Here’s some evidence that the Internet did not sneak up on newspapers. This 1981 TV news report from KRON in San Francisco talks about the start of Videotext, but touches on how all news on computers “is a few years off.”

I was still a novice reporter in 1981, and only a couple years before, worked my way through college selling the Radio Shack computers pictured in the report. But, like most of us at that time, we were only beginning to realize the computer’s impact on the newsroom.

Videotext didn’t catch on … maybe because it took 2 hours to download, or the $5 per hour connection charge, or it wasn’t as ‘spiffy’ as the print edition. But you have to wonder why more newspapers didn’t foresee the Internet’s potential and worked to develop viable products as the Internet grew … and print readers withered away.

The Ringling Bros.-level political circus that Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the Illinois legislature have created just gets stranger every day.

The impeachment trial started today, but I’ve been mulling over the the guv’s media blitz of the past few days, as he hopes to make his case in the court of public opinion. It’s been interesting seeing Mr. Blagojevich become Mr. Metaphor as he constantly compares his plight with other great leaders, real or fictional.

In the past few days, Blago’s compared his life with the likes of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mr. Smith (who goes to Washington), George Bailey, and a Western movie star. He’s compared his plight to Pearl Harbor Day.

Now, as noble as these metaphors are, I don’t think they’re quite accurate. So let’s have a bit of fun. Who would you compare the governor to … either living or fictional?

I’d had a couple in I had in mind:

1. Inspector Clouseau: The famed French “officer of the lewr” who bumbles his way through cases eventually winds up as the hero. But his heart was always in the right place, unlike Blagojevich, who we’re not sure if he even keeps his heart on his person.

2. Monty Python’s Mr. Gumby: The kerchief-topped Welsh miner tends to have the same out-of-touch look as Blagojeivch, and I think we’re all waiting for the governor to eventually utter: “My … brain … hurts!”

3. The scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz:” “If I only had a …” naaaah, that one’s TOO easy!

4. Dinsdale Piranha: Another Monty Python character. As you watch the guv make his way along the talk show circuit pleading his case, you can’t help but wonder if he’d dogged by the idea that he’s being followed by a giant hedgehog named Spiny Norman.

Twitter user genuine-rp noted that added if Blagojevich was a movie, he’d be like “Runaway Train.”

Your turn to weigh in. What person … real or fiction … or movie would you compare Gov. Blagojevich to? Send me a note through the comments section, and I’ll add them to the list.

Now here’s a novel idea. France’s president announced the country will give free newspaper subscriptions to all 18-year-olds. It’s an effort not only to help encourage young readers, but to help that country’s struggling newspaper industry.

A nice effort, but I don’t think young people aren’t reading newspapers because they can’t afford it. And, by age 18, many of their life habits have already been firmly established, so I don’t see many “new” readers coming out of this.

France’s money (as well as any money left here in the U.S.) would see better results if it were put into reading programs in elementary schools. Turning programs like Newspaper in Education from mere circulation tools into true newspaper-school cooperatives that build reading habits during a child’s developmental years will go farther in developing potential newspaper customers by the time they reach adulthood.

Then, once they are there, newspapers need to develop products that fit young reader interests and needs as well. The “one size fits all” daily newspaper is no longer a sure thing for your potentially new readers in the world of Twitter and YouTube.

And … most important of all … it’s not all about print. Newspapers must develop web products that can co-exist with your print products as well. Use your brand throughout your products to maintain credibility and develop loyalty.

Train them when they’re young, and keep their interest with targeted products. That will go a lot farther than a free subscription.

An addendum to my earlier list of new year’s resolutions:

11. MARKET YOUR WEB SITE: That goes beyond placing points in the paper saying “see our Web site.” After all, you if you haven’t realized it yet, your brand is going only so far with readers nowadays. I recently saw a television ad for a northern Indiana newspaper that gives a scant recognition to the Web site. (On the other side of the spectrum, the Chicago NBC station has a TV ad that, while rather ambiguous, gives the impression that its Web site does more than just replay the 10 p.m. news). Your Web site may not be paying the full ticket yet, but don’t expect it to pay more unless you start to aggressively pursue potential readers.

Just because you’ve built it, they won’t necessarily come. Show them why they should.

Here are a few ideas to get your site in focus with readers:

1. One of my favorite ideas is to take a newspaper box and turn it into a “web box.” Secure a monitor into the window where the print product was displayed and make sure it’s running your home page. Or attach a monitor to a news rack and run your home page while copies of the print product are available for purchase. A nice way to meld old and new media, and with the number of potential purchase points running wifi, it should be easier to get this into the market than before. Have your circulation people involved in marketing your Web site as well as the paper, adn this could be a good start.

2. Look at places that offer wifi, like coffee houses, bookstores, casual restaurants. Are they willing to promote your site? Maybe as part of an ad deal? If it’s a mom-and-pop operation, are they willing to make it the default page for folks who connect to the web at their business? Look at ways your Web site could benefit their business, and work to achieve a consensus. Both can prosper.

3.Check to see if your local library has a home page. If so, would they be willing to display a prominent link to your site? If not, would they be willing to use yours as a home page?

4. Viral marketing. How many employees do you have left? Each of them is a potential marketing tool. Give them handouts promoting the Web site (or special Web-only features) and have them get the word out in their communities. Give them talking points that they can use in casual conversation as they get out into the school organizations, church gatherings, social settings and barber shops. Every one of your employees should have a stake in the success of your operation, and this is one way to get them to help.

5. Speaking of viral, does your paper/website have a presence on social networking sites, like Facebook or Twitter? If so, are you actively using it to promote features, breaking news, invitations for story tips and/or reader-interactive projects? Are you promoting feedback on your posts?

6. Look within. When a customer comes into your reception area, is there anything there to tell them about your Web site? If you have niche Web sites, would a customer know that by walking into your building? Is there a monitor set up near the reception desk that displays your home page? Better yet, do you have a dedicated computer or two in your waiting area, so customers can look around on your site while they’re waiting for their appointment?

One last thing…is your newsroom monitoring your competition’s web sites the same way they monitor TV and radio? If not, your news gatherers are too busy staring at the paddock while the race is running behind them. Get dedicated Web monitors in your newsroom now, and make sure people are monitoring them!

We survived the Bush administration. We can all take a deep breath now.

But why to I feel like George Bailey holding those 2 dollar bills after the run on the Bailey Savings and Loan?

Slate’s Jack Shafer offers a nice essay on how newspapers tried to invent the Internet, but failed. The Internet did not sneak up on newspapers, Shafer argues. Instead, newspapers became involved in it back in the 90s, but failed to do anything new or exciting for readers.

Shafer’s essay is most interesting in the timeline he paints over the past century, where newspapers faced similar incursions from new developments, but did not act to embrace them. When radio came around, newspapers bought radio licenses and stations. When television appeared, they did the same. In the ’70s and ’80s, they dabbled in videotext (remember Viewtron?). In the ’90s, some created fax editions.

It’s interesting that, in every instance, newspapers acted more to squelch the emerging technology or try to mold it into a mirror image of its core print product.

And, in every instance, the industry failed to make anything of it.

Looking over all the advancements through the past 50 years and more, not one of them can attribute success to development out of the newspaper industry. You may say that television and radio news were successful outcroppings, but I argue that, with few exceptions, it developed from the evolution of the medium itself, and not through any mitosis from newspapers.

Granted, changes in technology rendered videotext and fax obsolete within a few years, which may have led newspapers to be more gun shy as the Internet began to develop. But even so, from the mid 90s to a few years ago, the majority of newspapers were still using Web sites primarily as a place enhance the print’s classified sections, and adding print content as a draw for that.

What newspaper failed to do was recognize early on was that the Internet could not be an extension of the newspaper. As a result, potential revenue models were rendered useless by giving online readers content at no cost. In other words, they failed to realize the cash crop was not ink and paper, but the content that lies upon it. They were giving the gold away, figuring readers would buy the basket.

And we’re still paying dearly for that mistake.

We’ve been wringing our hands over reader commenting for years. What we in the industry had hoped would be the forum for intelligent, insightful discussion has in many cases become a freeforall among readers who are quite naive over the idea of “freedom of speech.”

But there may be something productive coming out of commenting. The suburban Chicago Daily Herald readers’ comments played a key role in local police finding out a convicted sex offender may be in violation of his probation.

According to the story, the local police chief was reading comment posted on the story of the man’s conviction when he saw a comment that the guy was living with a woman and a small girl. Police went to the house and discovered that this was indeed the case, in violation of the probation conditions he not be in unsupervised contact with anyone under 18.

It’ll be interesting to follow this in the courts to see just how much credence online comments hold in court. But this should be a wake-up call to those who think their anonymous comments are immune from the law.

Or, as one commenter on this story points out: “Wow…see, all the banter that goes on in here IS for good, sometimes. Nice detective work–and the rest of us? Watch out, we never know who’s looking. ;-)”

UPDATE: New Zealand police catch a burglar using Facebook. Could social networking become the next Neighborhood Watch/Crimestoppers program?

The Chicago Tribune goes tabloid!

The paper announced today that it will sell a tabloid version of the paper on newsstands throughout the city and suburbs. It will continue to provide the traditional broadsheet version to home delivery.

Bold and gutsy move … and welcomed by those of us who have tried reading the Trib on a Metra commuter train, as well as the poor schleps sitting next to us and getting punched as we try to gracefully navigate the paper. Obviously trying to increase newsstand sales … an area the tabloid Sun-Times has had the advantage for some time.

But I wonder if thought was put into a couple of areas:

1. The number of people who get home delivery for the purpose of taking the Trib with them on their daily commute. They will still get the broadsheet. Will they cancel home delivery to get the tabloid and effectively shift circulation, instead of build it?

2. At a time when newspapers can barely afford to print one edition … and considering the parent Tribune Company is in bankruptcy proceedings … just how long will the accountants allow them to print two versions of the same newspaper?

Why do I see the Trib eventually saying to its core readers: “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the tabloid format”?

I’m not one for new year’s resolutions. Every year I resolve to lose 20 pounds and usually end up putting on 20. But considering the newspaper industry’s rudderless descent into oblivion over the past few years, I’d like to see us all resolve to make 2009 a year of evolution, not de-evolution.

Here are a few resolutions I propose for the industry:

1. QUIT WHINING: Yes, times are bad. Talented people are losing their jobs and newspapers continue to bleed revenue. And it is sad. We’ll probably lose more talented people this year, and some well-known nameplates will cease to exist. But our industry needs a good slap in the face to realize we can’t continue to wallow in sorrow. We must get our collective act together and focus on long-term survival.

Let’s have a good cry now. ………….. OK, now let’s go out and fix this broken thing.

2. FOCUS ON YOUR PRODUCT: If you’re still using the words “newspaper” or “publishing” to describe your business, you’re not focused on the right thing. It’s not words and pictures on paper anymore. It’s words and pictures. You have a vast wealth of information that is valuable to your readers and advertisers. It’s just that a growing number don’t want it on paper anymore. Figure out ways to parse your product and deliver it to your customers in a package that is inviting to advertisers, and possibly in a premium that readers would want to pay for.

3. FOCUS YOUR RESOURCES AT WHAT YOU DO BEST: You don’t have the staff and resources to do cover everything anymore. Focus them on what you do best. For most newspapers, that is local news. Local sports. Local events. Stay in tune with your community and become its soul…it’s guiding light. What you can’t do on your own, rely on other sources … including (GateHouse Media excluded) sources you consider ‘competition.’ Readers won’t really care where the information comes from, as long as they can rely on you to bring it to them.

4. HELP YOUR STAFF STAY WITH THE CURVE: Remember pagination, when your copy desk took over the responsibility of designing pages? Your copy editors didn’t have the electronic skills, so what did you do? You hired new editors who were skilled, and trained those who needed to learn. Staffers who didn’t learn left or became obit writers. Today is no different. Changes in technology and the move to the web require your staff to be knowledgeable in new skills. Help your staff learn them. Train copy editors in HTML, CSS, PhotoShop, Flash, etc. Train reporters to use video and audio devices. Have them learn Flash, Audacity and other pertinent software. If you are hiring, look for people with these skills. Have them be your trainers and leaders. With a trained and knowledgeable staff, you’ll be ready to make changes quickly and smoothly.

5. EMBRACE THE TECHNOLOGY: Think it’s still all about your web site? That’s so mid-2000’s. There’s a whole new world of technology out there that you should be looking at, and more coming down the pike. Think iPhone. Think Kindle. Think Twitter. If you’re not looking at developing your brand to adapt to these sources of information delivery, odds are your audience will move on to the next great thing by the time you do. Keep an eye on what people are using, and what the next generation will bring. Be ready to adapt quickly. And have people on board that are always looking past the current fiscal year to help you avoid the icebergs.

6. KEEP MINING FOR REVENUE: The revenue well is running dry. Now’s not the time to be looking into it. And don’t pray for rain, because it won’t come. Look at new audiences to serve, new ways of getting an advertiser’s word out to the audience, and ways of providing “premium” services. If you can hit a combination of delivery and content that people would be willing to pay for, you’ve hit the mother lode.

Your current readers will stay by your side as long as you continue to provide a quality product at a decent price with reliable delivery. But find you why people aren’t reading you. Is it the what you offer? Is it how you package it? Is it how you deliver it? Find out what your non-readers are looking for. Then figure out a way to give it to them. Nurture your current audience, but start building new ones to sustain you

8. FIND YOUR NICHES: The Tribune Company had a hit with RedEye, which was accepted by 20-something urban readers as the metro newspaper of choice. So, they decided to redesign the flagship Chicago Tribune using cues they took from RedEye. Three months later, the negative reaction continues and the paper is backing off on some of the design cues. They call it a “work in progress,” but it seems more like a “mea culpa.” Instead of trying to tweak your one product to meet the needs of many, look at spreading your brand to many products that meet the needs of specific groups. You may never build your flagship’s readership back to its glory days, but if you can build decent readerships among many targeted products, you can offset .. or eventually overtake … the totals of the days gone by.

9. ENGAGE YOUR READERS: Reader comments on stories and reporter blogs are nice, but why not bring them further into the discussion? I’m intrigued by a program on Chicago’s PBS station, where three average people dine at restaurants they all recommend, then gather on TV to talk about their experience at each eatery. The waiting list to be a guest reviewer is in the tens of thousands. Why not have your readers provide their take on local restaurants or businesses? How about doing a review of a movie or local theater? How about rating their favorite pizza place, convenience store, oil change shop? Take that information, develop a database. If enough favorable comments are posted, will the business owners be willing to pay for it for their marketing purposes?

10. TAKE A LEAP OF FAITH: Innovate, experiment, implement. Remember that Thomas Edison had just as many failures as he had patents. Be patient with new projects; let they try to build steam. If the plug needs to be pulled, don’t be discouraged. Learn from your mistakes, and build on them for future projects. And, above all, don’t lock yourself into thinking new revenue needs to linked to an active press.

That’s a good start for now. Please send me a note if you have other resolutions, and I’ll add them to the list.

Hopefully we’ll all be around this time next year to review how well we did.

The Chicago Blackhawks — the hottest team in hockey now and the biggest thing in Chicago since, well, the ’05 Sox — come into Wrigley Field on New Year’s Day and proceed to get blown away by the Detroit Red Wings.

Needless to say, it adds credence to my call to tear down Wrigley Field. End the curse once and for all!