The old media didn’t go down without a fight

The idea that the news business was fast asleep when the digital age crept in one night and stole its future is a comforting one to the ascendant class of online entrepreneurs. It enables them to credit their ferocious success not just to their pluck and enterprise, but to the complacency of a cosseted elite that couldn’t be bothered to innovate and compete.

True, life was sweet for media moguls in those pre-Internet days. Newspapers oversaw rich monopolies tended by ad sales staffs that needed to do little more than answer their phones. The TV industry consisted of regulated stations that made profit margins unimagined outside the Cali cartel for relaying network programs they had no hand in (and ran no risk from) making.

Yes, the media were fat, but they weren’t happy. Consider the newspaper industry—the business routinely vilified nowadays for sliding down a chute greased by its own greed and cluelessness. It’s a bum rap. Fact is, newspapers spent the last 40 years in the throes of one wave of change or another, desperate to enhance their draw among readers and their utility to advertisers.

They created zoned and micro-zoned editions, offering targeted audiences to smaller merchants and Monday business news sections to bolster a traditionally slack day for business services ads. They introduced lustrous color and trotted out serial redesigns to bolster curb appeal, expanded celebrity news and more consumer help columns, pushed for more accessible coverage and beat the table unendingly for “news you can use.”

And it wasn’t all a matter of formats and features. Newsrooms were shaken by the public journalism movement, which foregrounded citizen input as the driver of news agendas and which recast papers as central forces in civic betterment. In the boardrooms, industrial strategy was re-engineered around geographic clustering, whereby chains reconfigured themselves to maximize their reach and share infrastructure and stories.

In short, the final decades of the last century were a time not of smug indifference, but of feverish experimentation and innovation in the legacy media business.

That included their response to the digital revolution.

That’s one of the conclusions to be drawn from the engaging new oral history of the Internet ascendancy compiled by three media veterans — John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan—under the auspices of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and posted under the compelling title, Riptide.

That traditional media failed can’t be disputed.  But what’s not well understood is just how they struggled, with media giants pouring money into digital projects years before the Internet was anything more than a toy in engineering labs.

I well recall, as a young editor in Miami, how The Herald’s parent, the now-defunct Knight Ridder, partnered with AT&T in the early 1980s to create a news feed over phone lines. Knight Ridder wasn’t alone: Time Inc. had its Teletext, Warner Cable its Qube.

Knight Ridder’s Viewtron was a clunky, unsightly device. It required customers to buy special terminals, with which they paid to watch the first paragraph or two of news text crawl over black and white screens. Back then, nobody had PCs, and it would be a full decade before there was a World Wide Web or broadband speeds.

Like those other efforts, it failed, but the initiatives weren’t casual and they weren’t flirtations.

Viewtron had nearly 300 employees by the time its patrons pulled the plug on their $40 million investment in 1983. When NBC decided to partner with Microsoft to create MSNBC, it was a recognition that the digital ascendancy was important enough for one of the top names in broadcasting to share its brand with a maker of computer operating systems.

Knight Ridder, Tribune Co., The New York Times all flocked to AOL’s walled garden, The Washington Post got onto AT&T’s Interchange, and The Wall Street Journal created its own proprietary service, all in the early ‘90s, because it was clear to them where the future lay.

Roger Fidler, who headed those early efforts for Knight Ridder, says his bosses should’ve envisioned their work “more as a lab experimenting at a lower cost rather than ramping up quickly…” But his reproach suggests they were less patient, not less committed, than was warranted. They were too zealous, too early. A mistake of tactics, indeed a fatal one, but not an absence of faith.

The Riptide oral history reminds us that people had to cope with realities they didn’t create and never fully understood.  The Internet Age is already littered with once-promising companies, some of which had their moments of industrial supremacy. The mistakes that legacy media companies made in the ‘80s and ‘90s seem obvious now.

The mistakes that today’s mighty players are making now aren’t clear yet. But they will be.


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