Last week on the "Online Journalism Review" site, Robert Niles offered an intriguing perspective on the history of online news. He suggested that perhaps "early online publishing technology affected [news] industry thinking in profound and ultimately tragic ways."

Recalling his days as the sole news producer for the Rocky Mountain News' site in 1996, Niles detailed a painfully laborious process involving several incompatible systems necessary to put a couple dozen stories onto the site each day. It involved ATEX, Pantheon, Access, Photoshop, Notepad, and two FTP programs.

Why does this matter now? Here's what Niles says:

"I believe that the hoops we had to jump through to get newspaper stories online influenced newspaper managers' perceptions about the difficulty of online publishing. ... Senior newspaper managers, the people plotting the business future of the industry, saw online publishing only through the prism of getting their content from their proprietary print systems through programs like Pantheon and onto the Web. That led many of them to see online publishing as something difficult, creating a high barrier of entry for potential competitors."

To summarize more of Niles' argument: Since newspapers found online publishing technically difficult, news managers assumed that it would be at least as difficult for everyone. This led them to assume they would face limited competition online (only from large organizations).

Thus, they missed or dismissed competition arising from small startups or independent efforts outside of the "media business." This in turn led them to feel less pressure to be creative and innovative online, so they generally implemented conservative strategies in order to keep things as technically simple and under control as possible online. This mindset and approach ended up allowing new online competitors and technologies to quickly outpace news organizations.

Niles asked: "What if the Bay Area newspapers had developed a free online classified service, and attempted to upsell some of those free advertisers into a paid print ad -- the opposite model of what so many newspapers pursued? If they had, perhaps there wouldn't have been a Craigslist, and the future of the news industry could have developed along a radically different arc."

Personally, I think Niles is at least partly right. When you're used to wrestling alligators, it's hard to see mosquitoes as a threat. That applies not just to technology, but to envisioning the nature of the business you're in.

And when you're already committed to large, cumbersome, proprietary systems, it's natural to want to psychologically continue to justify your prior expense and effort by trying to squeeze more mileage out of it, rather than start fresh with new tools (even experimentally).

What do you think of Niles' perspective on this issue? Do you think the special hurdles large news organizations faced with early online publishing led them to be too timid about innovation, thus hindering future opportunities?