The day every computer user knew was coming a decade and a half ago is just about here -- 10 years later than we thought.
It would have been nice had newspapers spent that time developing the kind of product predicted in this 1994 video from the Knight-Ridder Information Design Lab. Instead, print journalists -- and broadcasters, too -- decided it would be a far better thing to operate as if there were no tomorrow . . . as if their past would be their future, forever and ever, amen.
Newspapermen and broadcasters turned their buggy whips into more buggy whips, and then took their 30-percent returns and turned them into massive debt as big corporations acquired other big corporations. Meantime, local publishers sank money into bigger and better buggy-whip factories erected as monuments to their business acumen.
The "digital newspaper" could wait. Half-assed efforts on this "Internet" thing would have to do.
Pared-down electronic versions of print ads would suffice as a digital business model as well. What would you expect on a medium capable of text, audio, video and instant connectivity -- instant shopping without even having to click away from the Daily Blab's website?
THE TROUBLE IS, the "information superhighway" had ideas of its own. More precisely, the billions of people using it had distinct ideas of their own, ideas that didn't jibe at all with publishers' or broadcasters'.
Newspaper people -- as reflected in the above video -- thought the digital revolution would be the equivalent of an electronic newspaper vending machine. When they put their own product out on the World Wide Web for free, it had to have been with the assumption that the genie could be put back into the bottle.
Also, there must have been a like assumption that few would seek to become digital "publishers" and, furthermore, couldn't make a buck at it if they dared to try. Because -- in the ossified minds of the ossified types in ossified "mainstream media" boardrooms everywhere -- the thought of "new media" philistines making a digital go of it without the expense of a sprawling buggy-whip infrastructure and 19th-century distribution network was just crazy talk.
NOW, 15 years later, the newspaper industry's "bright idea" is to make readers pay for online content they now get for free -- and for which the "new media" philistines happily will continue to charge the low, low price of . . . nothing. The new "crazy talk" is someone pointing out that readers never have "paid" for news content, that advertisers always have been the ones bankrolling newspapers' journalistic undertakings.
No, it's not publishers who are crazy for not providing advertisers a decent return on a hefty investment, thus exploding the entire business model of newspapering. The "loons" are the folks pointing out plain facts.
Want to hear something crazy? Newspaper advertising revenue is at its lowest level since 1965, and newsrooms all across the country are starting to look a little like postwar Dresden. The average denuded newspaper of 2009 probably would be able to implement the Knight-Ridder Information Design Lab's digital vision of 1994 about the same time -- give or take a few years -- hell freezes over.
AS IT TURNS OUT, the above video was the last hurrah for the Knight-Ridder Information Design Lab. Knight-Ridder closed it in 1995.
Knight-Ridder itself ceased to exist in 2006, having been swallowed whole by McClatchy Newspapers. McClatchy, of course, is choking on the $2 billion in debt it took on in the process.
A major problem for the chain has been a 30-percent drop in advertising sales. I'm sure that can be remedied by expanding readership by charging folks for online content.
HAT TIP: Mashable