In the Videotex Graveyard


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.