This newscast from KRON in San Francisco in 1981 has been making the rounds recently. It’s labeled “primitive Internet report,” but what it presents is actually one example of the many pre-Internet efforts that the newspaper industry made to try to plan for an online future — and stake out its own turf in that forthcoming world.
This particular example has a lot of personal resonance because the newspaper involved is the SF Examiner. The video’s now antediluvian-looking images have a Proustian quality for me: In 1981 I was just graduating from college, but five years later I’d be going to work in the newsroom you see in this video. Those green-on-black screens you can see the reporters working on (“Coyotes,” they were called) strained my eyes for a decade. Dave Cole, the guy who introduces the Examiner’s “experiment” in making its content available via modem to home computer users, was still there, working on the computerization of the paper’s operations; he went on to become a well known industry consultant.
In the video, you can hear Cole say, of the “Electronic Examiner” he was demonstrating, “We’re not in it to make money.” At the end, the announcer points out that an entire edition of the paper takes two hours to download, at a $5/hour cost — making this “telepaper” little competition for the paper edition. “For the moment at least,” the reporter declares, over the image of a sidewalk news vendor hawking the afternoon edition, “this fellow isn’t worried about being out of a job.”
Though the piece does say that “Engineers now predict the day will come when we get all our newspapers and magazines by home computer,” its underlying message is — Don’t worry. This crazy computer stuff isn’t going to change anything much for now. And indeed it took 10 years for any sort of online service to become even remotely popular. Almost 30 years later, newspapers are still in business; some are even still sold by guys on sidewalks. It has taken this long for the technology to transform the newspaper biz in a big way.
What you can see at work in this clip is the “computers will replace trucks!” perspective that continued to hobble the news industry’s online efforts for many years. The “Electronic Examiner’s” use of the computer as an efficient transport mechanism for the same old product was understandable; it was a Herculean effort in 1981 just to get this stuff to work (and there were precious few customers/users).
But even as the downloads sped up and the connect-time costs dropped, the industry held onto that approach, instead of coming to grips with the fundamentally different dynamics of a new communications medium. What had made sense in the early days over time became a crippling set of blinders. The spirit of experimentation that the Examiner set out with in 1981 dried up, replaced by an industry-wide allergy to fundamental change.
“Let’s use the new technology,” editors and executives would say, “but let’s not let the technology change our profession or our industry.” They largely succeeded in resisting change. Now it’s catching up with them.