They Made It Go Up

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When I read about the newspaper crisis, I think of Edwin Diamond, the New York University journalism professor who opened a conference I attended on "The Potential Downside of the National Information Infrastructure" at the now-discontinued Annenberg Washington Program in 1995. In his lecture, and in his landmark study of change at the New York Times (still in print after over 15 years), he revealed the fragility of newspapers' relationship with technology. Diamond compared the renaissance of science and technology sections, fueled by advertising revenue from the computer industry, to a similar space boom in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Reflecting on his part in promoting space exploration, he paraphrased the famous song of Tom Lehrer: "'I make them go up, where they come down/ Is not my department,' said Wernher von Braun." Thinking of computers and science sections in the 1960s he reflected: "We made it go up."

Diamond (as I recall; there's no transcript or recording) seemed to suspect that newspapers' computer-related advertising revenue would decline sooner or later, and that new technology might come right back down on the heads of newspaper owners. Of course management didn't agree. To the contrary, they believed that they were following the old business-school wisdom that the railroads got into trouble because they continued to believe they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. At the dawn of the Web age, newspaper publishers and editors believed with some reason that they had an unassailable position. The Times' experiments with remote printing of faxed editions go back to 1935 and succeeded at the Republican convention in San Francisco in 1956. Once the age of the personal computer dawned in the 1980s, editors and publishers of elite newspapers weren't sure about what they could charge for direct electronic delivery, how such a product would ultimately be formatted, or how it would coexist with print. They still aren't. But it was reasonable for them to think that 1) advertisers wanted to reach affluent customers, that 2) such readers needed high-quality information, and that 3) no competitive news organization could match the skills of their teams of specialist writers. There was no problem, in this way of thinking, that younger readers might prefer the electronic version; they'd be all the more desirable to marketers, and banner ads would more than make up for the loss of conventional display advertising.

Sadly, advertising cuts have forced even the youth-oriented satirical weekly The Onion, which had been laughing off the crisis, to close its San Francisco and Los Angeles editions. And Rupert Murdoch is planning to charge for News Corp. Web content. No more Mr. Nice Guy! (See Andrew Sullivan's excellent Quote For the Day and links on this announcement.) Can the Amazon.com Kindle DX revive the ailing quality press? Maybe the third time (after Space and the PC) will be the charm. The Times editors took a story appropriate for its Bits blog --  a minor glitch in the device's speech software -- and put it on the front page. They're making it go up.

(Since the problem was mispronunciation of Barack Obama's name, it's worth mentioning that the spell checker  of the otherwise excellent blogging software I'm using flags both parts, suggesting among other alternatives Bareback and Barabbas for the President's forename and Obadiah and Alabama for his surname.)





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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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