Business Brains

Digital future of newspapers, seen from 1981 and 2012

Posting in Technology

More than three decades ago, when only about 3,000 people in the Bay Area had PCs, newspapers were already contemplating their online futures.

The future of newspapers seems precarious, given the rise of digital media. However, back in 1981, when only about 3,000 people in the Bay Area had PCs, newspapers were already contemplating their online futures. Eleven newspapers, in fact, pooled their efforts to pilot an online venue. Media watcher Jim Romenesko surfaced this report from KRON on the earliest effort to put newspapers online.

Of course, in 1981, the interface was all text. But still, the promise of online news was enticing. An enthusiast in the video pointed to the fact that articles from online newspapers could be copied and printed out.  "Engineers now predict the day will come when we get all our newspapers and magazines by computer," according to the report.  A commentator added, however, that it took two hours to download the complete newspaper text by [phone-based acoustic coupler modem], so with a $5-an-hour access fee, the cost of the paper was a lot more than a 20-cent (at the time) copy of a newspaper.

Of course, the online newspapers predicted in that report are already yesterday's news. What no one in 1981 could have foreseen is the rise of converged media -- in which both newspapers and television re-invent themselves into something remarkably similar in a new channel. Consider this: if you go to a newspaper site such as USA Today and Wall Street Journal, you can watch videos of breaking news, interviews, or special interest stories. Is USA Today or Wall Street Journal now a broadcast network?

Similarly, if you go to CBS News, or CNN, you can read text stories. Is CBS News or CNN now a newspaper?  Does the difference even matter anymore?

The Internet has converged these two media to the point where you can't distinguish between the two. Newspapers provide video reports, and television stations provide articles to read. If there's a future for newspapers, converged media is it. And the distinctions between newspapers and broadcast networks are no longer so clear.

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure