Last week I participated in a panel discussion at the HOBY PA-West Leadership Seminar. The seminar participants were junior and senior high school students, all aspiring leaders (and a fun bunch as well). The panel topic: “The Future of Newspaper, e-Media, and Local News.” My fellow panelists included Tracy Certo, Managing Editor of Pop City Media; Kelly Tabay, Producer, WPXI TV News; Byron Smialek, a columnist from the (Washington, PA) Observer-Reporter; Robert Pastin, Managing Editor, Bridgeville Area News (Gateway Weekly); and a gentleman from CBS Radio/Infinity Broadcasting. I spoke from the standpoint of a blogger and founder of Pittsburgh Bloggers.org, representing the Brave New e-World (as was Tracy). The panel presented very different views of the future of media and news, and the conversation grew heated by the end. In all it was a rolicking success for everyone.
At the start of the event, each panelist was asked to speak for a few minutes about their view of the topic. Here’s what I said to the 50 or so students and faculty in attendance:
I used to work for a company in California called NeXT Computer. We made an operating system that competed with Microsoft Windows. Since then the company became part of Apple Computer, but that’s another story.
Anyway, sometime in late 1994 or early 1995 I attended a presentation. People from a company called Mosaic demonstrated some software they’d created to run on our operating system. This software allowed you to take text and mark it up with codes to format it. The codes were limited, and you could only get certain fonts and it was hard to lay out pictures and graphics exactly how you might like. But with this tool you could let people see your documents over the Internet — previously you could send email and download files, but you couldn’t just see documents on the screen.
When I left that presentation I went back to work, making brochures and packaging and user manuals, all tasks where we worried a lot about laying things out very precisely and gorgeously. And as I left the meeting, where we’d seen this “hypertext” that would let people see brochures and other documents pop up on the screen, I thought, “I will never want to use that.”
Basically, what I’m telling you is that I saw the web in its earliest days, and I thought it was a big waste of time.
The thing that I want to talk about is this: How bad do I feel that I so totally missed that boat? A little bad — I’d like to say I saw the potential from the start. But actually I don’t feel terrible.
Why? First, because it’s hard to see how technologies will be used. And not just for me. Steve Jobs saw that presentation too — it was his company — and I would bet that he didn’t start right away thinking about people downloading music and how he should create a device like the iPod and then a service like iTunes. None of that thinking started until years later. And no one thought about a company like Amazon competing with independent bookstores, or people selling stuff from their attics on eBay, or dissidents blogging in China, or teenagers posting on sites like MySpace and LiveJournal.
It’s OK that no one thought of this stuff, because those things didn’t all come into being all at once. There was incremental growth, one small step leading to another, new technologies being created that made new things possible. People were writing online diaries as soon as there was a worldwide web in 1994, but blogging didn’t gain much attention until years later.
Here’s the thing: Several things have to happen for people to adopt a new technology.
First, the tools have to become good enough. In the case of blogging, widespread blogs started once the average person could create and update a site. LiveJournal started in 1999, SixApart (which makes Moveable Type) started in 2001. Other companies and individuals released tools around that same time.
Second, there has to be a market, an audience. In the mid-1990s, people had internet access at work, and sometimes at home. By the end of that decade lots more people were online and able to access websites, and we had the dot-com boom. Today, More than one billion people in the world have access to the Internet, with a quarter of them with high-speed connections, according to a recent survey. [NOTE: The survey was by eMarketer, if you’re keeping score at home.] Third, there has to be a need that the technology addresses. In the case of blogs, ordinary people had to have a reason to write stuff online. The political situation in 2001 — with the fallout from the 2000 election, and September 11 — gave lots of people reasons to express their views to a wide audience.
So those three elements are part of how a technology is adopted, but there’s another piece: economics. Who’s paying for it? For media, which is primarily supported by advertising and to a small extent by subscriptions, this is a trying time as advertisers reevaluate where they’re putting marketing dollars.
And that brings us to today. I don’t feel too bad about not catching onto the web right away, because the pieces weren’t all there in 1995. Should major media outlets have caught on to the e-world sooner than they have? Maybe not — not all the pieces have been there for long. But are they there now? I would say yes. The correct economics are evolving, so that’s the piece in greatest flux.
And that’s my challenge to you, dear future movers and shakers. You folks are already aware of the latest technologies, never having lived with the old ways of doing and thinking. You can help us, the folks who gew up with Old Media, to see these technologies and their place in the world and the ways to finance them, in a new light. Not that we need to dump the current media mechanisms — we need to expand them in a way that’s economically feasible. So jump in and help make it all work. Help us make the future.