How the newspaper industry tried to invent the Web but failed.

Media criticism.
Jan. 6 2009 12:13 AM

How Newspapers Tried to Invent the Web

But failed.

(Continued from Page 1)

Generative technologies such as the PC, on the other hand, invite improvement by outsiders, making them more and more useful to users as time passes—and often more useful in ways that the original designers never would have imagined. When you connect a generative technology to a nongenerative one, you usually end up crippling the generative one.

Indeed, the proprietary online services—the AOLs and CompuServes—hobbled the PC, turning the versatile and powerful machine into a dumb terminal. It's a tribute to newspapers and their keen sense of the future that they quickly determined that the online services would never attract the masses they desired. No sooner had newspapers taken up residence on the proprietary online services than they were packing up their pixels and starting their en masse migration to the World Wide Web, which was as generative as the online services were nongenerative.

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Newspapers were anything but late arrivers to the Web party, according to Carlson's Online Timeline and other sources. Among the earliest pure Web newspapers in the United States were the two dueling dailies started in San Francisco during the autumn 1994 press strike—one by union members and one by management. (As a point of reference, the high-tech sharpies at Wired spun off the Hotwired.com site in October 1994.) The San Jose Mercury News broke from AOL and started on the Web in February 1995. USA Today launched a Web edition in August 1995. Later that year, the Boston Globe started its Boston.com, and the Los Angeles Times announced plans to leave Prodigy. The New York Times and Washington Postgot webby in 1996. After that, few newspapers held back. Boczkowski writes that more than 750 North American dailies were publishing on the Web in April 1998, and by July 1999 only two of the 100 largest dailies were not.

Newspapers deserve bragging rights for having homesteaded the Web long before most government agencies and major corporations knew what a URL was. Given the industry's early tenancy, deep pockets, and history of paranoid experimentation with new communication forms, one would expect to find plenty in the way of innovations and spinoffs.

But that's not the case, and I think I know why: 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.

Addendum 1, Jan. 6: My colleague Adrian Monck  adds this sharp take about the newspaper industry's techno dance. He writes:

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.

Addendum 2, Jan. 6: My colleague Scott Rosenberg, who helped edit the Free Press during the San Francisco newspaper strike and later left the San Francisco Examiner to help start Salon, offers an additional answer to my question about why newspapers' early Web experiments didn't end up offering "plenty in the way of innovations and spinoffs":

In the '90s, if you were at a newspaper and learned about the Web, you were likely to grow frustrated and disillusioned with how slowly the paper's management was waking up to how the new medium actually worked. They got on the Web, and then just sat there. So if you had any restless or entrepreneurial gene in your body, you would sooner or later give up on your arthritic bosses and go do something interesting online yourself or with some startup. The newspaper industry suffered a steady exodus of the very people who it should have been relying on to navigate the new waters.

Addendum 3, Jan. 6: Wayne Citrin writes that I should have made mention of the work done at Knight Ridder's Information Design Laboratory in the mid-1990s. IDL was working on a portable, battery-powered electronic tablet that its designers hoped would start replacing newspapers by 2001. Knight Ridder shut the lab in the summer of 1995.

Addendum 4, Jan. 6: Chuck Moozakis, editor in chief of Newspapers & Technology, sends me this terrific history of electronic newspaper distribution.

******

What goes around comes around. Back in the early 1990s, I was offered a job at Digital Ink, the precursor to Washingtonpost.com. I turned the job down because I had no idea what job was being offered to me. Had I won a Marshall scholarship for graduate study at Oxford University, I would have declined that, too. What fabulous honors have you declined? Send mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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