King Kaufman

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Newspapers’ fatal error

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I’ve been telling this story a lot lately.

It was July 1989 and I was on my first night on the San Francisco Examiner night copydesk, my first real professional job.

The gig was to look in the “In basket” — a computer file named for an actual basket that used to sit on the copydesk when everything was done on paper — for stories with my name on them, copy edit them, write the headlines and captions, then move them into the cleverly named “Out basket.” The copy ebbed and flowed with deadlines, so there was some down time.

I filled it by exploring on the computer. I could read the Associated Press wire and, if I recall, United Press International was still around. There was the Scripps-Howard wire and the Knight-Ridder wire and the Hearst wire. I was reading news and feature stories from all over the country and the world, full-length stories for every baseball game in the major leagues, columnists from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News and so on.

Behind me three machines were spitting out several photos a minute, each, from around the globe. Guerrillas in Afghanistan, kids at Coney Island, President Bush at a Cabinet meeting, a play at second base in Milwaukee. For every picture that appeared in the paper, there must have been a thousand that didn’t.

I thought: “Wow. Why can’t I get all this at home?”

I’m not going to lie here. I didn’t envision the Internet. I didn’t see the Web coming. I’m not kicking myself for not founding Yahoo or something.

But I could see that something was coming. I didn’t know exactly how this stuff worked, how those pictures got from Afghanistan to the machine behind me or the Mike Royko column got from Chicago to the green type on my black computer screen.

But I was vaguely aware they came over phone lines of some sort. I had just learned about e-mail that summer while writing a story for the East Bay Express about Chinese students at Berkeley who were using every method at their disposal — including this e-mail doohickey that someone patiently explained to me, several times — to get news about the Tiananmen Square protests in to China, where those stories were being censored.

And I was conscious of the speed of innovation. Just since adolescence, for example, I’d seen calculators, microwave ovens and VCRs go from practically nonexistent to monstrous novelties to much smaller everyday items. I’d seen computers go from room-sized things that technicians ran to desktop items high school kids typed papers and played games on.

There was a computer on my desk in my apartment that wasn’t that different in size to the one at work, only it wasn’t hooked up to a mainframe that was in turn connected to the rest of the world. But I knew that in the future — and I knew it wasn’t the distant future — I’d be able to sit at home, in front of my own computer, and do what I was doing at work. Read the wires, read newspaper stories from all over the world.

I spent a lot of time talking to friends — I was fresh out of J-school, so I had friends willing to talk about such things — about how in a few years we wouldn’t be stuck with our small group of local beat writers and columnists and movie critics. We’d be able to read anyone we wanted!

Here’s something I didn’t think, though, while I was busy not envisioning the Internet. I didn’t think: Newspapers are doomed!

I figured each individual paper would be thrilled at the chance to reach readers outside its delivery area. The Examiner and Chronicle were already trucking papers as far as they could go by morning, rushing to get them to Reno and Fresno and Chico and maybe even farther than that. Why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to get the product to people in Seattle and Philadelphia and Mexico City?

In other words, I assumed newspapers would adjust, adapt. Most of the country’s major papers, including the Examiner, were more than a century old. I figured they’d rolled with a few massive changes over the years. I was sitting at a computer, not a typewriter. The paper was pasted up and photographed — already becoming an antiquated method by 1989, though I didn’t know that — not set on Linotype machines as it had been a few years before. It seemed to me that newspapers were OK with technology and change.

If I had known about the Internet, I would have thought, “Who is better positioned to take advantage of a new text-based information medium than newspapers? We have a giant roomful of people who report, write and edit.”

It was my first night on the job. I hadn’t yet learned how hidebound, how slow, how downright stupid newspaper management could be.

The Web came along as a medium to be reckoned with about five years later. As an industry, newspapers failed to see it as an opportunity and instead treated it, almost unanimously, as a threat, something to be fought and vanquished. It was a mistake the industry made not for weeks or months, but for years. It was the newspaper industry’s fatal error. The way the kids say it now: its epic fail.

My old boss at the Examiner, Phil Bronstein, has been marketing himself as this sage statesman of journalism now that he’s no longer piloting the Chronicle. A few weeks ago, writing on his SFGate.com blog about newspapers in general, he said the industry had been “marched to the gallows by an uncaring and unappreciative public, sentenced by shifting technological and cultural habits and a few bonehead moves of [our] own.”

Oh, brother. Marched to the gallows by an uncaring and unappreciative public? More like reluctantly left behind by a public that had been ignored for more than a decade as it screamed, “This is how we want information delivered to us! Not the way you’re doing it! This other way! Look! Over here! We’re over here now! Hey!”

A few bonehead moves? How about a consistent, industry-wide pattern of ignorance and fear that produced what might as well have been a coordinated smear campaign. Almost every story about the Internet in the mid-’90s was about how it was awash in pedophiles and other predators.

And maybe I’m getting a little Psych 101 here, but what the newspaper was really afraid of wasn’t so much the Internet as a technological thing, it was the way it brought the readership closer. Oh, man: Not the readers!

Here’s Bronstein again, telling the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz that “the public was seen as kind of messy and icky and not something you needed to get involved with.” Note the third-person, passive-voice construction there, as though this were some sort of natural occurrence, not a colossal blunder by Bronstein and almost everyone in similar jobs.

The crops were destroyed by drought. The public was seen as kind of messy.

Scott Rosenberg, who also worked at the Examiner, recently told me that he wanted to put his e-mail address on his newspaper stories way back when, but Bronstein told him, “You can’t do that.” If he did, people would write him, and he’d have to respond. Egad!

I’m picking on Phil here, but I’ve heard and read enough stories from all over to know that he was simply representative, of the Examiner, of Hearst, of the entire industry.

You hear a lot about how eBay, Craigslist, Google and others killed newspapers. The Internet killed the classified business, a major bulwark of newspaper revenue, the story goes. But there’s no reason Craigslist, for example, couldn’t have been invented by a newspaper. No reason except newspapers’ years-long refusal to compete on this new playing field.

Instead they grudgingly shoveled the newspaper online. And I mean really, shoveled it. In the ’90s — a long time ago but still way too late in the game for this — on some newspaper Web sites you used to see print business in the stories online. “Please see Page 12, column 1,” it might say, right in the middle of a story, followed on the next line by “Continued from Page 1.” They were so contemptuous of the Web they didn’t even bother to have a copy person re-code the stories.

In the last few years most newspaper Web sites have added a few blogs and photo galleries and such, but they’re still essentially the newspaper, online.

Even the newspapers that have shut the print operation are still doing it. The Internet-only Seattle P-I is pretty much the Seattle P-I, just online. Didn’t the Seattle P-I get the message that what it was doing wasn’t working?

The crisis in newspapers, and especially the decision to move online only by individual newspapers, has been a perfect opportunity for them to reinvent themselves, to redefine what a newspaper is and how it performs its core mission of informing the public and acting as a watchdog on our institutions.

That’s something newspapers should have been doing all along, just as they had been doing, in much slower motion, for most of their history. A newspaper in 1990 was a very different animal than the same newspaper in, say, 1920 precisely because newspapers had changed and adapted with the times.

But when the change sped up, the newspaper industry responded by displaying an astonishing lack of imagination and creativity, instead lashing out at the Internet, warning readers to stay away from it, practically lighting torches. They’ve put the torches away by now, but the response is largely the same to this day, a dogged refusal to truly engage with the way their world now works.

I guess I should have seen it coming on that first night, when I peered into my computer and saw that they’d named the files “baskets.”

Written by King Kaufman

May 2nd, 2009 at 7:31 am