History

In the Videotex Graveyard

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In a sharp column about media history, Jack Shafer points out that the newspaper industry did not, as some assume, come late to the Internet. Indeed, its experiments with electronic distribution date back to the late '70s. But its approach was cautious, at times even protectionist; like pre-cable broadcast companies, newspapers didn't want any potentially disruptive technology to emerge unless they could be sure they controlled it. Shafer describes the results:

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.

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  1. It seems counter intuitive to me that newspapers were at the forefront of the move to electronica. I won’t say it isn’t so, because I don’t know.

    However, The papers around here were very late adopters and they had/have lousy sites. It has just been in the recent past that one could even navigate the PE, the OC Register, or the LA Times websites. I dunno, maybe I ain’t remembering right or I’m more picky or maybe time has passed more quickly than I thought.

    One thing certain though, a newspaper site is instantly identifiable as such. That is a fact, Jack.

  2. 1st!!!
    whoo hoo

  3. damn…
    2nd

  4. …like pre-cable broadcast companies, newspapers didn’t want any potentially disruptive technology to emerge unless they could be sure they controlled it.

    This is why businesses, even very large, national flag ship businesses must be allowed to fail. No one will willing sacrifice their established economic success for a new technology. New technologies get implemented by new companies or old companies willing to move into other fields. Such companies have no investment in older technology so they can adopt newer methods.

    As an aside, another pre-internet experiment was the french attempt to provide universal email service back in the mid-80’s. Unfortunately, they put the post office in charge of it.

  5. It has just been in the recent past that one could even navigate the PE, the OC Register, or the LA Times websites.

    At the very least, the fact that all three sites (IIRC) were registration-based for quite some time didn’t help matters.

    (For those who don’t know, “the PE” refers to the Riverside “Press-Enterprise”.)

  6. a newspaper site is instantly identifiable as such.

    Well of course it is. What the hell? You think they’d be more successful trying to slip news stories into search engine results? The problem was they wanted to collect personnel information and charge their users.

  7. Corporatist impearialist propoganda is poison in any form.

  8. The horrors of impearialism!

  9. As an aside, another pre-internet experiment was the french attempt to provide universal email service back in the mid-80’s. Unfortunately, they put the post office in charge of it.

    The reason it failed was because they didn’t put the right people in charge. Duh.

  10. I’m not surprised that Reason can’t tell the difference between the “web” – the incredibly incompetent design of which was brought to us by TimBernersLee et al – and things from the 70s involving proprietary protocols delivered via modem a al BBSes.

  11. Left Titty,

    The reason it failed was because they didn’t put the right people in charge. Duh.

    Well, the wrong people were in an institution that directly competed with the new technology.

  12. another pre-internet experiment was the french attempt to provide universal email service back in the mid-80’s

    Someone doesnt know what the internet is.

    Universal email without the internet. That would be a neat trick.

  13. I’m not surprised that Reason can’t tell the difference between the “web” – the incredibly incompetent design of which was brought to us by TimBernersLee et al – and things from the 70s involving proprietary protocols delivered via modem a al BBSes.

    I’m not surprised that OLS can’t tell the difference between “the Internet” and “electronic distribution” (phrases I used in my post) and “the Web” (a phrase I did not use, except in a quotation from someone else, where it was used appropriately). The Net is larger than the Web; electronic distribution is larger than the Net.

  14. Say, does DTV have some underused bandwidth we can squeeze something into like the VBI of NTSC?

  15. You would think with freedom of the press being explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, that newspapers would be more independent and daring. Yet today they seem like mere government apologists. The industry used to have scrappy publishers like Franklin, but in the late 19th century they gave way to outright partisanship. Hence the words “Republican” or “Democrat” in many newspaper’s names. But as the two major parties advocated bigger and bigger government intrusions, so did the partisan newspapers. The extreme pressure to conform to official thinking during the Great Depression and WWII cemented the press’s role as government’s mouthpiece.

    Which is why you don’t see much innovation in newspapers. Remember the big industry gasp of shock when the WSJ changed its size and font slightly? That was considered daringly innovative. Yeah they have websites now, but they’re just mashups of portals and blogs. Newspapers can’t change because the government hasn’t told them what to change to.

  16. Brandybuck: Which is why I won’t mourn their passing.

  17. Universal email without the internet. That would be a neat trick.

    I actually had email *before* Al Gore invented the Internet. It was the ARPANET, which the modern internet evolved from. It was universal in that it was was worldwide and common at public institutions.

  18. robc – Who says email has to be internet (or Internet) -based? Email as we currently understand it is built on a collection of standards which are part of the Internet, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Back in the 1980s and early 90s, there were a ton of proprietary email systems that ran on LANs, and there were BBS-based systems before that. If you built a nationwide WAN that had email functionality, there you are, universal (at least within the nation) email without the Internet.

    To my way of thinking, Minitel is a fascinating example of centrally-planned technology projects and their pitfalls. Not because it was bad – by all accounts it was/is pretty good, and for a while looked way ahead of its time. But at this point it is obviously not the way of the future, which is the Internet and its open standards. So the French have the choice between sticking to their guns (and missing out on what everybody else is doing), maintaining dual systems (with the according expense and complexity), or letting Minitel slowly decay while they switch over (in which case they’re stuck with two different incomplete systems for a while).

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