Back to the Future: Isaacson and Sulzberger on the Future of Online Journalism Circa 1995

crystal-ball[1].jpgZachary Seward at the Nieman Journalism Lab has dug up a 1995 transcript from a panel about “The New Economics of Journalism,” which included Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and (he of current micropayment fame) Time Inc.’s then editor of new media for Time Inc. Walter Isaacson. A few highlights (the entire 18,000 word transcript is here).

Here is Sulzberger on how the Internet might change the newsroom:

You know, newspapers generally offer a broad top-level view of the world to their readers, and very few get too deep into any one area. I mean, there are specialties, but it’s that — I suspect that the Internet, that this whole new electronic format is going to force us to create much more of a newsletter mentality. Yes, we will still have to play that essential role of offering broad news at the top across a wide spectrum of human endeavor, but that we’re going to have to get much more detailed, much more detailed, much more in depth in those categories that we think are important to the readers that we’re trying to attract.

And that’s going to add substantial cost to the newsroom. It’s also going to add substantial benefit to our readers, and I think that this, if the technology is driving us any one way, it’s driving us journalistically that way.

Which is fairly prescient when you think about it, of course you could argue that fourteen years ago no one could have foreseen that this transition was going to be accompanied by a historic financial crisis.

Walter Isaacson on charging for content:

We’ve not yet decided or announced how we’re going to charge, but we are going to charge, and I think we feel comfortable with a monthly subscription charge that involves a certain loyalty to a product, probably to a package of products initially, as in Pathfinder, which gives you, you know, 20 magazines and ways to search for any type of subject you want amongst those magazines and other products, as well, that we’re bringing in. So there will be some monthly subscription charge, perhaps following the lead of, bundling with Internet access with people who want to buy Internet access in a package of information, and a home page and a guide that takes you around the Internet, all in one bundle. I think once we figure out, to the extent that we can bundle or sell on a monthly subscription basis, there will be certain things we put in that are premium prices. We will test the transaction.

A year ago (or less) this would have sounded like a crazy, stone age, anti-Internet idea that had been well left behind. Now, it’s hard not to ponder the what-if factors had they chosen to pursue it or something similar.