society and newspaper users and readers. And what we are hoping is that we have organized it into three separate units, the second one was completed today and the third will be done on October 5th. So, we do these events live. The first one was titled "The Emergence of Citizens' Media," and it focused especially on forms of journalism that are enabled by the World Wide Web and by digital technologies. Today's event, "News, Information and the Wealth of Networks," focused more theoretically on the longer-term implications of the new technologies and the way they empower not only individuals but potentially create the possibility for new business models for how one might make profits from the distribution of information and also on the possibility of new models for civic journalism or civic discourse of various kinds. And then, the final forum will actually take up the question directly if newspapers are fading from the scene, if the average newspaper reader is aging, and the statistics indicate that the youngest people in United States are reading newspapers less and less. If that is true, does it matter? Is there something about newspapers? Not necessarily about the, what some people have called the dead-tree technology of newspapers, but the essence of newspapers, the moral assumptions and philosophic bases of the American newspaper. Is there something about that that is endangered as newspaper readers age? And what we hope the final session will do will be to try to identify those qualities in newspapers that most sensible people might hope would transfer into the new technologies that are emerging. One of the very great questions is whether or not the sort of unifying and consensus-creating effect of traditional newspapers will disappear when we move to the World Wide Web, which is certainly an environment of almost infinite special interest discourse. But where on the Web can you find an equivalent of the great national news organizations? And the question of what will happen to those organizations and whether, when they make their migration to the World Wide Web, whether they will retain their character or alter it are questions we hope would be taken up in the final forum.

Steve: Might it be a greater loss to lose the diversity and the idiosyncratic nature of the smaller local papers than to lose the big national papers?

Thorburn: Yeah, that's an important question and in fact, the evidence which seems to suggest that the great national brands will find ways to survive, that they will find ways to become hybrid forms that will exist in part on the World Wide Web, and [in] part in electronic form, and [in] part in podcast, and [in] part in maybe continuing for [a] long time in a hard copy or paper version. But the real question, at least it seems to me, that a real question that we need to really worry about is, what will happen to regional newspapers? What will happen to local newspapers, if it is true as it seems to be the case, that fewer and fewer young people are learning the habit of reading newspapers?

Steve: Let me ask you something about today's show, which a lot of it was related [to] the availability of citizen journalism because of the technology that's available to everybody now, and what I was wondering was, are we still at a stage where we are just trying to understand what's going on or are we actually trying to drive that movement in one direction or another, and there are definitely people who are trying to drive it. We were talking about the Astroturf groups, the people who may believe they are [a] grassroots group, but they are actually a major corporation or media ally and they are trying to do things, they are trying to convince you that they are smaller local people and they are obviously trying to use us because they think it does something. But do we know that that actually does anything, or are we trying to understand the phenomenon, or we are [we] actually trying to use it for something at this point?

Thorburn: Well, clearly both things are happening, but my own sense is, very powerfully, that the most authentic way to describe what's happening is to say we are still in the learning mode. I mean, of course there are people who are trying to seize the new technologies and drive an agenda with them, but there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that we are in the earliest dawn of the computer age, that we are in an embryonic stage – not even in an infancy stage yet – and if we think back to what those people who have access to computers and who live now in a kind of partly digital universe, people who are on e-mail all the time or surfing the Web all the time or have now begun to do their shopping on the Web.... If one thinks of what that situation was, or the absence of that situation even a decade ago or even five years ago, one can understand how rapidly this technology is actually dispersing itself through human communities. So, the certain answer to your question is, we are still in a profoundly beginning stage, in an embryonic stage, in which even when [the] nature of the technology is still in process. Nothing has been stabilized.

Steve: Alright, just the use of camera phones as a way where events that are ongoing get processed without the intervention of major media outlets and get widespread viewings by the general public, and that's probably a very good thing in the long run.

Thorburn: Yes, I think it is a very good thing. It's a very remarkable example of how the new technologies can empower people and can empower ordinary people in ways that maybe [we] have not been anticipating, when they certainly have not been anticipated. So, one of the great things that we are learning about the new technologies is how they exponentially enlarge the principle of unexpected outcomes of unintended results. Clearly, the people who manufacture the cell phones have put a photographic possibility into them are doing it because they thought consumers would like to take pictures of their wives, babies, sweethearts and whatever. It turns out that an ancillary and politically very potent use of these things is to protect citizens from unlawful arrest, from beatings by police who are out of control. It offers citizens an opportunity to record events that are happening as they occur. The great dramatic example we saw in today's forum was where the photographs that were taken in the London Underground when the explosions occurred. So, what it does mean, in a certain sense, is that every citizen is empowered potentially as a journalist, as a reporter to the world of events that surround him or her, and that is an important thing. So, another great conclusion, very widespread conclusion that most people now would accept to afford about the Internet, but was very much reinforced in today's discourse, is the idea that the distinction between the professional and the amateur – the journalist who has the credentials and reports the news and the consumer who sits there and reads newspapers – that barrier has been breached. That distinction is no longer nearly so powerful as it once was. And there are many, many amateurs in the blogosphere and elsewhere who are driving the news, who are correcting mistakes in the news from media or are making contributions directly to the mainstream media.

Steve: Professor Thorburn, thanks very much.

Thorburn: Thank you very much.

Steve: One of the great things about new media is that all these talks are available on the Web. There are transcripts, audio only or video. You can listen to them anytime you want. It's great stuff. Check it out at Also, check out a listing [of] all the forum talks at that same Web site: And if nothing else, one of those talks is up at the Web site is a conversation between David Thorburn and David Milch, the creator of the Deadwood series on HBO. It is one of the most fascinating hours of conversation you will ever hear. I promise.

Now, it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: A cosmonaut hit a golf ball off the space station.

Story number 2: Frequent consumption of skinless chicken can actually increase the risk of developing bladder cancer.

Story number 3: Spam now accounts for half of all e-mail.

Story number 4: Researchers are working on ways for you to recharge your portable electronic devices wirelessly.

We will be back with the answer. But first, last week we introduced the SA 50—the year-end Scientific American list of 50 individuals and organizations helping technology develop for the benefit of society. This week I spoke with SciAm staff editor Steve Ashley, who handled the section of the SA 50 list devoted to automobile and fuel technology.

Steve: Hey Steve, how are you?

Ashley: Very good. How are you Steve?

Steve: I'm okay. Tell me about this section of the SA 50 that you are responsible for: "On the Road to Green."

Ashley: It was heartening to see some progress in various automotive and fueling technologies and several technologies that we thought were promising. The first one that was pretty interesting was Iogen Corporation, a Canadian firm in Ottawa, and basically they have developed a way to make ethanol, which is a clean fuel for, you know, various car engines, etcetera, from farm crops. But instead of making it from corn, which is subsidized and often basically not a particularly cheap fuel if you look at those entire cost of farming, etcetera, they were looking at making it from straw, and they called this stuff cellulosic ethanol. Basically, what they did is they developed an enzyme that they use in a biorefinery, and they can convert about 40 tons per days of the straw into cellulosic ethanol. Cellulose is the stuff that makes up the cell walls, the tough cell walls of plants.

Steve: So, this would be something that would be an adjunct to the major fuel sources, I would assume.

Ashley: Oh, yeah. I mean, basically we are going to be importing oil for a long time.

Steve: We are not turning all that straw into gold.

Ashley: No! No! No! But the whole concept is the thing that we are focusing on. I mean, there is so much cellulose out there that if you could convert to something that was useful, like ethanol, you could perhaps reduce your imports. And also, there is a point that ethanol burns more cleanly, so it will help the environment as well.

Steve: Let me ask you about... there are some really big names in this section of the SA 50 like DaimlerChrysler and BMW and General Motors and maybe we will get back to those, but there are couple of places [names] that I had never heard before, one is called EDrive Systems.

Ashley: EDrive Systems is a company out in California, and Hymotion, a Canadian company, introduced what they call plug-in hybrid upgrade kits and what that allows you to do is take a Toyota Prius, and actually some other cars, and fit a device to it that includes a bigger battery that allows you to plug your car in at night to the plug in your garage and recharge the battery.

Steve: And Toyota had nothing to do with this, right?

Ashley: No, this is all add-on, what they call aftermarket. So, basically, you spend a fair amount of money – actually within the range of $10,000 dollars for an extra battery and the electronics to do this – and like I said, what it allows you to do is basically just plug the car into the grid and get cheap energy or cheap electricity at night to re-up the battery, and in that way you don't have to burn so much gas to recharge the battery during the day.

Steve: Alright, and basically we are kind of honoring them in this section for the concept, not necessarily because we think everybody is going to run out and get this.

Ashley: Well, I doubt if there is anybody who is going to do this behind [besides] a certain amount of enthusiast customers. Basically, though, if everyone did this and had a car that had plug-in hybrid, it would definitely have a huge effect on our oil usage and burning the oil, creating pollution, etcetera, carbon dioxide and things that we don't want to do.

Steve: Plug-in hybrids are something we have certainly covered in the magazine and everybody is looking forward to having them, around maybe 10 or 15 years from now. But these guys just took the bull by the horns.

Ashley: You know, small companies often are the innovators, the ones that bring things to market, and then the larger companies eventually adapt the technology to mainstream products. I don't think it's too many years before you will see a big auto company come out with a plug-in hybrid, but right now this is the best we can do.

Steve: So, there are a couple of new kinds of traditional hybrid. I mean, we are at the point now where we can talk about traditional hybrids.

Ashley: Yeah, exactly.

Steve: But there are a couple of new hybrid vehicles that GM and Daimler and BMW have been developing. Will you talk about those for a moment?

Ashley: Yeah, sure. Basically, the General Motors developed a technology called a two-mode hybrid system and then they formed a consortium with DaimlerChrysler and BMW to develop the technology, and what this does is attack the issue that most hybrids make their energy saving in stop-and-go traffic. On the highway, however, basically, most hybrids don't do that well. The mileage goes up or goes down, I am sorry, and we only get so much benefit on higher speed. What the two-mode does is allows you to grab better fuel savings even at the highway speed, much higher speeds that normally you would get benefit from traditional conventional hybrid technology.

Steve: Can you explain real quick how it does that?

Ashley: Yeah, sure. I mean, it's quite a complicated system, but basically what it does is it has two motors inside and some very complicated gearing mechanisms that allows you to recoup the normally lost energy in a hybrid system by changing the gear ratios, etcetera, depending on your actual vehicle speed. The technology itself looks to be able to save about 25 percent better than standard miles in combined mileage, meaning highway and stop-and-go traffic. So, that's pretty good.

Steve: Thanks a lot, Steve.

Ashley: Thanks a lot.

Steve: The entire SA 50 list is in the December issue of Scientific American and is available on the Web site,

Now, it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: Cosmonaut smacks golf ball.

Story number 2: Skinless chicken ups bladder cancer risk.

Story number 3: Half of all e-mails are spam.

Story number 4: Wireless recharging of portable devices.

Time's up.

Story number 1 is true. Cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin waited months for the go-ahead, but finally gripped and ripped, hitting a ball off the space station. For the play-by-play, sort of, listen to Tuesday's 60-Second Science, the daily Scientific American podcast.

Story number 2 is true. A new study finds that dining on skinless chicken five times a week is associated with a 50 percent increased risk of bladder cancer. The skin somehow lowers the levels of heterocyclic—means carcinogenic—compounds that form when cooking meat. For more, see the news article on our Web site titled, "Bacon Tied to Greater Bladder Cancer Risk," because bacon is as well.

Story number 4 is true. Researchers are attempting to develop ways to recharge your electronic devices wirelessly. A base station would put out a magnetic field that your iPod could tap for electrical storage. For more, see the news article on the SciAm Web site called, "Wireless Energy Transfer May Power Devices at a Distance."

All of which means that story number 3 about half of all e-mails now being spam is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS, because the e-mail security company Postini estimates that perhaps 90 percent of all the e-mail now is spam. Spam has tripled since June because of criminal gangs who have hijacked huge numbers of computers. For more info, check out the news article on our Web site called, "E-Mail Gangs Bombard Britain in Spam Wars."

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at Check out news articles and science video news at our Web site,, and the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science, is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article