Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thoughts on newspapers, computers and readers ... from 44 years ago

Hey, I'm on a roll. Here's another striking passage that I came across while sorting through books. (On the heels of Garfield Bromley Oxnam's thoughts in Youth and the New America, posted yesterday.)

These passages are from 1972's Man and the Computer by John G. Kemeny, a mathematician, computer scientist and educator who later went on to chair the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island.

From Man and the Computer's Chapter 10, titled "Computers in the Home":
One possible use of the home terminal illustrates the wide variety of information retrieval that can be made available in the home.

The New York Times is a magnificent national institution. Yet in many ways it is anachronistic in the computer age. It is too bulky, too impersonal, and often out of date by the time one reads it.

Everyone is familiar with the problem of bulk. Very few of the readers of The New York Times ever read all of the articles in a given issue, even on a weekday. Because of the bulk one often overlooks an important news item, even though the search is helped by an index. And when one finds a particular item, one may have to search through a long story, turning several pages, until one has extracted the details of particular interest to oneself. I have often wished that I could have the option of either having more or less detail. ...

[Also], there is the highly impersonal nature of The New York Times. By "impersonal," I mean that because the Times has to worry about the interests of hundreds of thousands of readers, it does not tailor its new service to my needs. I want to argue that it is entirely feasible today for the Times to provide personalized service for each of its readers. ...

Each reporter would file this stories by typing them directly into a computer terminal. The computer would provide a number of automatic services to make his life easy. It would justify all lines so that they come out roughly of equal length, correct simple spelling errors, and make it easy for him to enter corrections and improvements. ...

The editorial staff would monitor new stories as they were entered into the computer and make policy decisions on which stories to accept and how much detail to retain. The stories would then pass to a group of proofreaders who would make final corrections before each item was officially accepted into the current version of The New York Times. ...

I would expect that once the cost of printing the newspaper is eliminated, the bulk [of news content] could be increased tenfold at a surprisingly small cost. This would require about a million words of computer storage, which is a little over 1 percent of the storage available on the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System. The work of reporters, editors, and proofreaders would be actually simpler than it is today, and much of the remaining staff of a large newspaper would no longer be needed. Therefore the cost of "publishing" a personalized newspaper would be lower than the cost is today.

A reader sitting in his home could dial into his computer network and ask for his personalized New York Times. The computer would have on file those general topics which the user normally reads. ... After the reader has seen as much of the story as he wished, the computer, upon a signal, would automatically proceed to his next request, until he has seen everything he is interested in. ... In half an hour he would conclude a highly enjoyable and profitable personalized session with The New York Times. ...

If a particular story is of long-range interest to him, he could have it typed out on his terminal or stored in his own personal file in the computer's memory for future retrieval. And he would have all these services available in his own home.

It may be objected that while this scheme sounds great from the reader's point of view, it would bankrupt the Times, which depends on its advertising revenue. But this need not be the case. The computer network would charge the user for various services and could pay a royalty to the Times for each access by a user. Given that the cost of production of the newspaper is reduced, and the cost of printing and distribution is eliminated, the Times may make a profit on "sales" alone. Nor is it necessary to eliminate all advertising. Classified ads could be well indexed and made available to any user who desired to see them. If that did not suffice, the newspaper retrieval program could be so written that between frames it presented ads. However, I would then hope that by paying an extra fee I would have the option of eliminating all advertisements.

I make this suggestion freely available to The New York Times.
It's interesting to see some of the areas in which Kemeny was prescient about how we would eventually consume the news on a digital platform. He even touches on digital advertising and the idea of paying extra for a "no-ads experience." In some areas, he missed the mark a little, but still had intriguing predictions, especially given how many decades he was removed from this transition.

I also find it fascinating that he's essentially proposing the idea of micropayments (which he terms royalties) as a revenue model for online newspapers. The general sense now is that micropayments won't work and won't "save journalism," but — as with so many other bungled aspects of the newspaper industry's transition to digital — I wonder if they might have been part of the solution if they had been embedded in online readers' expectations from Day One.

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