A Vision for the Future of Newspapers—20 Years Ago

It's becoming hard to remember life before digital news. We now take for granted instantaneous availability of news and information on devices ranging from desktop PCs to tablets to smartphones. We now break news, add commentary and interact with audiences on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Google has put access to an unimaginable collection of knowledge at our fingertips. The iPhone and Android have put a virtual newsroom—with writing, photo, video, Web research and communications capabilities—into our pockets. We gasp at the inexorable decline of the business models of once-mighty traditional media corporations, hollowing out newsrooms and throwing thousands of people out of once-secure jobs.

In short, we're living through one of the most remarkable revolutions in history, the complete remaking of how we cover and consume news and information. It's difficult to remember things the way they were.

But some of us were there when that revolution began. And what a long, strange trip it's been.

Twenty years ago, Robert G. Kaiser, newly appointed managing editor of The Washington Post, took a trip to California to learn more about the then-developing world of Silicon Valley. While there, he was invited by John Sculley, then Apple's CEO, to a conference in Japan about the future of digital media. Several dozen movers and shakers from the worlds of publishing and technology gathered in the resort town of Hakone, outside Tokyo, to discuss what it might mean to use computers to collect and distribute news and information, something described by the newfangled word "multimedia."

What Kaiser heard at the conference sounded to him—a decidedly non-techie print newsman whose expertise was mostly in international affairs—like science fiction. On the long flight home, he wrote a seven-page memo to Washington Post Publisher Don Graham and other top executives at the paper about what he'd seen and heard—and what he thought The Post should do about it. (How much have things changed? Bob wrote his first draft in longhand, on a legal pad; I'm writing this on an iPad.)

The Kaiser memo, 20 years old this month, is a striking document, even today. (With Bob's kind permission, it's publicly available here, as a PDF, for the first time.) It shows a first-class mind wrapping itself around a topic—and a future—that was completely new and foreign. A lot of what Bob wrote about seems almost quaint now, but remember: this was 1992, when "going online" meant connecting to services like Compuserve and Prodigy via slow, squeaky dial-up modems. PCs had just made a transition to color screens, laptops were still a novelty, cellular phones were rarer (and bricklike) and nobody but Tim Berners-Lee had heard of the World Wide Web.

To newspaper veteran Kaiser—and just about anybody else—what was discussed at the Apple-sponsored conference on the future of multimedia and technology was fantastic. He wrote Graham:

I was taken aback by predictions at the conference about the next stage of the computer revolution. It was offered as an indisputable fact that the rate of technological advancement is actually increasing. Dave Nagel, the impressive head of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, predicted “the three billions” would be a reality by the end of this decade: relatively cheap personal computers with a billion bits of memory (60 million is common today), with microprocessors that can process a billion instructions per second (vs. about 50 million today) that can transmit data to other computers at a billion bits per second (vs. 15-20 million today). At that point the PC will be a virtual supercomputer, and the easy transmission and storage of large quantities of text, moving and still pictures, graphics, etc., will be a reality. Eight years from now.

(Yep, that all happened, pretty much on schedule—and now has been vastly surpassed.) 

I asked many purported wizards at the conference if they thought Nagel was being overoptimistic. None thought so. The machines he envisioned will have the power to become vastly more user-friendly than today’s PC’s. They will probably be able to take voice instructions, and read commands written by hand or an electronic notepad, or right on the screen. None of this is science fiction — it’s just around the corner.

(Most of that has happened too, though not all—I'm looking at you, Siri—but nobody back then quite foresaw smartphones, Google or Facebook, either.)

The world is changing with amazing speed, and we need to pay close attention to what is happening. … No one in our business has yet launched a really impressive or successful electronic product, but someone surely will. I’d bet it will happen rather soon. The Post ought to be in the forefront of this — not for the adventure, but for important defensive purposes. We’ll only defeat electronic competitors by playing their game better than they can play it. And we can.

Brave words—and ultimately a bit too optimistic—but an important call to arms. Kaiser suggested to Graham that The Post embark ASAP on two daring R&D projects: an electronic classifieds service (alas, craigslist eventually won that race while the Post and others were still figuring out how to get going) and an electronic newspaper. Of the latter, Kaiser wrote:

Many at the conference talked about the way we tend to use new media first to replicate the products produced by old media — so early TV consisted of visible radio shows, for example. With this in mind, our electronic Post should be thought of not as a newspaper on a screen, but (perhaps) as a computer game converted to a serious purpose. In other words, it should be a computer product.

That last was an important and smart distinction, which unfortunately got a bit lost in the rush over the next few years to paste newspapers onto a screen rather than to truly think of them as computer products, in Kaiser's apt words. But his instincts and vision were spot on.

As it happened, I was covering technology for The Post in 1992, and Kaiser shared his memo with me shortly after he sent it to Graham. I was thunderstruck. I remember walking across the newsroom from his office, reading the memo and becoming more and more excited with every step. I covered this stuff; I understood the importance of what he'd heard and prophesied; and I was thrilled that somebody in senior management at the Post "got it," as techies were fond of saying.

Moreover, I thought I knew how to bring Kaiser's vision to life.

I spent the next few days–a gorgeous late-August Washington weekend—holed up in my basement slaving over my Macintosh LC. Using Apple's then-revolutionary (and now late and lamented) HyperCard software, I built a prototype electronic newspaper that, as Kaiser had envisioned—and as much as my crude programming skills could manage—was a "computer product."

Cheekily named PostCard, in tribute to its Washington Post and HyperCard parentage, it was, yeah, a newspaper on a screen. But it had crude animations, soundbites (recorded from TV) to accompany some stories, and other primitive multimedia tricks. Computer graphics were so unsophisticated then that I couldn't even include photos on the front page, and my design skills weren’t great—but here's what one glimpse of newspaper future looked like 20 years ago:

Postcard (early version) home page

I loaded PostCard onto my new PowerBook 140 (still a black and white screen) and brought it to work that Monday. “This is it!” Kaiser said excitedly when he saw it. "This is exactly what I was talking about in my memo." Within a couple days I essentially had a new job: as the Post's in-house digital media "futurologist," as Don Graham dubbed me.

Over the next couple of years we continued developing PostCard and many other products as testbeds for all sorts of ideas about the future of media. Again, the Web didn't exist yet, broadband was a dream, and the tools were very crude. But working on our own and in partnership with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, we developed a host of prototypes and concepts that pointed toward the digital future. One idea we played with looked a bit like what Groupon came up with nearly two decades later; we had hyperlocal concepts long before that word even existed. We even built versions of The Washington Post that ran on Newton, Apple's then-revolutionary handheld computer, a precursor to the iPhone and iPad. It was a time of “anything goes” experimentation.

Postcard, with help from engineers at a secret Apple media lab in Boulder, Colo., evolved into a much slicker product over the next year or two, adding prototypical interactive advertising, text-to-speech features, personalized news, built-in news games, searchable classifieds and stock tables, online restaurant reservations and ordering and a vision for electronic sports ticketing, along with video and improved design and functionality. 

Postcard-Front Page

As someone said when they saw PostCard a few years later, "It looks like the Web." Except that, in those early days of experimentation, the Web didn't really exist yet. And we hadn't seen it.

We were learning quickly how digital media differed from print. We still had no real idea of how we would deliver these whizbang products to anybody—the Internet wasn't really ready for primetime yet and our mutimedia visions bumped up against pre-broadband reality—but PostCard was a great vehicle to use to demo the future. Legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee, seeing PostCard presented at a Post company board meeting and grasping how it could be used to provide all sorts of contextual and supplemental content to support news stories, growled, "My God, it will take all day to read this thing." I think that was a compliment. Shortly after, the Post's board created a new division of the company to build digital products, the beginning of hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate spending to chase the vision of the future that Kaiser had written about and I had crudely prototyped.

We certainly weren't the only ones in the news industry doing these sorts of experiments. The Wall Street Journal had its own HyperCard-based experimental newspaper. CNN had an amazing multimedia CD-ROM news prototype. Knight Ridder's Roger Fidler, working in a lab literally next door to Apple's Boulder office, had a rudimentary but fascinating prototype of a newspaper-tablet computer. (Although the Fidler "tablet" consisted mainly of a printed page pasted on a board, accompanied by a clever video simulation, elements of it anticipated the iPad so presciently that it has become a flashpoint in the ongoing Apple-Samsung patent litigation over who first came up with the idea for an iPad-like tablet.) Others, notably the San Jose Mercury News, were starting to experiment with building actual online news products on platforms like AOL.

We all know how digital media history played itself out after these heady early years. These early experiments coalesced into newspaper Web sites in the mid-90s—WashingtonPost.com went live in 1996—and ran smack into more nimble, creative challengers like Google, craigslist and many others.

Overly cautious newspaper managers, convinced that the print golden goose was immortal and immutable, failed to fully exploit most of the opportunities presented by the new medium. They simply didn't innovate nearly as much as they should have, leaving the field open to upstart competitors until it was too late. One of Kaiser's most accurate prophecies, alas, was a dire warning near the beginning of his memo: "We do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea where we could eventually be devoured—or ignored as an unnecessary anachronism."

Mistakes were made, and they were doozies. The Washington Post, for its part, callously passed on opportunities to be an early investor in the likes of AOL, Netscape, eBay and Google. Oops—and there were similar horror stories inside all big newspaper companies. The history of the past 20 years of newspapers and digital media is, unfortunately, a legacy of timidity, missed opportunities and a general lack of imagination and guts to leap into the future.

(Contrary to popular myth, by the way, there was no "original sin" of newspapers somehow failing to think to charge subscriptions for online editions in those early days: in fact, we talked about paid-content models all the time, and Kaiser’s memo even suggested that money could be made selling individual stories to thousands of readers for pennies apiece. Indeed, many early newspaper online products and sites, including The Post's first online service, Digital Ink, did charge for access. But they ran up against technological barriers and audience resistance that generally made subscriptions unworkable. The alternative was the old newspaper revenue fallback, advertising, which proved to be less than effective because of the end of media scarcity and competition from the likes of Google, craigslist and many others for the ad dollars newspapers used to dominate. Believe me, if we could have figured out to get people to pay us directly for digital news back in the early days, we would have done it.)

Where are we, 20 years after Bob Kaiser's memo and the creation of the Postcard prototype in August 1992? We all know the answer to that. Newspaper Web sites, while popular, still aren't fully "computer products." Their innovation has generally stalled—and is now being further outpaced by the advent of social media and mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones. The best ideas in newsgathering, storytelling, audience engagement, distribution and advertising are mostly coming from outside the traditional news business. Print circulation and ad revenue are down dramatically at most papers. Staffing has been cut; quality is on the decline.

And even though online newspaper audiences are far larger than their print counterparts, monetizing those audiences has proven extremely difficult—though Google and others have done it far better than newspapers. In sum, we're still grappling with the titanic changes that Bob Kaiser identified in his memo 20 years ago.

For my part, that memo changed my life: I've had the privilege of spending the past 20 years trying to figure out how to bring those visions of the digital media future to reality, as an entrepreneur, consultant and executive. It's been a wild, thrilling ride, which I've chronicled periodically on this blog. And for the past 20 years I've carried Bob Kaiser's memo with me as inspiration—first, as a dog-eared copy in my briefcase; more recently as a digital copy on my iPad and iPhone. As a glimpse into the roots of the adventure the newspaper business has been on for the past two decades, it remains a remarkable document.



13 thoughts on “A Vision for the Future of Newspapers—20 Years Ago

  1. Great piece. My only quibble is with the passage about monetizing it. What I found — four years later and much farther down the corporate ladder — was that the discussion quickly polarized between those who wanted to give it all away and those who didn’t want to give anything away, a standoff made more intractable by technophobes in high places who made the discussion like an analysis of the kama sutra presided over by the Vatican.
    The result, unfortunately, was a lot of dithering while the parade passed by.


  2. Excellent overview of the struggles of newspapers to come to terms with these changes. But it does not address a crucial issue: even if newspapers had done everything “right” — whoever defines what that is — there would still be a separation of advertising and editorial. Why pay reporters to attract eyeballs to ads when Craigslist and EBay and every real estate listing agency was proving you could do it for free. Even if newspapers had invested in those services, they would not necessarily used the revenues to support editorial content.


  3. Ah, the memories flood back. Thanks, Mark. One other perspective to add on the “Why didn’t they put up paywalls in 1996?” question. Some of us HAD been using paywalls for a number of years…Prodigy, CompuServe, AOL. Those services not only let us monetize, but had sophisticated client software that optimized the viewing experience–pre-caching photos, speeding up downloads, even allowing audio streaming. In our implementation of Newsweek for Prodigy we actually downloaded a set of proprietary Newsweek fonts onto people’s machines so the screen content looked even more like the magazine.
    By comparison, the early Web experience, at 14.4 to 56 K, was like watching paint dry. So another element of the decision was simply market-based: even if we could have built dependable paywalls at the time, it’s highly unlikely customers would have paid for the experience.


  4. Michael Hill: There are any number of sites that use content to attract viewers who will then see advertisements. This can be a worldwide group of, say, fencers. It can be a broader category of NFL fans or birdwatchers. In the case of newspapers, it should be people with a particular interest in a place — either because they live there or because they used to live there, have family there, etc.
    The challenge is two-fold: One, independent of the Internet, is that the centralization of the retail industry removes localism — the local druggist is replaced by Rite-Aid, which can establish brand-awareness in non-local media. That was becoming a problem for newspapers before the Internet became a factor.
    The other is that, while a newspaper in New England might sell maple syrup or air-shipped lobsters to that homesick sailor in San Diego, he’s not going to buy furniture from the hometown store.
    Having said that, losing to the real estate sites and to Craigslist through inaction was a major blunder, perhaps a mortal one. It would be very natural to have the local paper also be the hub for classifieds and for relocation information and for real estate listings. 99% of newspapers blew this opportunity to attract prime viewers through solid content.


  5. Mark – It has been a long road and we certainly missed some great opportunities to leverage emerging technologies. Mr. Kaiser saw the future and encouraged others to adapt for all the right reasons. Newspapers lost the battle to CraigsList and Real Estate listing sites but that does not mean it can’t be won back. A better product could bring customers back. Would anyone have thought MySpace would be so quickly overtaken by Facebook? Thanks for the article.


  6. In 1992 I had been a techie at the Spokesman-Review, a family owned newspaper in Spokane, Washington.
    If I had to put my finger on one thing that went wrong it would be that the newspaper already had an existing cash cow that they wanted to protect.
    We were not hungry enough. The startups had the advantage that they had no installed base.
    We had what we called “Electronic Editions” which had up to 16 lines running at breakneck speeds of up to 1200 bits per second.
    You could get tomorrow’s classifieds today at 6pm. (Granted, we had to transfer the data from one computer to another via 1/2 inch open-reel magnetic tape.)
    We had the top news, sports and features stories.
    But we always knew that if this electronic thing failed we would still have our day jobs.
    Also, how many people wanted to pay $19.95 per month for “News for Heavyweights.” The answer was “not very many.”
    In the end, we learned the same lessons as the big guys, but for a lot less money.
    There was more money to be made managing the old media empires and not making waves.
    In 2012 I am unemployed and looking for a job anywhere but at a newspaper.
    I salute recovering journalists everywhere.


  7. Thanks, everyone, for thoughtful comments, as well as for lots of kind words and promotion via Twitter. The response to this post has been phenomenal, and it’s very cool to be able to illuminate this little corner of digital journalism history. And, as always, my thanks to Bob Kaiser for his vision and for sharing it with me 20 years ago.


  8. I’m cringing at the thought of reading this full memo. I have found myself in a tough place in my career. I long for the days where I dreamed of writing for a paper. I got 3 years of great experiences out of it, but knew when to get out. I’ve tried other fields, but I am floundering. Now I long to write again, and I feel like I’m starting over. I’ve grown up in the Internet age, but not in terms of my writing career. I guess that makes me a “recovering journalist”.


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