Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Getting Started

To introduce myself and this blog:

For 30 years, I worked in newspapers -- as an advertising salesperson, an assistant circulation manager, an assistant business manager, an advertising sales manager, a marketing director, a general manager, a publisher, a group vice president. Along the way, I dabbled a bit on the news side by writing some columns and a few news stories. I was involved in everything from budgeting to production management, from managing personnel to coordinating major mergers, acquisitions and asset sales, from negotiating with unions to launching entirely new publications, from redesigning print products to launching and nurturing web sites. I retired from all this earlier this year.

Before getting printer's ink into my blood, I had a liberal arts education followed by a master's in hotel management and a stint running a country inn. So I figured out journalism and media management as I went along.

Early in my newspaper career, around 1979 or 1980, I went to a regional newspaper conference and attended a session at which the threat posed by cable systems was discussed. Cable systems at the time were expanding from a dozen or so channels to as many as 40 or 50 channels. What could they possibly do with all that bandwidth? Newspaper stiffs thought: they're going to steal our classified advertising—one channel for real estate, one channel for help wanted, one for used cars, and so on. And in fact, some cable systems experimented with that idea, and a few newspapers invested in countermeasures: they leased cable channels and sold their own ads on them. Ultimately, the threat evaporated when it became clear not many people were interested in viewing text ads scrolling on their TV screens. ESPN and a host of other enterprises sprang up to fill the available cable bandwidth.

But the experience got me interested in whether other electronic technology might eventually threaten or supplant newspapers. Earlier, the company I worked for had actually monitored and experimented with fax technology in the 1930s and 1940s, when the notion of a newspaper printed in one's home, by a giant fax machine on a roll of newsprint, was actually explored. The owners of the small newspaper group I worked for actually installed a prototype of such a device. It printed instantaneous headlines on a roll of paper that scrolled in a glassed-in display box outside the building. So the corporate culture was open to exploring new ideas.

In the 1980s, I kept track of pre-internet information technology experiments like the Minitel in France and other countries, Viewtron in Miami and Coral Gables, the pre-World Wide Web incarnations of AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe, and the newsgroups of Usenet.

In January, 1993, I attended a conference called "News in the Future" organized by Nicholas Negroponte at the M.I.T. Media Lab. Among the many topics and presentations were such things "Iconic Steam-Based Video Logging" (methodology by Ken Haase for a keyword-searchable video archive system), "Autonomous Agents" and "Interface Agents" ("knowbots" being developed by Patti Maes, which would search the internet for news information of interest to their deployer), "Paper-Like Interfaces" (Walter Bender's very early work on the development of e-paper). The conference led to the formation of a consortium, later called IO (Information Organized), led by the lab, which seems to have lapsed into inactivity.

I felt, at the time, that despite the technological razzle-dazzle presented at the conference, that none of this was likely to supplant the printed newspaper, or "dead ink smeared on trees," which was the catch phrase used during the meeting, and I exchanged some letters with Negroponte discussing those thoughts.

Then, along came the World Wide Web (while it was released for general use later in 1993, it had not been mentioned at the January M.I.T. conference). Soon, in 1996, our newspapers began rudimentary web sites. We agonized whether putting our content online freely would cost us paying readers, but early on we decided that we'd publish online as much of our content as possible. While site traffic grew enormously, far faster than our expectations, paid circulation remained constant, for about a decade.

Like many other newspaper industry professionals, I felt that the Web was a way to expand our readership, but that print would always be with us—that neither readers nor advertisers would not abandon the convenience of a cheap, portable printed paper. Circulation and advertising sales figures supported this feeling.

But I no longer believe this is true. In the last few years, I have come around, finally, to agreeing that daily newspapers—"ink smeared on dead trees"—are dinosaurs. Newspaper businesses that take the right steps may be able to survive, but with few exceptions, the printed package delivered daily to the doorsteps of their customers will not be part of a successful business model. I'll explain why in my next post, and then this blog will focus on its title topic, "News after Newspapers."

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