The Beginning of the End of Print: The Lessons of an Amazingly Prescient 1992 WaPo Memo

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"Our goal, obviously, is to avoid getting boiled as the electronic revolution continues."

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(Reuters)

"I am not here dreaming of (or worrying about) a world in which computers have displaced the printed word, and us too. I could find no one at this conference who would predict the demise of the newspaper. No one. All saw an important place for us."

Those words come from a remarkable letter written by Robert Kaiser, then the Washington Post's newly appointed managing editor, to publisher Donald Graham following a 1992 conference on the future of digital media. Kaiser had attended the event after being invited by ill-fated Apple CEO John Sculley, flying to Japan in order to hear from the best contemporary minds in tech and publishing. In the course of his seven-page dispatch, Kaiser accurately predicts the explosion in computing power, growth of multimedia, and shift of readers to the web that would define the next 20 years of the news industry. It's a truly prescient document. (Disclosure: I interned with the Post in 2008.) 

Sadly, as the quote up above suggests, what it fails to predict is the large iceberg waiting ahead for newspapers in the form of collapsing ad revenues. But don't blame Kaiser. What the letter really demonstrates is just how much harder it can be to predict the future of business and culture than the future of technology. 

Just to set the scene for you, when Kaiser was writing his missive, the Internet as we now know it simply didn't exist. At the time, American universities and the federal government were still operating NSFNet, a forerunner to the modern web, and actual websites were in their infancy. Full-on commercialization of the Internet was still a couple years off. Yet, here are some of the things technologists, and editors like Kaiser who had their ears to the ground, could already forecast:

Computers would improve exponentially:

At that point [the year 2000] 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.

We'd be using touchscreens and Siri one day

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.

Old media would turn into new media

"Multimedia" or "new media" is a popular idea for one possible use of these powerful computers connected by a fiber optic network....At the top end, such a product might contain the text (or spoken text) of a Post story on the big news of the day, accompanied by CNN's live footage and/or Post photographers' pictures, plus instantly available background on the story, its principal actors, earlier stories on the same subject, etc.

Online was fundamentally different from print:

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.

Just for good measure, Kaiser also tosses off the possibility that streaming video would one day kill the brick and mortar movie rental business. It's some great soothsaying. But it's also all predictable, in part, because computing power is predictable. We have Moore's Law, which tells us that chip performance will double about every two years. Companies plan their product lines based on those assumptions. None of this is wild futurism.

What he can't yet imagine are the ways in which the news media's traditional revenue streams will simply evaporate. Kaiser argues for starting an online classified section. Smart. But eventually, Craigslist will whittle down the price of classifieds to nothing. He argues for trying to sell news online, perhaps through micropayments. But as Mark Potts, one of Washingtonpost.com's founding editors, wrote when he posted Kaiser's letter this weekend, tech limitations made charging for the site unfeasible. Nobody, meanwhile, could foresee how the web's ocean of new content would make online advertising an unworkable business model for almost anyone other than search giants, such as Google.

When it comes to how all of these technological advances will change the way we consume information, Kaiser is even further off the mark. He writes off the idea, for instance, that readers will enjoy "playing editor" by "organizing the information stream around personal needs and preferences to create individualized newspapers." So goodbye Twitter, Facebook feeds, and RSS. 

That blindness may have led to true missed opportunities for the news business, though perhaps not the ones you'd expect. I've never been a believer in the idea that newspapers are being sunk by their content -- that they're not interactive or social enough. Heck, even Facebook is barely making a go at it with social. Rather, as Potts noted Sunday, the Post simply passed on investing in some of the Internet's future giants, including AOL, eBay and Google. Again, seeing the value in those companies required understanding not just what technology consumers would have on hand, but how they'd want to use it. 

Kaiser led off his letter with the familiar metaphor about frogs in a pot of water. According to a popular myth, frogs' nervous* systems can't feel slight changes in temperature, and so if the temperature rises slowly enough, they'll boil alive. 

"The Post is not in a pot of water, and we're smarter than the average frog," Kaiser wrote. "But we do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea where we could eventually be devoured -- or ignored as an unnecessary anachronism. Our goal, obviously, is to avoid getting boiled as the electronic revolution continues."

Right now, I think most would agree, they're boiling.

______________________________
*Unaware of the extensive myth busting that's been dedicated to this metaphor -- which still gets used far too often -- I originally wrote that frogs "supposedly" can't feel slight changes in temperature. I regret the error. 
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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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