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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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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