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.

Banking law: Holding them accountable

You know that 1999 NYT story that’s been floating around on Twitter about the passage of the bill to loosen U.S. banking regulations by repealing the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933? It includes some prescient warnings like this one from Sen. Byron Dorgan:

“I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010.”

Like any outraged citizen, my first instinct on reading this was to figure out who to blame for passing this law. So I thought I’d use’s congressional votes database to see how members of the House and Senate voted on this bill.

The Post’s database allows users to group votes by several criteria (including some silly stuff like lawmakers’ astrological signs). The most salient stat seems to be “boomer status”: Pre-baby-boomer lawmakers were more likely to vote against the bill (especially in the Senate), presumably because many of them still remembered the Great Depression.

Maybe older really does mean wiser?

If you find other interesting trends in the data, post them here.

Update: is a few steps ahead: Back in September 2008, they had details not only on the voting record for the banking bill but also on industry contributions to lawmakers broken down by yeas and nays. (hat tip: @bill_allison)