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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