What would Jeff do?

October 13, 2008

In case you hap­pen to be a journ­al­ist and Jeff Jar­vis still has you think­ing that news­pa­per prob­lems are your fault, take a look at the New York Times from July, 1980 (and if you like catchy head­lines, they don’t come much catch­ier than this):

First U.S. Exper­i­ments in Elec­tronic News­pa­pers Begin in Two Com­munit­ies; 13 News­pa­pers to Be Added The Need for News­pa­pers A Com­mu­nic­a­tions Devel­op­ment Tele­phone, Cable and Air­waves A Warn­ing on Reg­u­la­tion [pay access].

Here’s how it starts:

After nearly three cen­tur­ies in which news­pa­pers were news prin­ted on paper, the first major exper­i­ments in this coun­try on the “elec­tronic news­pa­per” got under way last week.

For Amer­ican news­pa­pers, many of which are still uncer­tain whether a good offense is the best defense against the encroach­ment of elec­tron­ics into the news busi­ness, it is a land­mark devel­op­ment in the world of home com­puters, which ulti­mately are expec­ted to revo­lu­tion­ize the way Amer­ic­ans receive information.

Last week the Colum­bus Dis­patch began trans­mit­ting its entire edit­or­ial con­tent to 3,000 home ter­min­als around the coun­try on a com­puter sys­tem called Com­puServe. For $5 an hour, the home viewer can sit down at a com­puter key­board and call up on the com­puter screen a list of all the stor­ies appear­ing in The Dis­patch that day. The viewer can select any art­icle from a con­densed index and read it or scan it, much as he would a news­pa­per spread out before him, and then go on to the next selection.

In addi­tion, the viewer has access to art­icles by the Asso­ci­ated Press plus games, advert­ising and other con­sumer services…

Another exper­i­ment, which is being watched closely by the rest of the news­pa­per industry, has just been star­ted by the Knight-Ridder News­pa­pers in Coral Gables, Fla. The $1.5-million pro­ject provides news, advert­ising and other con­sumer ser­vices via 200 per­sonal com­puters installed in area homes at no cost to the par­ti­cip­at­ing fam­il­ies. Knight-Ridder is sup­ply­ing the com­puter and con­tent and the Bell Sys­tem is provid­ing ter­min­als and the tele­phone lines that link a cent­ral com­puter to the homes.

Well, capitalism’s forces of cre­at­ive destruc­tion have ground Com­puServe into dust quicker than the Colum­bus Dis­patch.

But let’s say back in 1980, when that was writ­ten, you’re a twenty-something writer for a paper like the San Fran­cisco Exam­iner. Let’s say you’re Jeff. What would you do? Sound the alarm? Use your small news­pa­per plat­form to call ‘bull­shit’ on these attempts by the news­pa­per industry to mod­ern­ise itself? Start a campaign?

Well, he didn’t.

So would you blame the young Jeff J for those sins of omis­sion? Prob­ably not. And should he blame journ­al­ists? You know the answer…

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Jarvis October 14, 2008 at 02:06

Well, since you didn’t ask…

Adrian, my child: In 1974, I worked on my first editorial system and trained the entire Chicago Tribune in the notion of a cursor. The public didn’t yet have these newfangled thingies called computers, but I did start even then writing harebrained memos about what could be done with them for news. I helped design the papers next edtorial system (which ended up as an overdesigned disaster, but by then I was gone, so it wasn’t my fault).

At the Tribune, I set up one of the first computer-aided reporting tests anywhere I know of (though the reporter I worked most closely with didn’t really want the paper owning his data; he soon left the Tribune for the Sun-Times – working for devil Murdoch – taking his index cards with him).

I then went to the San Francisco Examiner, which was an afternoon paper and was dying, but for a joint operating agreement. So it wasn’t all milk, honey, and gravy then. There, too, I proposed new ways to use these machines to help us in the process of news. Again, I helped install and train the staff on these new machines. I proposed new efficiencies (except for the unions that still wouldn’t let us touch type). I began to cover the nascent Apple and went to the faires and proposed ways we should cover this new world.

There was no means to give the machines to the public and that was hardly my job, was it? But I did visit with the Stanford and Xerox research labs and discussed new frontiers for news and tried to bring that back to my newspaper culture.

I then moved to New York. I had an online account and email address and the first of the transportable computers – the Osborne 1, I’m proud to say – about 1981.

I wrote many a memo at Time Inc. proposing new ways to use these tools in reporting and production. I found new means of producing the magazine. I used computers in reporting.

When I created Entertainment Weekly magazine, I made sure it was the first weekly magazine to be produced entirely on Macintoshes (thanks to the genius of my wife). I risked the ire of the corporate computer departments by saving $3 million a year in production for the magazine.

I also proposed then that we should begin creating ancillary products aimed at both covering and distributing on technology. They didn’t bite.

Next came the New York Daily News, where I was among the first editor sto create Page Ones on Quark.

Next, TV Guide, where I reported using Usenet. I also told the magazine that it should get into listings online and on cable boxes. They didn’t listen at first.

I went to take charge of the content at the internet service Murdoch bought in 1994 and pushed them away from a custom GUI (remember those?) to this new web and browser thingie. I gave up and got the hell out of there.

And then I spent 12 years trying to get newspapers and magazines to tranform themselves for the internet at Conde Nast and Newhouse newspapers.

Today, I harass executives and students to transform.

Yeah, I didn’t do shit, Adrian, not shit.

Where were you during the War, dad?

Reply

Adrian Monck October 14, 2008 at 09:04

Well, you walked into that one! Thanks for just making my point about journalists not being to blame, Jeff.

There are plenty of journalists like you, who spent their time fighting the good fight.

The first memo I wrote straight out of college at CBS News – when they still had memos – was an analysis of the savings they could make if they stopped travelling business class and started using Hi-8s and video-journalists. (Of course, I naively hoped they would put those savings into covering more foreign news instead of passing them on to Larry Tisch, but you live and learn.)

The parts of my career that weren’t spent televising global misery were spent at business school trying to figure out how you could keep television news alive.

And the rest was spent using technology and newsroom re-organization to cut costs faster than our network customers could slash their budgets, and developing new revenue streams and watching them being absorbed because of ITN’s ‘asymmetric’ bargaining power.

In my part of the world, whilst I was fretting about the consequences of the money draining out of the business, most of the talk was about how journalism had failed in a moral sense.

That was how a lot of people chose to hide from reality. Well, reality has caught up. And it’s not just news executives, but politicians and the public who need to think through the consequences of what’s happening to the commercial news media.

I like – and share – Paul Farhi’s analysis, because it’s consumer-centred, not the sad “better mousetrap” stuff you so often hear repeated.

I think you got hold of the wrong end of the point being made, which is a shame, because I think all of us share a lot more common ground in the way forward than we do arguing about the way back.

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Scott B October 14, 2008 at 10:32

It would be nice to see a Monck/Jarvis detente reached, as your ultimate goals are the same. The battle to save newspapers can only benefit from a diversity of ideas. I have to concur with Monck and Farhi, though, that the main problem lies in the distribution/revenue side of the equation. The internet is simply killing newspapers’ business model; there’s no denying the disparity of revenue to readership between the web and print products.

I think we can all agree that whatever the problem, the solution is innovation… trying bold, out-of-the-box ideas on both the business and the editorial side. Monck ideas, Jarvis ideas, hell even some Lee Abrams ideas can’t hurt. Personally, I believe that adding new revenue streams on the internet will be at least half the battle. Surely, we can’t be out of ideas on how to make money on web. How about bringing in small local advertisers through streamlined web ad sales, for one? Ask Google how that’s going for them.

Unfortunately I think the window of opportunity for real innovation is rapidly closing. I don’t see how you can keep slashing your bread-and-butter workforce while patiently investing in and experimenting with new ideas. Newspapers may be too big to turn themselves around. And if newspapers are sinking ships, I’m not sure the dinghies carrying the survivors will be adequate replacements.

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Jeff Jarvis October 14, 2008 at 11:06

Adrian,
Well, I didn’t talk about how executives saw my harebrained schemes. Harebrained. I left the industry because of a lack of forward progress and I’m helping make more progress today.
My point in my critique of Farhi’s piece remains: Journalists are responsible for the fate of journalism. To act as if they are not responsible for its history – which is what he is saying – is wrong and irresponsible. Surely we agree about that.

Reply

Adrian Monck October 14, 2008 at 16:05

@Scott/Jeff – as Yogi Berra might say – the past is history. Let’s hope we do what we can to ensure journalism has a future.

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Jeff Jarvis October 14, 2008 at 18:11

Group hug.

Reply

Matt Robinson October 15, 2008 at 14:19

It seems this has sparked off a debate amongst many of the journalism students too. I think this would make for a very interesting public debate where everyones issues can be addressed and conveyed publicly. All journalists are in the same boat and as a trainnee I am slightly unsettled by the differnet views protrayed in the media is it all doom and gloom, what is the future of the newspaper and as journalist what can we do to make sure we dont get left behind the technoliogical reveolution.

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Emily Bingham March 17, 2009 at 20:29

I would love to know exactly what happened after those experiments in 1980.

I’m really a historian, but I’m writing an essay about my father, Barry Bingham, Jr., who was editor and publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times from 1971-1986. In 1980 he was preaching the electronic newspapaper, and was excited about the efforts described in the Times article Adrian cites. Nice people thought he was “ahead of his time.” Not so nice people thought he was a kook. He had told his colleagues newspapers must adapt to new technologies or risk being mired in newsprint, “the last dinosaurs in the swamp.” He pushed ahead to start experimenting with dialup electronic delivery in the 1980s (without much support from family shareholders or from his management), but family discord caught up before it got very far and Gannett Company bought the properties. He would be weeping today to see what’s happening in print journalism. He didn’t have the answers, but was very lonely indeed in working on developing solutions. To say no one is responsible is offensive. At least we owe him and others the respect to acknowledge the buggy whip point my father was trying to make: that it’s an information business not a pressing ink into trees business. People still want information–I think.

Reply

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