Saturday, September 29, 2007

The newspaper of the future

In 1969, before there was the Internet, let alone the World Wide Web, before The New York Times had thought about printing in color, back when Life magazine was still a weekly, I was working in my first permanent job, at the J. Walter Thompson Company in New York.

The vice president who had been responsible for hiring me the previous year, Colin Campbell Dawkins, had drawn an assignment for an interesting special project. By then it was blindingly obvious that I knew less than nothing about selling Ford automobiles to American consumers, so my copy chief had no objection when Colin delegated the special project to me. At the time, I was 22; Colin was 46, which sounded much older to me then than it does now.

The publisher of the Peoria Journal Star, Henry Slane, was frustrated. He wanted to break out of the stodgy, traditional rut that newspapers were in. He had gone to one of the major consulting outfits and asked them to look forward five, ten, fifteen years at what newspapers could and should become. They sent him off to a different company that did quite a bit of newspaper work. The result of the exercise (and the large expenditure) was some suggestions for font changes and a new layout for page one. As I said, Henry was frustrated. That's why he had come to JWT, where he figured he might find a more creative answer; and that's how I ended up with the assignment.

Earlier this week, I had occasion to be in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and I stopped in at Duke University, where one of the libraries houses J. Walter Thompson Company's historical archives. I dug out the papers I wrote for the newspaper project. They hold up pretty well. Almost forty years on, today's online newspapers still haven't achieved the degree of personalization I envisioned, but feed aggregators like Google News are a pretty good match for the model I described back then.

Hey, Google. I think you owe me royalties!


Billy Dennis said...

So don't keep me in suspense: What did you advise Henry Slane to do?

Dick Margulis said...

First, I produced what today would be called a functional specification. That is, I analyzed what a newspaper is supposed to do. This went beyond the level of slogan ("All the news that's fit to print") or business plan ("All that news that fits we print") and talked about aligning the news with people's interests and needs.

Second, I worked with an art director (I don't recall her name, but I think I'd still recognize her if I ran into her on the street) to create a dummy of a radically new design for the paper (something along the lines of what Newsday and similar papers eventually matured into, after the Mac was introduced into newsrooms, but more design-y and more colorful than most).

We sent the comps out to have slides made (PowerPoint hadn't been dreamt of yet), wrote a script, loaded up a couple of slide carousels, and did a two-lectern, two-projector dog-and-pony show in Peoria, for the assembled staff.

That was the five-year scenario. The futuristic scenario involved yet-to-be-invented devices that could print out an individualized newspaper or a single article in a customer's living room. It also involved transmitting a national shell paper to a syndicate of clients who could fill in certain pages with their local news and ads.

Henry loved it. The staff hated it. The audience consisted mostly of old dogs who had no intention of learning new tricks. They saw how much additional work would be involved, how many new techniques they'd have to master. Etc. Basically, they folded their arms and asked us, "You and what army?"

"Change management" wasn't part of business vocabulary back then, or at least it wasn't a concept familiar to those of us involved in the project. Henry's revolution in newspapering died a-borning,largely thanks to what our Midwestern audience perceived as New York arrogance. Great plan, lousy implementation. Lesson learned.