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The one big thing that newspaper visionaries didn’t foresee

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It’s easy to forget sometimes that the world wide web has been around for more than two decades now, or that it has caused massive and ongoing disruption of almost every form of content from books and newspapers to music and movies. In the early 1990s, only a few really foresaw that kind of revolution occurring in media, and as former journalist Mark Potts notes in a recent blog post, one of those who looked into the future with some accuracy was the former managing editor of the Washington Post, who wrote a memo to the paper’s executives describing what this future might look like and how it would change the industry.

Even more interesting than what this former editor got right, however, are the things that he and almost every other visionary completely missed — and one of the most important was the way that the news industry would be transformed by social media. From blogs to Twitter, that transformation (or what Om has called the “democratization of distribution”) has probably been more disruptive than any other technological development since then, and it is one that many media entities still have not fully adapted to or taken advantage of.

Potts, a former technology writer for the Post, explains that managing editor Robert Kaiser was invited by Apple chief executive officer John Sculley to attend a conference in Japan about the future of digital media, and the memo (which Potts has posted on his site as a PDF) was his attempt to sum up what he learned for the newspaper’s senior managers. Much of what Kaiser says seems blindingly obvious now, but as Potts notes:

“This was 1992, when ‘going online’ meant connecting to services like Compuserve and Prodigy via slow, squeaky dial-up modems. PCs had just made a transition to color screens, laptops were still a novelty, cellular phones were rarer (and bricklike) and nobody but Tim Berners-Lee had heard of the World Wide Web.”

Digital media means more than paper on a screen

Kaiser talks about the massive advancements in computing power that the experts at the Japan conference were describing, including processors that would be able to handle billions of operations per second and new technologies that would allow computers to “take voice instructions” and even “read commands written on an electronic notepad.” All of those things have come to pass, of course, along with the “easy transmission and storage of large quantities of text, moving and still pictures.”

Potts then describes how he and some other Post staffers used the impetus of the memo to come up with early prototypes for a digital version of the paper, using Apple’s HyperCard software — and while the display is crude, the elements of what would become the newspaper’s pioneering site (of which Potts was the co-founder) are all there, complete with images and links.

Kaiser’s memo undoubtedly helped push the Post towards the web, something both Graham and several other executives at the paper were early to recognize as a powerful force for journalism. And the Post chairman has continued to push for innovation, becoming an early proponent of Facebook — and a mentor to founder Mark Zuckerberg — and encouraging experiments like the Post‘s social-reading application for Facebook and its Trove news-recommendation engine, among others. As we’ve written before, the newspaper seems a lot more interested in pursuing these kinds of innovations than in erecting paywalls.

So Kaiser definitely got the emerging trends right. But the biggest thing that he and virtually every visionary missed was the impact of what would become known as “Web 2.0” — that is, the revolution created by tools like blogging pioneer Dave Winer’s Radio Userland software and Blogger, which Evan Williams sold to Google (s goog) before he went on to help launch another revolutionary social-media tool called Twitter. Between them, these two developments have done more to turn the world of traditional media on its head over the past two decades than any of the technological breakthroughs that Kaiser detailed in his memo.

Social media is a bigger disruption than faster processors

Not only did blogging lead to the emergence of some new-media powerhouses such as The Huffington Post (s aol), but the fact that the barriers to publishing had been permanently lowered allowed “the sources to go direct,” as Winer has described it. At first, only a few — such as billionaire media entrepreneur Mark Cuban — took advantage of this phenomenon to get their message out directly, without having to use the press as an intermediary; then the arrival of Twitter accelerated the process, as people like News Corp. billionaire Rupert Murdoch (s news) took to the network to tell their side of the story.

But even more transformative than this was the way in which Twitter and blogs and other social-media tools like Facebook have permanently changed the relationship between the media and what Dan Gillmor has called “the people formerly known as the audience.” Instead of relying only on mainstream journalists to tell us what is going on in places like Egypt during the Arab Spring, we have been able to see and hear about those events directly from people who are experiencing them — thanks to the efforts of pioneering journalists such as National Public Radio’s Andy Carvin, and his use of Twitter as a crowdsourced newsroom.

These tools allow readers to essentially generate their own newspapers using tools like Flipboard and Prismatic or even just Twitter itself, instead of having to rely on an editor’s idea of what is important — in other words, they can get their news unfiltered. Unfortunately, just as many newspapers and other traditional media companies took over a decade to really appreciate what Kaiser was talking about in his memo, it has taken almost as long for them to even begin to take advantage of the evolution in media that social tools represent.

23 Responses to “The one big thing that newspaper visionaries didn’t foresee”

  1. the part in the note about readers as members of the circle around the fire aligns quite well with social media and sharing, though. Although it turned out differently.

  2. Aidan Cassidy

    In many ways he was right though. People do want the journalists and editors to sort through the glut. That’s why we all follow the same people on Twitter. That’s why 80% of my friends are not using Facebook anymore. That’s why so many blogs lay dormant…abandoned by bored/busy citizen journalists who’ve run out of things to say. Social Media has only been kicking around for a few years…who’s to say it’s not going south? I wouldn’t make that assumption yet. People need storytellers, and filters…just as they always have. I’m not a journalist by the way.

  3. newsbob

    Sorry about the mangled sentence in my rant that just was posted, which should read:

    And unfortunately we don’t have the ability to vet the authors of tweets and Facebook posts.

  4. newsbob

    The real issue is a realistic definition of “news.” Is news a description of an uprising in Egypt? I would say “yes.” And Twitter/YouTube et al do an excellent job of bringing that type of news to an audience unable to get that kind of news from any other source. But “news” is also in-depth investigative reporting, including how much PAC money is flowing from where to where. No social media (or at least not enough) is engaged in that kind of news. A hyper-local blog such as Patch might cover a city council meeting, but probably not spend time researching potential conflict of interest voting by a council member.

    And when you get to user-selected news, it gets even worse. Instead of becoming well-informed about the world around them, these users become acquainted with a particular slice of news they’ve selected, ignoring the rest of the potentially important occurrences that might otherwise also impact their lives.

    But it’s too late to fix this sad state of affairs. People have lost their ability to concentrate, and want everything spoon fed to them in tiny chunks, and only the chunks that are easiest to digest. Please, don’t feed me anything too complicated. Give me 140 characters. Let me watch TV while I chat with my friends on my second screen.

    Sure, I use Yelp to determine whether I should try a new nearby restaurant. And I’m a huge fan of user feedback on Amazon, when deciding which camera lens to buy. But when it comes to news, I want a trained professional to give me the relevant facts. I want to know that the journalist is impartial and not affiliated with either side of an issue. And unfortunately doesn’t give us lost the ability to vet the authors of tweets and Facebook posts.

    I could rant on and on about this, but I think you catch my drift.

  5. Richard H. Miller

    “In other words, they can get their news unfiltered.”

    All news is filtered through the perspective of those who convey it. What we have now is not unfiltered news, it’s unvetted news. Even worse, it’s too often fake news, aka propaganda.

  6. Patrick O'Brien

    Where has the “innovation” at the Washington Post gotten them? Have they done anything innovative? Has any newspaper in the last 20 years done anything truly innovative and disruptive?

    This article is seems to have been written so many times before, is that anything really new in this? Seems like the old repetitive writing of yore….yawn. Hey, let’s kick that horse while it’s down cuz it sure is fun!

    Meanwhile, what is happening around my community is dramatically more relevant and important than some hack “correspondent” in Syria who may or may not be on the CIA payroll sending tweets. Claim all you want about the revolutions of the third world, but what counts more is what’s going on at my kid’s high school and what are those clowns in city hall doing. I’ve yet to see but a few people on the fringe take the time to write anything relevant about those two local areas of interest. Newspapers have a ton of problems and publishers are still slow to change for sure, our culture is a mess with little vision and too many are afraid to re-invent our business.

    It would be much more enlightening certainly refreshing if Mathew Ingram did some serious journalism and wrote about who is trying to innovate and what exactly they are doing and what is the business model. Maybe Ingram already has and I missed it. I guess I was too busy being a normal human being raising my kids, walking the dog breathing fresh air and walking amongst the trees not glued to a computer and I missed those telling posts.

    Certainly if they were really engaging articles they would have floated to the top of the blogosphere, been copiously retweeted ad nauseum…

  7. Joseph Esposito

    There may be a misattribution in this article. The quotation “the people formerly known as the audience” is attributed to Dan Gillmor. I’m pretty sure the quotation is of Jay Rosen of NYU.

  8. Paywalls seem like a way to try to force the reader to change their behavior, instead of the newspaper changing their own behavior. The reader says “Why should I have to pay?” and the newspaper says “Because I said so.” The reader’s response is “I don’t need you.”

  9. kevinb66

    I think the explosion of blogs and the use of Twitter has created a problem of anonymous news. Without knowing who is doing the reporting I trust very little of what I read online. I can start a blog or open a Twitter account in seconds and start propagandizing. It’s made this skeptic more skeptical.

  10. Anthony Reinhart

    I quibble with just one thing you’ve said here, and that is that people can now ‘get their news unfiltered.’ I would suggest ‘self-filtered’ or ‘filtered the way they want’ would be more accurate. It will be interesting to note the full implications of this over time…

      • Dan Mitchell

        “in the case of news events where someone directly involved is posting things to Twitter or their Facebook or blog, I would argue that’s as unfiltered as you can get.”

        And how much of the news that most people care about — local schools, cops and courts, city government, state government, local and regional business — is ever delivered this way? 5 percent? 1 percent? None at all? How many tweets and Facebook postings comprise original, investigative watchdog reporting, especially of local power structures? I would estimate: zero.

        Why do you always ignore the fact that these are the things that are being lost as newspapers founder? People tweeting eyewitness accounts from Middle Eastern revolutions and from big fires and so forth is great. But it’s almost irrelevant to the discussion of what is being lost as newspapers slowly die. You basically invent what newspapers used to do, and then claim triumphantly that people are doing it better now on Twitter and Facebook.

  11. Steve Yelvington

    Well, not entirely.

    “Mr Yelvington said in his keynote speech that, in the new journalism, people were telling their own stories on sites such as Geocities, Tripod and TalkCity and he praised the News for Nerds discussion group Slashdot:

    “If Slashdot were a mammal, most of our news sites would be the dinosaurs. Many journalists don’t understand this and don’t think it’s journalism.””