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Memo from 1993: A discussion about the future of news from CompuServe’s JForum.

For journalism, the future isn’t what it used to be. Especially when viewed from two decades ago.

I recently undertook an archaeological dig (others call it “cleaning out files”) and came across a remarkable artifact of the pre-web days: a physical printout of a spirited debate on the future of the news media from CompuServe’s JForum (a.k.a. Journalism Forum) — dated May, 1993.CompuServe logo

Twenty years ago, we sat at the dawn of the web age (Mosaic, the first image-friendly, general-use web browser, was introduced later the same year). It was a time before widespread broadband, smartphones, social media, Google or Chat Roulette.

Reviewing the transcript from JForum’s Future Media board (written as individual email-like posts strung together over several weeks under the common subject line, “Are Newspapers Dead?”), the messages reveal impassioned predictions and obligatory snipes, and retroactively show how prognosticators could wind up off track, sometimes wildly so.

I’ve also been wrong. In a lengthy 1992 essay for Analog Science Fiction and Fact (later excerpted in the Seattle Times), I predicted that the coming plethora of news channels and “online” news would lead to a renaissance in original reporting to fill the increased news hole. It never occurred to me that the extra time would instead largely be filled by talking heads commenting on the reporting of others, an oversight that makes anything I wrote that did turn out to be correct (such as the democratization of information and the use of smart filters to select news) pale in comparison.

Here are historical views of the future of news from 1993, along with thoughts on where, and perhaps why, some went sideways:

Prediction on future news delivery devices: “The newspaper is actually a flat panel, foldable, flexible display screen, but is paper thin. Each night, it gathers up all the stories from the news services you subscribe to (and) puts them through a smart filter. There’s a way to get more information about any story by simply touching the headline or a paragraph.”

Verdict: Mostly accurate. The devices today are iPads or other tablets. The mechanism is hyperlinks (the post also mentions video clips and sounds). The filter could be Google News or selected Twitter accounts. We don’t have paper-thin, foldable, flexible screens yet, and the updates don’t have to happen only in bandwidth-conserving once-daily dial-up modem bursts. But I give an inky thumbs up to the prognosticator — who, uh, happened to be me.

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr [CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Early digital news experiments included Apple’s … Newton.
Prediction on number of news delivery devices: “How many radios do you own? We have nine or ten counting the ones in our cars. We also have five telephones and a modem. I expect the price of Information Appliances to allow similar multiple ownership. As revolutionary as IA technology sounds, the hardware implementation must be simple, even uh, translucent, with the emphasis on the signal content.”

Verdict: Almost completely accurate. “Information Appliance” (which we now simply call digital “devices”) isn’t considered a separate class of device anymore, as it encompasses laptops, smartphones, tablets, video game systems and yes, desktop computers — as long as they can be connected to the Internet and display information. While my internal nerd jury is out on ease of use (maddening inconsistencies remain), there’s no doubt the devices are easier to use than they were 20 years ago. As to price? Not nearly as cheap as a radio. But unlike radios, they are multifunctional. The still-irrepressible Mark Loundy gets the credit for this prediction.

Prediction on the fate of legacy news media: “Just wait until AT&T and the major networks and the movie studios and two or three radio networks and computer companies and the government all start seriously exploring the technology. Not to mention the number of years it will take to standardize the equipment. All the competition for information control (NOT dissemination) will slow the death of newspapers if it comes to that.”

Verdict: Almost completely wrong. The font of innovation leading to new ways to receive news came not from traditional media companies but from software and hardware entrepreneurs who didn’t heed the nice traditional news platform boundaries. Of course there was Apple, but also Amazon, WordPress, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook and Craigslist. And “standardizing the equipment” was done by standardizing what connects the equipment — the Internet.

Newspapers still aren’t dead (it’s telling that the JForum subject line continues to be debated 20 long years afterward), but each of these individual developments, while not fatal to print in and of itself, nibbled away at advantages and profit centers of newspapers, from local coverage to classified ads. I will not name this last prognosticator, as he is likely now eating meals served on discarded stacks of Prodigy and America Online sign-up disks.

Actually, the obsession with form factor permeated many of the predictions, with Steve Outing citing experiments with newspapers on flat-panel displays, magazines on PDAs (the subsequently much-maligned Apple Newton) and traditional newspapers with codes printed in ink at the end of stories to “key in” by hand on a computer (this last, by the San Jose Mercury News in affiliation with AOL).

To his credit, Outing placed his future bets on PDAs/flat-panel displays rather than traditional computers: “I don’t want to sit at a computer to get my news; I don’t want to read text on a television; nor do I want to read it on a telephone’s VDT screen … Best would be to sit in my favorite chair and read my newspaper or magazine the way I’ve always done. A PDA the size of a book, with a screen sharp as paper, is the one thing that would make me give up a paper newspaper.”

Give that man a gold Kindle Paperwhite.

The (faxed) future of news delivery? Not.
The (faxed) future of news delivery? Not.

There’s much more, from ideas on how to minimize “expensive” searches for news stories to include in customized feeds (keep in mind, this was pre-mass web when each online article search was done in a proprietary database, including those on CompuServe, and charges could be by the story) to how to create impressive formatting (what we would now call barely acceptable plain text).

One JForum member even offered a detailed description of how the tyranny of news only being delivered once a day would be upended by on-demand updates sent to color laser fax machines, rented from newspapers, along with “rolls of newsprint (purchased) from the grocery store.”

But on the whole, the views on news-yet-to-come share a characteristic that afflicts much technological prediction: almost-unavoidable blinders created by what one already knows exists. The prognostications of two decades ago were right as often as they were wrong, but not always in the ways anticipated by these news media pros.

It’s one thing to extrapolate and posit one revolutionary change, but it’s a lot harder (and a lot more likely to lead to failure) to try and correctly speculate on two or three changes that, interacting, create cross-currents that enable something entirely new. Like, say, WiFi plus smartphones plus Twitter.

Twenty years later, it may be just as accurate to go to Google, key in your prediction, and click, “I’m Feeling Lucky.”

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