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.


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