Why New Media Isn’t: A Personal Journey

Last week, after my four and eight-year-old sons finished playing games on our home computer, I watched part of the YouTube/CNN Democratic presidential debate live on the CNN Web site.

I’ve watched many debates over the years, but never on on the Web, and of course this was the first with YouTube videos.

As I turned off the computer once it was over, it occurred to me just how much new media technology has changed during my lifetime.          

I remember how, almost forty years ago on the night of November 5, 1968, my dad and I watched CBS anchor Walter Cronkite describe the presidential election on our black and white TV. 

The next day we heard on the AM radio and read in the afternoon newspaper that Humphrey had conceded the very close election to Nixon. 

A New Beginning

In January 1969, two months after the election, the seven members of my family (and our cat) piled into a blue Ford station wagon and moved from New Jersey to Florida. It was a new beginning for a nine-year-old. 

We traveled without a Google map or GPS navigation system, just a large unfolded paper road map, two parents, one grandmother, a traumatized cat and four hyperactive kids asking, “are we there yet?”

And very far away, in California, New York, and London, the first chapter in the history of new media and online journalism was unfolding in some large mainframe computers.

During 1969, the predecessor to the Internet came to life, The New York Times started archiving electronic abstracts of their stories, and the BBC tested a new interactive media format called videotex.

Although there would be many false starts and commercial failures, the foundation was laid for the new media ventures we know today.

And yes, our crowded blue station wagon finally made it to Florida.

Welcome to the Computer Age

My only experience with computers in 1969 was watching television news reports describing the computers that launched Apollo 11 to the moon.

Computers were not part of my life and the online world did not exist.

A few years later I was welcomed to the computer age in junior high school. It was 1972. I remember seeing a friend walking down the hall carrying a Texas Instruments calculator, a small pocket model that not only helped us with our math, but was also a lot of fun to use.

At just about the same time, a local pizza restaurant installed a very early computer game machine called Pong. It seems funny now, but I was transfixed as I pushed the buttons to maneuver a bright white dot back and forth across the screen. My eyes have been reading computer screens ever since.

In 1972 ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet, was an experimental network of computers commissioned by the U.S. government. Only a small group of academics and engineers were actively involved with computer networks, but a few of them were interviewed that year for a fascinating film called “Computer Networks: The Heralds of Resource Sharing.” (Recently the 1972 film was posted on the Web.)

Not far from where I lived, local newspapers also entered the computer age as their newsrooms began replacing typewriters with computer terminals. There were many challenging days ahead as newsrooms reinvented themselves and reporters were introduced to the new technology.

Gerald Ford visited Orlando during the 1976 presidential campaign and my high school journalism class wrote about his trip on our manual typewriters. Some of the local reporters may have typed their stories into newsroom computers. 

Life would get a little easier for professional journalists a few years later when Radio Shack introduced the TRS-80 model 100, which became a popular laptop for writing this type of campaign story on location. But no one ever called it the model 100, to reporters it was the “Trash 80″. 

Online with a Modem

You could read an online newspaper as early as July 1, 1980.

All a reader needed was a computer, such as an Apple II or the TRS-80 desktop model, and a modem with access to the online CompuServe dial-up service.

This was the beginning of a unique CompuServe and Associated Press experiment. The first newspaper to go online was The Columbus Dispatch. Eventually ten other AP member newspapers were part of the project, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, the Los Angeles Times, The Virginian-Pilot, The Middlesex News, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Although it ended in 1982, the experiment became another crucial step in the evolution of new media and online journalism.

As the Compuserve project faded away, a new electronic newspaper began. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram launched its “StarText” computer BBS (Bulletin Board System) on May 3, 1982.

Online with Television

Another ancestor of today’s online sites appeared on my neighbor’s television set in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They subscribed to a basic videotex or teletext service that posted wire service news bulletins. It was just text and simple graphics, but I found myself drawn to the news and weather updates as they flashed across the TV screen.

Some of the U.S. companies testing videotex included Bonneville International and KSL-TV, Field Electronic Publishing and WFLD-TV, CBS and KNXT, NBC and KNBC, Taft Broadcasting and WKRC, Westinghouse and KPIX, PBS and WGBH, the Louisville Courier-Journal & Times, Springfield Television and WWLP-TV, and Time Video Services.
 
Viewtron, one of the most ambitious U.S. videotex projects, was launched in 1983 by Knight-Ridder and AT&T. Times Mirror created another major system called Gateway in 1984. Both programs ended in 1986.

Videotex never caught on in the United States, but it became successful in other parts of the world. It failed in the U.S. due to expensive technology and an audience that wasn’t quite ready for online news and services.

However, videotex served as an important transition to dial-up BBS sites, USENET User groups, and online computer services such as the WELL, Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL.

Online with Vendor Databases

When I moved to Tampa to attend the University of South Florida as a mass communication major in 1979, I worked part-time at the college radio station, WUSF-FM. Although none of us knew it at the time, major technological changes were coming to the station and all of the university.

The radio station still played large vinyl LP record albums when I arrived, but by 1983 the station was playing music CDs, receiving many of their NPR programs by satellite, and using personal computers in some of the offices.

A few years later, over at the university library, the rows and rows of card catalogs in their familiar small wooden drawers were replaced by online computer catalogs. As a history graduate student I spent many hours researching with library academic databases through online vendor services.

It was also an important time for news libraries. Computer database vendors such as Nexis helped transform traditional news libraries into news research centers. (Nexis included The New York Times story abstracts that started in 1969.) During the 1980s, with the aid of their 2400 bps modems, researchers tracked down news stories with vendors such as Dialog, Dow Jones, Vu/Text and DataTimes.

Technology brought an end to the daily clipping of newspaper articles. New stories were now added to electronic newspaper archives. These archives became a valuable resource not only for reporters in newsrooms, but also for vendor databases, and years later, for Web sites.

Poynter Typewriters and Computers

There were very few computers in the Poynter Institute’s Third Street South building when it opened in 1985. The staff was small and you could still run a school without computers. That quickly changed.

In addition to their electric typewriters, many staff members soon added Zenith PCs to their desks. When I joined the Institute’s library in 1986, I used a typewriter but occasionally worked on a Kaypro computer.

One of the first places computers appeared at Poynter was in room 220, which became the home for the Institute’s Apple Macintosh computers.

Apple’s Steve Jobs, who first introduced Macs to the public in 1984, must have been pleased to see how popular they became with journalists, especially those creating information graphics during the late 1980s.

My First Home Computer

I finally bought my first home computer in 1990. It was an inexpensive laptop from Radio Shack.

A few weeks after I purchased the computer, I showed it to my dad and he smiled. My dad was impressed by the small laptop, but he also didn’t understand why typewriters, which he could remember since he was a boy in the 1930s, were not good enough anymore.

My mom learned about technology as my three sisters and I gave her our old computers. (She eventually tired of our machines and finally bought her own.) We also served as my mom’s personal IT department with each of us, and my brothers-in law, answering her tech questions. If we couldn’t be there in person, we would try to help over the phone. “Okay mom, can you look at the back of the machine and tell me if the printer cable is plugged in? Great, now…”

By the end of decade she regularly used online services to pay her bills and send e-mail notes to her grandchildren.

When my wife brought a Macintosh into my life in the middle 1990s, we learned how to live in a PC and Apple household. I always made sure that our 3 1/2-inch floppy disks were carefully stored in separate boxes. Together we also dealt with with important family issues such as how to schedule phone calls when the computer modem was tying up our phone line. Thank goodness broadband cable access eventually took care of that problem.

Online with the Web

My first look at the Internet came in 1993 when I started using a text-only dial-up service called Delphi.

Once online, Internet navigation systems like Gopher gave me access to resources around the world, as well as to my first e-mail account. But for all its success, my Delphi version of cyberspace still lacked graphics.

A great deal of the credit for moving the Internet from the text-only environment researchers had known since 1969 to the popular hypertext graphic interface of the World Wide Web should go to Tim Berners-Lee, who wrote the original WWW prototype in 1989.

But the Web we know today really began taking shape in April 1993, when Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, was released by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mark Andreessen lead the group of computer programmers who developed the browser that allowed access to “the information superhighway.”

It seems hard to believe today, but most people didn’t even know the Web existed in the early 1990s. Most of the online community had their eyes on the screens of America Online, Prodigy, and Compuserve.

When Poynter held a conference in 1994 about the future of online journalism, two of the most prominent online news examples were America Online’s “Mercury Center” (San Jose Mercury News) and Prodigy’s “Access Atlanta” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

This was the future of journalism. (For about a year.)

Although the e-mail services of AOL remained popular for many years, Mosaic and commercial browsers such as Netscape and Explorer changed how computer users went online.

Online in 1995 and 1996

By 1995 the Web had captured the world’s imagination. News-related Web sites were now appearing all around the globe.

Media sites that were online with AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve, Interchange, BBS and other services began switching over.

A few of the news sites on the Web in 1995 and 1996 included the Lawrence Journal-World, Raleigh News & Observer, San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle, USA Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Petersburg Times, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Tampa Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Arizona Republic, The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNET, Wired Magazine, Slate, ZDNet, and Salon.

Some of the U.S. TV stations and networks on the Web were KHON (Honolulu), KVIA (El Paso), WGBH (Boston), WRTV (Indianapolis), WDIV (Detroit), WRAL (Raleigh), WCCO (Minneapolis), ABC News, CNN, CBS News, FOX News, and MSNBC.

Foreign sites included the BBC, The Guardian (England), London Daily Telegraph (England), Die Welt (Germany), Le Monde (France), Asahi Shimbun (Japan), The Age (Australia), and La Nacion (Argentina).

More than 4,500 newspapers and 1,400 TV stations were online by 2001.

Poynter Online, the Web site you are reading now, also began during this period. It started as a text-only BBS service called “ViewPoynt” in early 1994. Later that year, on December 31st at 7:30 pm, the Institute launched its Web site and the BBS was shut down.

The audience for Poynter Online expanded significantly when Jim Romenesko joined the site. Editor Bill Mitchell invited Jim to become part of Poynter Online after reading about Jim’s “mediagossip.com” site in The New York Times. In October 1999 Jim’s site moved to Poynter with the new name “Romenesko’s Medianews.” (The name was changed to “Romenesko” in 2003.) It quickly became one of the most visited journalism sites on the Web.

Online News

Big news stories test and define journalism technology.

Radio news came of age during World War II and the importance of television news became clear after the medium’s coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination.

The April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was one of the first major stories to show the potential of online news. Online users could read coverage on AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve, and the growing number of news sites on the Web. And there were reports from the first generation of online citizen journalists who used their HTML coding skills to create Web pages for the world to see.

Some of the other news stories marking online’s growing influence include the 1996 Unabomber arrest; 1997 car crash of Princess Diana; 1998 story of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky; 1999 countdown to Y2K and the new millennium; 2000 presidential election; September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; 2002 Enron and Daniel Pearl stories; 2003 Columbia Shuttle disaster and the beginning of the Iraq war; 2004 Abu Ghraib images, “Memogate”, and South Asia Tsunami; 2005 London bombings and Hurricane Katrina; 2006 sale of Knight Ridder; and the 2007 presidential campaign.

Links to the Past

In the Spring of 1995 Nora Paul asked me to compile a new media timeline for one of her Poynter seminars. It was just a short handout for her students.

I continued to add to the handout and in 1998 I posted it on Poynter’s Web site. Five years later the project was updated for Howard Finberg’s Web+10 conference and I’m currently adding to it again.

My interest in journalism history keeps this project going year after year. I joke that the timeline helps preserve new media history one Web link at a time.

While updating the timeline, I’ve found that sometimes technology that seems important in the short-term, fails in the long-term. My favorite failed technology was the CueCat, which scanned print barcodes and then linked computers to specific Web sites. CueCat looked like some strange combination of a plastic cat and computer mouse.

More than ten years have passed since I started the timeline, and I’ve learned that people not only remember, but they can be very nostalgic about their old computers, software, and online sites.

Yes, it is just technology, but these old machines and Web sites were part of their lives.

Today

Technological change keeps coming, and it is coming faster every day.

During the 1970s and 1980s media companies created computerized newsrooms. In the 1990s and early 2000s they went online. Today journalists are transitioning to Web 2.0 multimedia newsrooms and using blogs and social networks.

My youngest sister, Mary, is a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. (She was just two years old when my family moved to Florida in the crowded blue station wagon.)

I’ve enjoyed talking with Mary during the past few years as multimedia has played a larger part in her reporting. When Poynter’s Web site posted my Soundslides and podcast projects, she reminded me how important it is to learn these types of online production skills as newspapers and all types of media continue to change.

From the desk in Poynter’s library, where I’m typing this story on a Dell laptop computer, I can often see students talking on cell phones, checking e-mail on BlackBerries, listening to iPods, visiting Web sites, reading blogs, and searching Google before they return to their classrooms.

The technology is faster and news cycles never stop, but these students are not unlike the people I saw from my desk twenty years ago, when electric typewriters and pay telephones filled the Poynter Institute. Every generation is searching for something new to learn.

Tomorrow

Recently my four-year-old old son Robert played an online Star Wars game on our home computer. It was amazing to watch how comfortable he was with the computer and how easily he mastered the game. Robert will never know a world without the Internet and computers, much in the same way I could never have imagined a world without television when I watched Walter Cronkite with my dad in 1968.

Soon after his online game was over our computer mouse broke (Robert didn’t do it). So I drove my gray Toyota Highlander to a local “Best Buy” store to purchase a new one.

As I walked around the store looking at all the new technology on the shelves, I was thinking how, in just a few months, these machines will be replaced by tomorrow’s cutting-edge technology.

Who knows what will be on the shelves in the future, or how the news will be delivered, but we do know that it will be just another chapter in the history of new media and online journalism, a history that isn’t very new after all.

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