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The old media didn’t go down without a fight

October 14, 2013

By Ed Wasserman

typewriter1-300x214The idea that the news business was fast asleep when the digital age crept in one night and stole its future is a comforting one to the ascendant class of online entrepreneurs. It enables them to credit their ferocious success not just to their pluck and enterprise, but to the complacency of a cosseted elite that couldn’t be bothered to innovate and compete.

True, life was sweet for media moguls in those pre-Internet days. Newspapers oversaw rich monopolies tended by ad sales staffs that needed to do little more than answer their phones. The TV industry consisted of regulated stations that made profit margins unimagined outside the Cali cartel for relaying network programs they had no hand in (and ran no risk from) making.

Yes, the media were fat, but they weren’t happy. Consider the newspaper industry—the business routinely vilified nowadays for sliding down a chute greased by its own greed and cluelessness. It’s a bum rap. Fact is, newspapers spent the last 40 years in the throes of one wave of change or another, desperate to enhance their draw among readers and their utility to advertisers.

They created zoned and micro-zoned editions, offering targeted audiences to smaller merchants and Monday business news sections to bolster a traditionally slack day for business services ads. They introduced lustrous color and trotted out serial redesigns to bolster curb appeal, expanded celebrity news and more consumer help columns, pushed for more accessible coverage and beat the table unendingly for “news you can use.”

And it wasn’t all a matter of formats and features. Newsrooms were shaken by the public journalism movement, which foregrounded citizen input as the driver of news agendas and which recast papers as central forces in civic betterment. In the boardrooms, industrial strategy was re-engineered around geographic clustering, whereby chains reconfigured themselves to maximize their reach and share infrastructure and stories.

In short, the final decades of the last century were a time not of smug indifference, but of feverish experimentation and innovation in the legacy media business.

That included their response to the digital revolution.

That’s one of the conclusions to be drawn from the engaging new oral history of the Internet ascendancy compiled by three media veterans — John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan—under the auspices of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and posted under the compelling title,Riptide.

That traditional media failed can’t be disputed.  But what’s not well understood is just how they struggled, with media giants pouring money into digital projects years before the Internet was anything more than a toy in engineering labs. Read more at the Organization of News Ombudsmen.

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