From the Annals of Optimism: The Newspaper Industry in 1981 Imagines its Digital Future

“Imagine, if you will, sitting down to your morning coffee, turning on your home computer to read the day’s newspaper.” A flamboyantly speculative-sounding notion, no doubt, were you watching this television news broadcast back when it aired in 1981. A production of San Francisco’s KRON, the segment takes a look at how the city’s newspapers, displaying admirable farsightedness, were then “investing a lot of money to try and get a service just like that started.” We see North Beach resident Richard Halloran (he of  the immortally meme-worthy onscreen identifier, “Owns Home Computer”) dialing, on his rotary telephone, “a local number that will connect him with a computer in Columbus, Ohio.” We also see the editors of the San Francisco Examiner “programming today’s copy of the paper into that same Ohio computer.” Halloran plops the phone’s receiver into his modem’s acoustic coupler, presumably pours his morning coffee, and downloads the day’s paper — which takes two hours, at a cost of five dollars an hour.

“This is only the first step in newspapers by computer,” says KRON science reporter Steve Newman. “Engineers now predict the day will come when we get all out newspapers and magazines by home computer.” We see footage of a traditional newspaper vendor: “But that’s a few years off, so for the moment, at least, this fellow isn’t worried about being out of a job.” That day came over a decade ago, and that fellow surely worries now, as do the publishers of his wares. We who start each day reading the news on our “home computers” laugh at the newspaper industry’s evident hubristic self-destruction by its failure to understand the internet, much less engage with it. But this report shows us that certain papers — the eight that Halloran’s menu offered him, at least — seemingly had their eyes on the ball long before we did. Do we see here an industry sowing the seeds of its own inevitable destruction, or evidence that things could have turned out differently?

Related content:

Clay Shirky on the Demise of the Newspaper

Walter Cronkite Imagines the Home of the 21st Century … Back in 1967

The Internet Imagined in 1969

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.



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