Thursday, April 22, 2010

Punch in ’94: Who needs info superhighway?

If you want to know how newspapers got into the pickle they are in today, read the text of a remarkable 15-year-old speech just unearthed by Jim Fitzpatrick, a retired editor and relatively new entrant to the journo-blogosphere.

The speech in question, which essentially writes off the Internet as anything for publishers to worry about, was given in May, 1994, in Kansas City by Arthur (Punch) Ochs Sulzberger, the chairman of the New York Times Co. and father of the company’s current chief executive, AOS Jr.

Fitzpatrick, who blogs at JimmyC Says, got the text from former colleague Julius Karash, who covered the speech for the KC Star and hung on to the transcript for all these years. The entire talk is published at Fitzpatrick’s blog, but here are a few gems from it:

:: “Newspapers are here to stay. They are not going the way of the dinosaur – rendered extinct, in this case, by the wonders of a new technology that will speed us down an interactive information superhighway of communications.”

:: “For a long time to come, this information superhighway, far from resembling a modern interstate, will more likely approach a roadway in India: chaotic, crowded and swarming with cows. Or, as one might say, udder confusion.”

:: “A computer can easily assemble…information from many sources. But this compilation is a far cry from a newspaper…. Raw news will do just fine if you’re a computer buff and want to play editor. But I, for one, would rather let a professional take the first raw cut at history and spend my leisure time fishing.”

:: “Judgment, serendipity and something left over to wrap the fish – all neatly folded, in living color, and thrown at no extra cost into the bushes. All for just a few cents a day. It’s called a newspaper.”

:: “Who needs that elusive interactive information superhighway of communications?”

In fairness to Mr. Sulzberger, lots of people were skeptical about the prospects for the Internet in 1994. So, it is fair to ask whether I was any more insightful at the time than Sulzberger. The answer is yes, sort of.

At the time of this speech, I was the chief operating officer of a national cable company deciding on whether to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in capital projects to rewire our systems to upgrade channel capacity.

Responding to the wise counsel of engineering wizards Ken Wright and David Large, I was persuaded to spend tens of millions of extra dollars to put thick, fiber-optic bundles into each project to equip them to carry what we then called “future data services.” We didn’t know enough to call it the Internet. But, thanks to Wright and Large, our newly rebuilt systems were ready when the web took off.

I took off myself by the end of 1995, forsaking the cable business to join the first of three Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley where I served as CEO. Although I had no idea exactly how things would turn out, I had little doubt we were on to something revolutionary.Nothing has happened in the intervening years to change my mind.


Blogger Mike Donatello said...

When I was at NAA (1996-1999), we did a survey of publishers which asked, among other things, what respondents thought about the potential impact of the Internet. I still remember the response from one publisher in Massachusetts: "The Internet is a fad, and a waste of money and employees' time."

I wish I'd kept and framed that reply.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Aron said...

Oh those silly just-don't-get-it old media!

Of course it would be funnier if The Times hadn't put together a digital operation less than a year later, and in January, 1996, become one of the first major news organizations to launch a website.

6:34 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

He was right then and still is today. Newspapers (in print or otherwise) have smart professionals who can help everyday citizens make sense of what has happened in the world. And this is the "service" they should be selling to readers.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Alain Castonguay said...

About the same year, I've started to cover forest industry here in Quebec province, Canada.
In January 1995, at the annual meeting of Canadian Pulp & Paper Association, experts were saying that the future of their industry was brilliant.
Hopefully, most of these experts in front of me that year have disappeared.

5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While his tone and dismissal of the web may seem off kilter, your selection of his comments suggests they're wrong. Not so much. "Newspapers are here to stay. They are not going the way of the dinosaur-rendered extinct." I think papers will be around quite a while. Sure, they'll share a lot more time and space with other media, but there will be a significant number of paper readers, just as there are still readers of books. Maybe fewer, but certainly far from extinct. The ethnic reference was off, but yes, the Internet is "chaotic, crowded, swarming ... and often confusing." Some say that's a "feature" :-) And I don't think there's anything wrong with "judgment and serendipity." There's room for all. Rhetoric that suggests all or nothing, one and not the other ... seems just as off kilter.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Robert H. Heath said...

Writ large, the moral seems to be that you should always follow the counsel of engineers you know to be Largely Wright.

11:55 PM  
Blogger T Heller said...

I'd say Punch clearly understood the function, purpose and (hence) value of journalism, as embodied by the physical product.

While the electronic networks enable people to fetch snippets of "news" here and there (at considerable effort --and accompanied by significant levels of noise), Punch's remarks do suggest that the 'net hasn't yet come close to fulfilling the function, purpose and value that newspapers have represented.

Thanks for posting, Alan!

3:45 AM  
Blogger T Heller said...

A couple more gems from his speech:

"one thing is clear: new technology alone won’t improve a lousy newspaper"

"don’t forget serendipity. How many times has one opened a newspaper to discover some fascinating tidbit you never would have had the wit to search for in a computer?"

6:09 AM  
Blogger Mkelley said...

It was the internet that showed me how biased and unreliable my local newspaper is. I no longer rely on it for information.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Outside-In said...

Actually, the funniest thing is to imagine Punch fishing

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The net enabled the reader in a way that the newspaper industry may never recover from.

An example: Western Canadian farmers are legally bound to sell their wheat through a government body called the Canadian Wheat Board. The details aren't relevant here, other than to note that support or lack thereof falls along party lines.

So, local meetings about the CWB are highly political events.

Coverage of these public meetings nearly always includes a few quotes from supportive "independent farmers". These independent farmer sightings have become a sort of parlour game for the political blogosphere.

Run the names through google, and 9 times out of 10, Mr. Independent Farmer turns out to have significant big-P political ties.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, what's wrong is that the reader is far more invested in the news story than the reporter is. The spidey senses send them to Google - and they find out they're being lied to by their newspaper.

How many times does this have to happen before a once loyal reader makes up their mind that their newspaper isn't to be trusted? I'd say about twice.

That's the problem. The audience knows more than you do, always has. The difference now is that millions of them are on the net comparing notes, and realizing that the emperor was naked from the git go.

11:02 PM  

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