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…