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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