While news is the critical element of a newspaper, the paper itself is important, too. Arranging columns of text, headlines and photos on big sheets of paper gives people a tangible framework for understanding a disorderly assortment of daily events. Carrying around a newspaper quite literally gives you a grip on the world. This remains true despite the success of the Internet, which can deliver fresh news to Web sites, cell phones and other digital devices 24 hours a day. Even rabid Net news hounds recognize the utility of paper, an information medium that can be carried to the bathroom or the beach without a long extension cord or the risk of electric shock. So don’t be surprised when newspapers outlive the death warrants issued by pundits who predicted the Internet would ultimately replace printed media. In fact, few industries stand to benefit more from the Net than the press. The only real question about the newspaper of the future is whether the paper itself will be made from trees or silicon. Two companies, PressPoint and NewspaperDirect, are betting on old-fashioned pulp. Their business model relies on the Net to tear newspapers into bits digitally speaking and reprint them at remote printers around the world. Both companies ask newspapers to provide digital copies of their next day’s edition each night before they go to press. The companies then send those large data files to remote computer stations, where they can be printed for anyone who asks. Newspapers on demand This process doesn’t produce exact duplicates of participating newspapers. Copies are printed on white 11-by-17-inch paper instead of broadsheet newsprint, a disappointment for those who enjoy authentic newspaper ink rubbing off on their hands. Some papers also send out less than their full edition. But to out-of-town travelers or expatriates hungry for news from home, these remote editions should be a sight for sore eyes. NewspaperDirect, which debuted this year under leaders including cyber guru Esther Dyson, has focused on delivering papers to luxury hotels. PressPoint, founded in 1997 by former executives from The New York Times, also caters to hotels. But the company distributes both papers and business publications to its own printing facilities in more than a dozen major markets, including Chicago. Both companies are aimed at a future when any printed publication will be able to be produced on demand from remote kiosks wired to the Net. The speed of both printing and networking would have to improve before this could work, but I’ll be surprised if such kiosks aren’t replacing newsstands before the end of the decade. By that time, though, paper might be on its way out of fashion. While many people will still prefer the printed page, those words might be written in digital ink. Two separate groups of corporate researchers are creating thin, low-power digital displays that can be rolled, folded and bound just like paper. Instead of putting a page aside when you’re done with it, you’ll be able to update it with the content of your choice and keep on reading. Digital paper Development of this so-called digital paper began decades ago at Xerox, and it continues there today. In the meantime, a startup named E Ink set up shop a few years ago in Cambridge, Mass., and is already producing thin electronic signs for retail stores. Executives at both companies say their ultimate goal is a digital newspaper: A multi-page section that never grows old, updated continuously with fresh content from one or more news providers. Of course, the ads would be interactive and targeted to the habits of readers an added plus for the direct marketing crowd. But that means advertisers would likely subsidize the cost of the paper itself, making it as cheap as newsprint. Of the two approaches discussed here, digital paper makes more sense in the long term. It saves trips to a kiosk, saves trees and saves money for both publishers and consumers. Until that product becomes popular, though, remote printing can increase circulation and reduce distribution costs for newspapers and other printed publications. Both technologies promise to extend the life span of the printed word well into the information age. The Net may well do away with the printing press, but it won’t make a dent in the popularity of paper. To contact Joe Salkowski, e-mail him at email@example.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.