Recently, I was talking with a friend about the whole Y2K scare, how our parents generation believed the computers wouldn’t process the year 2000, how the markets would crash and how civilization as we know it would burn out. Looking back, it seems unfathomable. But so did the 2011 Rapture and frankly, most of our childhood dreams–I wanted to be a chiropractor. Sometimes, 20/20 hindsight is a blessing.
That said, sometimes, people’s predictions of the future aren’t always apocalyptic. Certainly, we all were hoping that 2015 would bring Marty McFly’s hoverboard. And perhaps even more disappointing is that the hopes and dreams of some members of the media didn’t come true (and alarming for those that did).
In this 1981 newscast by KRON, audiences were exposed to the concept of reading the newspaper on the computer. Let that sink in for a minute. That’s about 1/120th of how long it would take to even load the entire paper onto your computer, so you can take two minutes if you need. Of course, we know today that reading the news online isn’t so far off, but reading it in newspaper form (page by page) is far from what we do today. Sure, you can view the New York Times front page, but most websites today recognize that their readers want the sites to update as the news changes, not in the static way traditional print media exists.
Marty is also horrified that it took 2 hours to receive the electronic newspaper over the phone (Wikimedia Commons)
Looking ahead to the future (1994), innovators at the Knight-Ridder design lab envisioned a tablet device that would let subscribers download the daily paper and take it on the go. Roger Fidler recognized what others didn’t–that mobile devices would rule the 2000s and the 2010s. (Check out the chart below from Wireless Week to see how much of our digital media is being consumed via mobile devices versus desktops and tablets.) But what they didn’t count on was the fact that consumers today don’t want ads, to the point that ad-blockers letting ads through is creating waves. Interestingly, the folks over at Knight-Ridder also believed that readers would want articles geared toward them–like Amazon’s algorithms to suggest products.
Speaking of Amazon, perhaps the most entertaining of the media predictions was this video, from the Poynter Institute, called Epic 2015. The creators of the video predicted that the media landscape would be dominated by Google and Amazon, who combine to create Googlezon, taking on the New York Times and running the media giant into the ground. In the last minutes of the video, the narrator presents a frightening picture: for some, the algorithm create a deep and expansive newsfeed, a river of information tailored to one’s interests. But for many, it is a shallow, factually inaccurate wading pool (probably full of Harambe memes). I’d argue that today, we see these sort of echo chambers happening–not through Googlezon, but through Facebook. The Wall Street Journal created an interactive graphic set called Blue Feed, Red Feed, exploring the issue of filter bubbles on Facebook that limit our access to the news. Facebook, in response, told it’s users to seek out information outside their newsfeed.
The issues that presented in these videos don’t stand alone; they’re issues we consider today. How to best market print media in the digital age, how to get audiences to interact with ads, how to prevent memes from taking over our newsfeed? Most importantly, both as journalists and as consumers, how do we know what matters? It’s not something we can let a computer decide, nor a single person. When a million stories are begging to be heard, consumers rely on the collective media to tell them what is important, without the smoke and mirrors of algorithms and investors. If we can’t do that, then we shouldn’t call ourselves journalists.
(This segues us nicely into Thursday’s topic on media bias and our need for honest and ethical reporting!)