This fascinating piece in Slate from early this year describes how newspaper publishers were actually ahead of the curve when it came to trying to handle the impact of digital media.
One publisher, Knight Ridder, even tried out its own digital distribution service in 1980, though you had to buy a pricey digital terminal to read the content.
So what went wrong?
The analysis argues that newspapers quickly ditched the idea of proprietary, “walled-garden”-type content platforms such as AOL and moved on to the open web pretty early.
The crucial problem lay simply in their attitude. They didn’t “get” the web.
From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions. Despite being early arrivals, despite having spent millions on manpower and hardware, despite all the animations, links, videos, databases, and other software tricks found on their sites, every newspaper Web site is instantly identifiable as a newspaper Web site. By succeeding, they failed to invent the Web.
As a result, all the talented, web savvy staff who could have reinvented the newspaper model got disillusioned and left to start up the real, innovative web-based companies that have been at the root of the current media upheaval.
It’s an interesting take and worth a read. Personally, I agree with the analysis – print media has been reasonably quick off the mark going on to the web, but when it’s got there the typical reaction is – “so, what do we do now?” (which is usually more of the same).