Milepost 20

I passed another milepost yesterday. April 1 was my 20th anniversary in digital media. I moved from the print newsroom of the Star Tribune on April 1, 1994, found a desk in the tech office, and started noodling on a website prototype on a Mac Quadra.

The Web in those days was primitive and the Internet in general was barely out from under "acceptable use policies" that forbade commercial activity. There were no authoring tools. Web browsers couldn't even do tables, so layout was out of the question. Within a month or so we made a decision to skip the Web and build on a commercial online service platform (Prodigy). Weeks later we changed our minds and made a deal with a different one (Ziff-Davis Interchange). By the end of 1994 we had a staff and a business plan. And within a year, we were making plans to throw it all out -- well, not the staff, but the product and the plans -- and began moving to the Web, which suddenly had become a viable environment.

What I learned in those early days later was popularized in the business world as "fail fast, fail often." We weren't setting out to fail, but we knew all along that pretty much any decision we made would be proved wrong at one point or another, and the objective was to learn -- not merely to learn facts and skills, but to learn how to develop products, how to iterate, how to revector, how to evolve quickly in a business that had a history of holding onto tradition.

Many people predicted that newspapers would be gone by now -- Bill Gates supposedly pegged the year 2000. Didn't happen. What did happen is that the relationships among all media changed, which is something I talked about at conferences back in the early days, when I did a lot of public speaking. When the relationships change, money flows in different channels. Newspapers are not just still around; most of those that survived the recession are nicely profitable businesses, just not at the level of 1994. Businessman Glen Taylor made an offer to buy my former employer, the Star Tribune, today and the story referred to profitability “in the eight digits.” Good to hear.

But newspapers today are bundles of digital services, not just printing plants and delivery systems. "Print" reporters routinely post Web-first, shoot photos and video, and sometimes don't even come into the office, because they're equipped with mobile devices. "Print" ad sales staff may find themselves explaining behavioral ad retargeting across networks, SEO, landing pages, and other digital services. "Print" circulation folks find themselves tracking digital users through e-commerce funnels and using social marketing tools to grow the footprint.

As we were saying in 1994: New media don't replace old media. New technologies don't replace old. They change the whole system, and everything must adapt. We have evolved.