Thursday, March 19, 2009

Technology-driven Evolutionary Change and the Future of American Newspapers, Part II

Yes, the progressive disappearance of the print newspaper feels like a distinct shock, like something important to life has been taken away. Yet, over the past century there have been other such disappearances arising out of evolutionary advancements in technology. Some industries have had to either adapt to the changes or risk going out of business.

Even in my own lifetime I have seen several such technology-driven disappearances. When I was young, coal (usually stoker -sized lumps) dominated the home heating fuel options. True, it was cheap and did keep the house warm during the winter. However, a coal furnace was an attention hog, since the mechanical device that kept the firebox supplied with fresh coal (on demand), called a stoker, had to be refilled with coal on a regular basis. Then, the burning of coal produced unending supplies of unburned chunks of inorganic matter called clinkers that had to be pulled out of the firebox with a long-handled grabber and parked in a metal container to cool off so they could be safely disposed of somewhere. Over the last 45 years or so coal has increasingly given way to cleaner and more convenient fuel sources, such as heating oil and natural gas or propane (for people living in the country). Now, more and more houses and apartments use electricity to stay warm in the winter. A big benefit from this change is that cities really are cleaner today than they were 50 years ago.

This Sony laptop this post is being composed on represents several evolutionary changes I have lived through. In high school I took a typing course. For the first three quarters of the school year we learned how to type exclusively on manual typewriters. Only in the last quarter of the year were we allowed to use electric (not electronic) typewriters. In that era, the typist was responsible for returning the platen to the left margin on the paper at the end of each line.

In the early 1970's, while enrolled full-time at the local junior college I took a semester-long course in the then state of the art Fortran IV programming language. This was a widely used means of telling a computer what the programmer wanted it to do. Each program line of code was to be fed into the computer on a separate Hollerith card that had a pattern of punched holes in the card that varied depending on the text I typed onto the top of the card. The first computer I successfully programmed was an NCR Century 50 that effectively filled a small room and had 16k of hard-wired ferrite core memory.

Fast forward to today. I am composing this post at home, kicked back in my easy chair, my almost eight year old laptop sitting on my stomach. Despite its age, its RAM is 16,000 times larger than the room-sized Century 50. As it is a computer it does have a keyboard, like a typewriter. However, it does not have a round platen that has to be fussed with. Instead, lines of type appear on the monitor as the characters are typed in. At the end of each line, Word Perfect takes care of returning the insertion point to the start of the next line. It also automatically capitalizes the first letter of each sentence.

At one time, Smith Corona produced one of the best typewriter lines on the market. Is Smith Corona still in business? I actually don’t know. Indeed, does any one know anyone who still owns a typewriter?

Even US Libraries have undergone a truly evolutionary change, even here in Idaho. For well over a century, libraries organized their collection according to the rules of either the Dewey Decimal or the Library of Congress Cataloging System. (Public Libraries generally use the former because it is easier to explain to patrons. Academic Libraries generally use the latter because it is much more precise. Personally, I much prefer the latter.) Then they provided large chests of file drawers full of catalog cards so the Patrons could find the books they were looking for.

More and more libraries are retiring the card catalogs. They have been replaced by computer terminals where a patron keyboards in to the software what it is they are looking for, and the software, in a sense, consults its own card catalog, then provides the information sought (or not.) Indeed, with a slowly growing number of libraries, it is now possible for Patrons to do their “card catalog” research from home. What foes this change portend for the manufacturers of blank catalogue cards? Well, given the seemingly sharp drop off in demand, they will find it necessary to find new products to manufacture, or go out of business.

Newspapers are in the same position. Old technologies and ways of doing things don’t work any more. If they want to survive, adapting to the changing way the world now communicates will have to become a way of life. Personally, I see the future newspaper existing only on line, with no print editions appearing anywhere. Is this a bad thing? Far from it.

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