Required reading from 20 years ago

The world is changing with amazing speed, and we need to pay close attention to what is happening. … No one in our business has yet launched a really impressive or successful electronic product, but someone surely will. I’d bet it will happen rather soon. The Post ought to be in the forefront of this — not for the adventure, but for important defensive purposes. We’ll only defeat electronic competitors by playing their game better than they can play it. And we can.

Here is a fascinating glimpse of the future of digital media and newspapers’ place in it as seen from the year 1992 by then-Washington Post Managing Editor Robert Kaiser. Read Mark Potts’ write-up, and then read the full memo.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Potts debunks the now-popular notion that newspaper execs’ “original sin” was not pursuing paid digital models from the get-go. In fact, newspapers tried many variations on paid content over the years, and most failed. (Newspaper executives were negligent in many other ways where digital is concerned, but on this count I think they deserve a pass.)

What’s most striking to me, though, is how the radical changes in technology that were predicted at this conference 20 years ago have unfolded more-or-less the way the technologists foresaw. (Remember, this is before anybody outside academe and big science had heard of the web, and 2400 bits per second was probably the most common connection speed for home computers to online services.) In fact, one of the few major technological advancements of the last two decades not mentioned in Kaiser’s memo is the explosion of mobile.

The thing nobody seems to have adequately imagined is how these changes in technology would shift the foundations of mass media in two fundamental ways: By disrupting the advertising business model and by giving rise to search and social media (and thus disaggregating the “bundle” that gave newspapers much of their value).

It would seem the near future is fairly easy to predict in purely technological terms. What’s harder to see are the economic and social implications of those changes. Credit to Bob Kaiser for trying.