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From AJR,   March 2010  issue

A Daunting Look Back   

How does my 1993 column on newspapers and technology hold up?

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

A journalism student at a Midwestern university telephoned me a while back to ask, at the direction of her professor, about my current thoughts regarding a column I wrote in this space. Called "Papers Will Survive Newest Technology" (June 1993), it was an attempt to forecast the impact of technology on newspapers.

Few things are more daunting to a writer than being called to account for long-ago predictions, which is why I try to avoid them, or at least load them with enough caveats to provide a backdoor escape for what might turn out to be boneheaded thinking. I was only partly successful at this in 1993.

But before revisiting that column, here's some context. I acknowledge that I'm not especially inclined toward the digital world. I do find the Internet an invaluable research tool and e-mail a convenience. But I do not own an iPhone or BlackBerry and do not text or tweet or blog. I'm not on Facebook or other social networking sites.

So while I'm not exactly a Luddite, I clearly have not embraced the remarkable technological advances of recent years that enable someone to be connected seemingly at all times with all people.

Which brings me back to that 17-year-old column. One thing I did not predict was the explosive expansion of the Internet. (Who knew?) Indeed, the column's headline now seems unduly optimistic. I still believe newspapers will survive, but their presence will be diminished--it already has been--and they still need to devise a successful business model that marries online with print. Newspapers will never regain the 20 to 30 percent profit margins of the 1990s, and some will disappear. Some already have.

It is interesting that the potential newspaper competitors I was most concerned about in 1993 were telephone companies (see "Electronic Warfare," April 1992) and cable television operators. I wrote that neither of these industries would find it economically possible to provide the mass amounts of local information that newspapers gather every day.

Cable has not developed into any more of a threat to newspapers than before, but telephone companies have, although not in the way I had expected. Back then I was worried about electronic Yellow Pages going after classified and local retail advertising. That didn't happen in a major way. Instead, cell phones and BlackBerrys can access the Internet and all the material that news thieves (more politely called aggregators) lift from newspapers, largely for free.

I also noted in that column that futurists were predicting the development of portable electronic tablets that could display entire newspapers. (See "What Are We So Afraid Of?" October 1992.) That phenomenon isn't fully established for newspaper use, but development of new software and the emergence of the Kindle and the iPad and other sophisticated electronic readers have just about got us there. There's no doubt cell phones and other mobile devices have chipped away at newspapers' strength, but portable news has never been newspapers' long suit.

A point I made in 1993 was that most people, certainly most serious news consumers, get their information at home, something that newspapers have always excelled at providing. I suggested that because of this factor newspapers would continue to be the major provider of news and information to homes.

What I didn't envision was the enormous impact of the Internet, the advent of craigslist, how Monster.com would compete for employment advertising and other sites would focus on automotive, real estate and other types of ads, how Google and others would offer the heart of newspaper news--all on the home computer. An increasing number of home dwellers have asked themselves why they should pay for a newspaper when most of what they seek is available free. The impact on newspaper circulation, which already had been in decline, is substantial.

I was prescient in suggesting that our society had reared a generation educated in schools to use video display terminals as primary sources of information, and that when this generation of students came of age, using those devices to seek information would be as natural for them as picking up a newspaper had been for their parents. That surely has come to pass, and just as surely it has diminished young people's use of newspapers.

In all, I would say that back then I could have done worse as a soothsayer--but, of course, that also means I could have done better.