Newspapers: recreated not reinvented online

January 6, 2009

Jack Shafer has a great piece on the his­tory of news­pa­per pres­ence online. It’s an inter­est­ing addendum to the debate on journalism’s con­tri­bu­tion to its own demise.

It would be easy to accuse edit­ors and pub­lish­ers of being clue­less about the com­ing Inter­net dis­rup­tion and to insist that the industry’s proper reward for dec­ades of haughty atti­tude, bad plan­ning, and incom­pet­ence is bankruptcy.

But news­pa­pers have really, really tried to wrap their hands around the future and pre­serve their fran­chise, an insight I owe to Pablo J. Boczkowski’s 2004 book, Digit­iz­ing the News: Innov­a­tion in Online News­pa­pers.

The industry has under­stood from the advent of AM radio in the 1920s that tech­no­logy would even­tu­ally be its undo­ing, and has always behaved accordingly.

The prob­lem, as Shafer notes, was that when they finally embraced the web, it was as a pub­lish­ing platform.

From the begin­ning, news­pa­pers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repur­pos­ing the copy, val­ues, and tem­pera­ment found in their ink-and-paper edi­tions. Des­pite being early arrivals, des­pite hav­ing spent mil­lions on man­power and hard­ware, des­pite all the anim­a­tions, links, videos, data­bases, and other soft­ware tricks found on their sites, every news­pa­per Web site is instantly iden­ti­fi­able as a news­pa­per Web site. By suc­ceed­ing, they failed to invent the Web.

As I’ve pos­ted before (and oth­ers have poin­ted out), there were plenty of exec­ut­ives who did make smart stra­tegic decisions about the chal­lenges facing the industry. Robert Mar­but, then CEO of news­pa­per group Harte-Hanks, was abso­lutely clear about the threat and oppor­tun­it­ies offered by new tech­no­logy back in the mid-1970s:

The fact that the same tech­no­logy will be used by media other than daily news­pa­pers will mean that oth­ers could enter the mar­ket­place for meet­ing inform­a­tion needs and encroach on the fran­chise of an estab­lished news­pa­per … new tech­no­logy will make it pos­sible for the con­sumer to get his needs met in a vari­ety of ways in the future, again set­ting the stage for con­tin­ued frag­ment­a­tion of media which could lead to fur­ther encroach­ment of the newspaper’s share of market.

So in the 1990s Harte-Hanks dis­pensed with its news­pa­per, TV and radio interests.

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