Thursday, August 20, 2009

Newspapers must evolve

The post for today is a wee bit long. If it was a wine, I think it would be described as being a bit dull on the palette, but it develops nicely and has a good, clean finish. Enjoy.

I often think of newspapers as I knew them: the newspapers I grew up with, the newspaper from which I retired early after being given a buyout. I believe papers are on their last legs. They are tottering dinosaurs. Some say a changing environment doomed those prehistoric Goliaths. I think the environment is changing for newspapers, too.

Some argue dinosaurs are still with us. They say the descendants of the dinosaurs are today's birds. Maybe newspapers will do as well and take flight unburdened by huge printing presses, large fleets of trucks, tonnes of newsprint and tanker loads of ink.

Of course, in the end, birds are birds. It doesn't matter what came before. That was then and this is now. The Internet is not a newspaper. Period. Newspapers are the news gathering organizations of the past. The Internet is the new paradigm.

It's a new paradigm to some but in truth it has been a long time coming. You often read that the generation raised on the Internet is now coming of age. Young people are the savviest of the tech-savvy, we are told. How silly.

How old is Steve Jobs? Early-fifties, I believe. When it comes to being tech-savvy, old Steve is the king of savvy hill. If Steve sneezes, Apple stock tumbles. This is a company filled with imaginative, creative young people, but it is the aging boomer (oh how I hate that word) who drives the company. Many argue, he is the company.

There are many people who grew up with the Internet and many more who grew old with it. I'm 62 and when I was 39 I was a GEnie subscriber. Sitting at a 128K Mac I could talk with the world using a 300 baud modem and a dial-up connection. GEnie was, to be generous, a precursor of the Internet run by General Electric.

GE didn't grasp what they had. They structured GEnie to take advantage of the time available on their numerous GE Mark III time-sharing mainframes. To ensure that GEnie subscribers used the system during slow periods,the charge for going online with GEnie at night, the off-hours for those mainframes, was far cheaper than the comparable time during the day. GE treated their service as a mainframe load filler. Bad move. GE was handed the Internet ball early but dropped it, letting others pick it up and run away with the prize.

GEnie was a text-based service. This sounds terrible and it was but moving letters about is not CPU intensive, nor does it eat a lot of bandwidth. My typing at the time was slow and so my 300 baud modem could easily keep up with my hunt-and-peck style of typing.

I did research using GEnie and visited the GEnie forums, called RoundTables. There I chatted with people who shared my interests. I used to come to work and bend the ear of Sue Bradnam, now the chief photographer at the paper, and I would babble on about the coming computer driven wave of change. Sue can be very patient and very polite. She ignored me with great class and style but I am sure she thought, "Nut!" (Computers aside, she may have been right.)

Then the newspaper discovered computers and set up a graphics department in the former Alcovia. This was a small recessed area in the newsroom with windows facing York Street. The reporters working there named it Alcovia and hoisted the Alcovian flag over their oh-so-independent territory. When management displaced the Alcovians there was a small insurrection, quickly quelled.

The new graphics department used Fat Macs and dozens and dozens of Macintosh plastic-encased floppies. When they started talking about getting a hard drive I tried to convince them to look at an 80 MB La Cie. Management looked at me like I was crazy. I told them that that was what I had at home. Overkill, I was told. Way more storage space than you will ever need. They bought a 20 MB Apple external hard drive. It was soon replaced -- too small.

And that has been the story of newspapers and computers and the Internet. Always a step behind. To be fair, it is hard to fault them. Visionaries are rare and with a change as extreme as the computer invasion and the Internet, not seeing it coming can be forgiven.

I think a great symbol of the newspaper industry's approach to computer innovation can be seen in the Atex system used by newspapers around the world two, and even three, decades ago. Huge keyboards, thick and clunky. Not designed for typing but for style. The monitors were huge grey cubes mounted on tall, grey cylinders. Clearly the designers of the Atex system were influenced by Star Trek. Captain Kirk would have been very comfortable with the futuristic look of the Atex terminal.

But newsroom editors and reporters were not comfortable. Atex and its parent, Eastman Kodak Co., were dragged into court by claims that the clunky keyboards caused serious repetitive strain injuries to users. Roughly a dozen New York Times employees alone took Atex to court for the perceived ergonomic design flaws.

As Macs displaced the Atex terminals, itself a revolution of a sort, another revolution was taking place. The control of the newspaper industry was passing from the hands of families to big business. This had been a trend for years but it was now in the endgame. It was said newspapers were a licence to print money and big business wanted those presses.

Just as the information revolution, powered by the Internet, was freeing news from its economic constraints, newspapers were evolving into dinosaurs. Papers were becoming big lumbering beasts.

One of my favourite stories, it may not be completely true, but no one in charge is going to fill in the blanks for me.

Quebecor and Sun Media had a bulletin board set-up to share pictures between their many papers. Staff at some papers knew about the bulletin board and posted to it regularly. If an important OHL game was held in London, it was posted to the bulletin board as soon as possible. The bulletin board system was a kludge, you could not see the images. An editor had to chose a photograph based on the name and often the name did not reveal much about the picture.

The London Free Press used a system for naming its pictures that made finding them easy, even when using a text-based system. All picture files originating in London started LDN and this was followed by the date. It was not hard to find the OHL pictures from London. In most cases we included the Knights' name in the photo caption.

Still the London paper would get calls from other Sun Media papers seeking hockey pictures, pictures posted hours earlier. The editors on the other end of the line were often desperate; they were facing deadline. No one had thought to tell these other papers about the bulletin board. Whenever I was on EPD, I would walk these callers through the system. They were always amazed that the bulletin board existed and that you didn't even need a code to access its pictures.

I thought this lack of an entry code could be a potential problem and raised the issue. I made some calls. Eventually, a code was put in place. Unfortunately, the code was not given out to all the papers. The London Free Press was missed. The Free Press could still file to the bulletin board but the paper could no longer access pictures from it. This went on for months and, to the best of my knowledge, was never fixed. In the end the bulletin board was simply replaced with a much better system and all became right with the world.

It is foolishness like this that threats newspapers and not the coming of the Internet. The best and the brightest at the newspapers will survive. It is just the giant newspaper companies, buying and merging and running up an ever growing debt with every takeover, that may disappear.

When the newspaper suffered a strike a few years back, it quickly became clear that it was the staff that was the true paper and not the building carrying the name. About five days after walking out the door, the staff of The London Free Press had an alternative paper on the street.

I know reporters at the paper who can write code. Joe Matyas has taken courses and puts together a web site for his church, complete with videos. I know a photographer, Morris Lamont, who puts out an Internet newsletter for his son's baseball team and it's a fine publication. Very professional

Talented reporters and photographers may not realize it but in the future they will not need the paper. Truth be told, it is the paper that needs them. Big business, big media, has been tossing their most valuable asset, their staff, out the door at a frightening pace.

The other day I saw the phrase "begs the question" rather than "raises the question" used in the news pages. Seeing that phrase in print brought to mind an editor who left the paper after one of the reoccurring rounds of layoffs. On his last day, walking toward the door, he stopped at my desk and handed me a sheet of paper. It was a list of his pet peeves as an editor. Near the top was the incorrect use of "begs the question." That editor, given a buy-out, was a lover of the English language. The newspaper misses him.

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