Recovering newspapermen recount industry’s path from innovative to ‘obsolete’

Recovering Journalist | International Business Times | American Legion Magazine
Mark Potts writes a what-might-have-been essay, tracing the rise and stall of digital innovation at The Washington Post in the 1990s. It begins with a 1992 memo from then-Washington Post Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser to Publisher Don Graham, after attending a conference of leading technologists in Silicon Valley.

The Kaiser memo, sent 20 years ago this month, forecast that computers would cause seismic changes in media and called for the Post to invent new forms of digital news:

Many at the conference talked about the way we tend to use new media first to replicate the products produced by old media — so early TV consisted of visible radio shows, for example. With this in mind, our electronic Post should be thought of not as a newspaper on a screen, but (perhaps) as a computer game converted to a serious purpose. In other words, it should be a computer product.


Potts, the Post’s technology reporter at the time, says the Kaiser memo inspired a newspaper software program named “PostCard,” followed by other promising prototypes. But as years went by, the Post and other newspapers lost their innovative edge, Potts says:

Working on our own and in partnership with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, we developed a host of prototypes and concepts that pointed toward the digital future. One idea we played with looked a bit like what Groupon came up with nearly two decades later; we had hyperlocal concepts long before that word even existed. We even built versions of The Washington Post that ran on Newton, Apple’s then-revolutionary handheld computer, a precursor to the iPhone and iPad. It was a time of “anything goes” experimentation.

… We all know how digital media history played itself out after these heady early years. These early experiments coalesced into newspaper Web sites in the mid-90s. … Overly cautious newspaper managers, convinced that the print golden goose was immortal and immutable, failed to fully exploit most of the opportunities presented by the new medium. They simply didn’t innovate nearly as much as they should have, leaving the field open to upstart competitors until it was too late.

Jumping forward to modern times, former Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Glader writes a personal essay in American Legion Magazine about “the twilight of American newspapers.” He recounts his moment of realization in 2010 — as the sole print newspaper reader on an Amtrak train full of iPads and Kindles — that “technology is rendering the printed newspaper obsolete.”

Newspapers and books will increasingly become designer, boutique items and relics of a past age — a product demanded only by nostalgia, artistic value, political incorrectness (for killing trees in a digital world) and scarcity in the future.

The people running newspapers today, however, feel pretty optimistic about their future. A survey by Newspaper Association Managers found that “25 percent of newspaper executives believe the industry will be more relevant five years from now than it is today. A full half think it will be equally relevant, and only about 16 percent say it will be less relevant.”

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  • Anonymous

    Richard Tofel of ProPublica wrote a good piece on the decline of the newspaper business. Wirht reading, for those interested: http://goo.gl/KLMF0

  • Anonymous

    I think the headline is misleading and to some extent sensationalistic.
    Nothing in the article points to the demise of the industry.
    What is discussed is the PRINT version of newspapers.

    In this ongoing discussion about the supposed demise of newspapers, I wonder why mention of the quality of journalism plays such a small role. Why do we never hear about any correlation between how well-informed people are after consuming various publications? Why must the answer be to “redefine journalism in the era of the internet?”Why can’t we demand excellence more and then present it to people in a way that is more convenient to them, rather than having these endless talks about “where they went wrong”? To me, that is putting the cart before the horse.

    In the link in the last paragraph, there is discussion of what newspaper executives think about the future of the industry. The link leads us to a story that discusses the same topic (in a similarly-phrased way, by the way). The link in that story leads to another story covering the topic. That third story leads to nothing. And the NAM website mentions nothing about the poll on the pages available to the public. If someone asks Mr. Sonderman “How do we know that the poll even exists?”, what can he answer?

    I mention this because I had hoped something had been learned by Poynter from the passing on of erroneous information in the Zakaria plagiarism case. Here, Poynter is reporting on information at least thrice removed from the original information and gives its imprimatur to it by reporting it without comment. Not to mention, since when has information three times removed from the original source constitute news?

    The future of the industry is often a topic at Poynter, but i have never heard anyone mention what Mr. Zara mentions: “it’s important to note that newspapers have been declared dead before. Radio and television were both expected to kill them off, and by the time the Internet rolled around in the 1990s, newspaper circulation had already long since peaked.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    re ”The people running newspapers today, however, feel pretty optimistic about their future.”
    In fact, newspapers today are “snailpapers” a term i coined a few years ago and even made a youtube video song about, google it on Youtube, titled “I Just can’t live (without my daily snailpaper) with cameo text appearances by Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Ben the Bradlee, the old LA Her-ex and other papers. Thing is: much as a i love print and refuse to read online, i hate these screens and i call what we do online as “screening” and not “reading” per se, print newspapers are snailpapers, coming to the door 12 hours late. The future, sadly, is with digital screening, and this sucks. I am glad I will be dead soon.