The future of Internet news, circa 1981

This ancient clip from a local San Francisco broadcast has been floating around for a while, but it keeps popping up in discussions about the fate of the newspaper industry, so I couldn’t resist. It’s pretty priceless viewing if you haven’t seen it.

And not just because it’s hilariously antique — it’s also a prelude to a cautionary tale. Believe it or not, the San Francisco Examiner was once working on the cutting edge of the Internet. The Examiner’s David Cole certainly intended no irony when interviewed then about their “electronic newspaper” experiment: “We’re trying to figure out what it’s going to mean to us as editors and reporters and what it means to the home user. And we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t going to make much, either.”

Online media pioneer Scott Rosenberg (at the Examiner himself back in the 1980s and a mentor of mine at Salon in the early 2000s) wrote insightfully about this clip a few weeks back, and how far the newspaper industry hasn’t come:

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.

That’s probably putting it lightly, considering the current state of the San Francisco Chronicle (a participant in the 1981 “experiment”), the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News and so many others.

Today, a heartfelt eulogy from Nancy Mitchell, a former reporter for the freshly defunct Rocky, carries its own layer of irony. Mitchell’s sentiments are genuine and noble, and certainly appreciated by this fellow newspaper fan and ardent believer in the value of quality reporting.

But Mitchell falls yet into the trap described above — denial of inexorable industry transformation, and a failure of imagination. She blames faceless management types at the Rocky for attempting foolish or half-baked ways to recast the paper in a time of dramatic change. (No doubt they did.) She quietly denigrates experimentation with digital tools like blogs, Flickr and Twitter, as if nobody interested in serious journalism should have to deal with “the anxiety attached to learning the gimmicks.” She seeks shelter in a credo once posted in her managing editor’s office: “Three simple rules, not produced by a focus group: Get the news. Tell the truth. Don’t be dull. I’d like to believe we did all three.”

What Mitchell doesn’t seem to realize is that all three — and more — increasingly can and will be done digitally. The audience will be there to engage with it. Business models will arise to support it. Technology will keep transforming it. It seems obvious to say it’s the way the world is fast going, whether with reporting, commentary or many other information-based creations. Just note where her piece was published, of course, and how you’re encountering it right now.


2 comments so far

  1. rrw on

    It’s strange how local tv news hasn’t changed in the slightest since 1981 and yet it’s not at all threatened with extinction by the digital transformation. In some ways local TV news seems stronger than ever. If you changed the hairstyles slightly and maybe the fonts, this little news piece could easily be dropped into a local news broadcast in 2009 and no one would notice. How does that work that newspapers go the way of the dino and trashy local news marches into the future triumphantly?

  2. markfollman on

    Indeed, the secret of their triumph seems to be those sly hairstyles. They just sort of quietly went hi-def when nobody was watching. Look closely… it’s the weather anchors really holding it down.

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