5,000 Days in the New Medium

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I began working full-time in the new medium on December 7, 1993, when I took a job at Delphi Internet Services Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was 5,000 days ago.

On that day, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought tiny Delphi. He wanted to start a major online service, much as he had recently purchased television stations and started the Fox television network, and he needed a core of expertise about online to do this. On that December 7th, he used a tactic that old media company traditionally use whenever they don’t understand something into which they want to venture: they purchase expertise outright and hope the knowledge and skills of that expertise will be absorbed by osmosis throughout their company. A corporate tactic that I call We Will Become What We Eat.

On that day, Delphi had approximately 37,000 subscribers. Yet this was in the early days of online, when CompuServe had 2 million subscribers; Prodigy 700,000; America Online 125,000; GEnie 100,000; Interchange less than ten thousand; and no more than a total of 6 million people worldwide had online access. Why didn’t Murdoch purchase a larger online service than Delphi? The size of what he purchased didn’t matter to him; after all, he’d formed the Fox Network from tiny UHF television stations. Furthermore, Delphi was his only choice because it was the only online service that wasn’t already owned by a large corporation. H. & R. Block owned CompuServe, IBM and Sears owned Prodigy, General Electric owned GEnie, Ziff Communications and later AT&T owned Interchange, and Quantum Computer Services had renamed itself American Online and become a publicly-traded company in its own right.

Moreover, Delphi had a latent asset that we can only now appreciate in retrospect. On that day in 1993, only one other company worldwide was supplying Internet access to consumers: even smaller Worldnet, a few blocks away in Cambridge. These two tiny companies were the only consumer Internet Service Providers in the world. Knowing what we know today about the popularity of Internet access, do you think that News Corp.’s failure to utilize its ownership of what was then the world’s largest ISP (one of only two ISPs in the world) is perhaps the greatest lost opportunity by a company in new-media? I certainly do.

But the world was different on that windy and partly overcast day on Porter Square, down from in Harvard Square in Cambridge. The world has changed a lot in 5,000 days. Yet there hasn’t been a single day since on which I’ve regretted leaving old media. I can now confidently state that the new medium is replacing the old. Five thousand days after December 7, 1993, please allow me to say what I’ve seen and restate why I am in this business.

I’ve not seen the up and down phases of the Internet bust and boom that the popular and trade press are fond of seeing since 1993. What I’ve seen is a straight line continually rising. The ups and downs, booms and busts, and other gyrations were investors’ and traditional media companies’ helical movements rotating around that upward line. When in 2000 investors lost their shirts in the Internet bust and quite a few traditional media company executives were saying, ‘I told you this online thing was just a fad,’ consumers’ use of that ‘online thing’ was rising as steadily as it had during the Internet boom, no matter if investors had lost shirts and wingtips.

Nonetheless, it’s fun arbitrarily categorize things. I could categorize the skyrocket of online as having had four stages during the past 5,000 days.

  • The first was the geek or computer aficianado stage, when you needed a bit of technological skill to use online. Too many people who work in new-media nowadays believe that online began with the Web; the 6 million consumers who were already using online belie that belief. Nevertheless, traditional media companies back then believed that online was a fringe version of home teletext or at best a text service that their audiotext staffs should examine for commercial opportunities. This stage began in the early 1980s and ended In 1994.That was the year in which Editor & Publisher magazine’s annual audiotext conference became its annual online conference.
  • The second stage began on October 13, 1994, (5,058 days ago) with the release of Mosaic Netscape 0.9, Web browser software that could display graphics and photos. Though the World Wide Web had existed and been opened to the public since 1991, browser software had been capable of displaying only plain-text. (Delphi clients used Lynx browser software to access it). The release of Mosaic Netscape caused the popularity of the Web to skyrocket. This software destroyed online services that didn’t permit it or full access to the Web (services such as CompuServe and Prodigy, plus Murdoch’s Delphi due to executive missteps). Traditional media companies and their investors were caught unaware(a condition many still suffer). I remember asking a major newspaper’s online director during the summer of 1994 what she planned to do about the Web. “Why should we worry about the Web when our surveys show that most people in our market use Prodigy?” she replied. But millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, and then more than a billion consumers began gravitating onto the Web, and today even the flanks of garbage trucks feature URLs. It took a few years for major media companies and their investors to awaken and begin chasing those consumers. Few of those companies really understood why the consumers gravitated online.
  • The third stage began in July of 2000, by when too much investment money had been placed behind too few good new-medium investment ideas. Two years earlier, the American newspaper companies’ attempts to cooperate with one another had collapsed. Most of those newspaper companies had misperceived the common threat against them to be online services from decades-old companies such as Microsoft or America Online. The newspaper companies thought this threat was over. They didn’t realize the actual threat would be from more specifically focused services from companies founded only during this stage, such as EBay, Google, CraigsList, etc. Early in 2000, America Online and Time Warner merged, which further lulled traditional media companies into a hubris that the new-medium would simply be a new adjunct to their traditional business, rather than its replacement. Something containable and not overwhelming. ‘I told you this online thing was just a fad’ or ‘I’ve finally got this thing figured out’ were common refrains in executive corridors. Little did they know.
  • Many of those corridors are now empty. We’re now in the fourth stage. Though you needed a bit of technological skill to use online during the first stage and still needed an online service during the second and early in the third, the costs of software used to publish, post, or broadcast have grown so low that practically any individual can do it without technological travail or online services. I can detail in a later essay why more than a billion people gravitated online, but it wasn’t to use the traditional mass medium. It was basically for each to find people like themselves, interests like their own, to express their own opinions, beliefs, and needs. They have never been a mass, although that had been the only way in which Industrial Era technologies such as presses and analog electromagnetic transmitters had been able to deliver most information to them. Today, however, they are beginning to possess the individualizable technologies to satisfy their individual needs. Meanwhile, news companies whose business is reliant on the mass medium are seeing their circulations, listenerships, or viewerships evaporate or collapse. This is particularly true of those who mistook the new medium as simply an online adjunct of their traditional mass medium business (ask Knight Ridder or Tribune Company). An epochal change in mediais underway, the first since the metalsmith Gutenberg crafted a mechanical press.

Epochal change in media. All in five thousand days. Thirteen years, eight months, and nine days. (Twenty-six point four percent of my life.) Yet still just a matter of days.

All told, I’ve been in the media business full-time for 10,454 days or 28.64 years (55 percent of my life). But that total doesn’t include the summers when I worked at my family’s daily newspaper during high school and college. My first job was to roll paper-punch TTS tapes (rolls pictured) as those came out of the wire service teletype machines. On my desk today is a slug of metal type that says Vincent Crosbie. It was manufactured for me by John Keefe, to whom I’d give those rolls of TTS tape in 1972. His linotype machine, fed with hot metal, would turn the information encoded in those paper tapes into stories cast in lead metal type for the press. The slug on my desk took John ten keystrokes and a third of an ounce of lead. John, who died during the 1980s, worked at that newspaper for 54 years. His father had worked there earlier at my family’s daily newspaper for 50 years.

So 5,000 days isn’t a long time in my perspective. I’m the fifth generation of my family in the news business. My niece—the sixth generation—worked there this summer between college. Eight years ago, mine was a runner up in the Connecticut Family of the Year Awards. Here is what the Family Business Program at the University of Connecticut’s School of Business said:

Ulysses S. Grant was president in January 1877 when John McDonald published his first edition of the Willimantic Enterprise. He told his readers ‘We shall endeavor to present our readers items of news from towns 20 miles around. We will tell the truth and we will fight everything we find detrimental to the best interests of the community and our readers.’ The newspaper was named the Willimantic Chronicle in 1879 and has been owned by the McDonald family for almost 123 years. John McDonald’s legacy defies the current trend of independently-owned daily newspapers being gobbled up by national syndicates and losing their independence. The Chronicle is indeed a rarity in Connecticut and the nation.

These days, only about 30% of family businesses survive a generational transition, the Chronicle has certainly defied the odds. 12 members of five generations of John McDonald’s descendants have held key positions at this family business. John’s great-granddaughter and fourth generation family member, Lucy Bartlett Crosbie, has been with the newspaper for 48 years and serves as president and treasurer. Her two sons represent the fifth generation of family involvement. Kevin Crosbie is the publisher and serves as chief executive officer and Vincent Crosbie serves on the board of directors.

This family-owned newspaper has a rich history and an unprecedented commitment to community. The Chronicle owners have a tradition of giving their time, talent, and money to support local civic, economic, and philanthropic causes. The Chronicle has traditionally provided vigorous editorial support of projects to improve life in the community; for better government, highways, schools and economic development. Their role as community historians and commentators gives them influence beyond that of other employers of equal size – a role they do not take lightly.

The Chronicle is one of the oldest family owned businesses in continuous operation in Connecticut and the country. Their industry has witnessed major change and has evolved from mechanical typesetting to today’s advanced computer technology for photo typesetting and offset printing. Over 12 decades the Chronicle has been a stable employer with some employees working there for 40 years. The Chronicle both a rarity and a jewel in Connecticut and the United States.

Community news is more than my family’s business. It’s our continuing mission and a noble one. I left the Chronicle in 1983 because I’d made the wrong choice in marriage. My younger brother (who changed the newspaper’s logotype from The Chronicle to the Chronicle, in case you’re wondering why I’ve been italicizing it that way) succeeded me there and has been the publisher for more than a decade. When I left the newspaper, my mother (who was its publisher from 1952 until 1996) was sad to see me leave. Because I had helped implement the newspaper newsroom’s first computerization, she said that she thought I might have a future doing something with news and computers. We call that ‘new media’ today.

I think I’ve done OK, but who knows! How do you keep score of such a thing? One indication is that I’m still working this way, despite my lack of a safety net. Today is my 3,923rd day since I’ve received a paycheck or salary. Ten and three-quarters years. I started working for myself on November 18, 1996, and II take a truculent pride in not having received a salary or paycheck since then.

I say truculent because, sometimes when I’ve written something particularly controversial about the news or newspaper business (such as during 1999 when I’d write about how printed edition circulation would in a few years begin to plunge), some newspaper industry executives would dismiss off-hand what I wrote because I was only ‘a consultant’ and not someone actually ’employed by the newspaper industry.’ If they think that I’m somehow less involved in their industry, then let them try to work in it for more than a decade without a salary or paycheck or health or insurance benefits. Let them try to survive from just the profits of their advice. Let them try to do that for nearly 11 years. (And let them do it while voluntarily living in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the most expensive towns in the United States). For the past 3,923 days, I’ve staked my livilihood upon my advice about the news industry new medium. Each day on which I don’t produce is a day on which I don’t get paid. Let those who receive regular salaries, paychecks, and benefits, whether they are competent or not, whether their companies are profitable or not, dare to tell me that I’m not more involved with this business than they are.

Another indication that I might be doing OK is that my 5,000 days’ work today yields some 134,000 Google citations, or nearly 27 for every day I’ve been working full-time in the new medium. I think those numbers are simply because I speak about the things that most news or newspaper executives fear to talk about. Ifra, the world’s largest organization of newspapers, last year said, “Vin Crosbie is widely regarded as one of the most outspoken and expert critics of how the newspaper industry worldwide and particularly in the United States has responded to the digital media revolution. But no one disputes that his is a critique borne of dedication to the newspaper tradition.”

I’d rather paraphrase my great-great-great-grandfather John McDonald and say: I will tell the truth and I will fight everything I find detrimental to the best interests of the new industry and its workers.

The industry has a long way to go if it is to survive. I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to get another 5,000 days of doing this, and I’m getting a bit old to be working without a safety net. But I’m going to try. I think my ancestors would approve.

Only time can tell. Ask me on April 24, 2021. Tomorrow is another day.

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