Commentary

Remembering CompuServe, 35 Short Strange Years Ago

If you were born say, after 1965 or so, you probably can not remember when the “information superhighway” was just a dusty path of slow moving electronic connections mainly used by old science teacher-type kooks and maybe the quiet kid down the block you never really saw.

On Sept 24, 1979, as the Poynter.org Website notes today, the CompuServe home computer service began. By 1980, you could see the Columbus Dispatch via CompuServe and your trusty Apple II or the classic Trash 80, technically the Radio Shack TRS-80. Soon, a handful of papers joined in, but, having been there, nobody thought what was happening then had much to do with their future, even the faraway version of that. 

Then….Nothing much happened after that for a long time.  And if you ask me, I suppose that’s a good way to look at video things now.

The Poynter account includes video of a sweet TV news story from a station in San Francisco touting that now, the “the two to three thousand” residents with a computer in their home could access both of San Francisco’s papers.  That is except for the ads, the photos, comics, maps or anything resembling a graphical touch. This was a wire machine, really.

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If you want, you could print out the stories, and keep them to refer to later. Nifty.

“Imagine if you will, sitting down to your morning coffee, and turning on your home computer to read today’s newspaper,” the anchorwoman says. “Well, it’s not as far-fetched as it seems.” Says a reporter at one of the papers whose job it was to input the paper into the system, the newspaper wasn’t trying this “electronic journalism” stuff to make money, but, he says, they don’t want to lose much money either.

Turns out, he was wrong on both accounts.

It would take more than 20 years for news organizations to have something useful and marketable online--though still unprofitable for most--but in those two decades, the Internet got people moving faster.

What happened once over a long period of time now happens relatively as soon as someone can think of it, with the kind of speed that has helped put newspapers out of business.  

With online video altogether, we’re still at a time when relatively little that is mass marketable is online, or if it is, not many are watching it. But it’s changing rapidly.

It would be revealing to know how many Netflix subscribers have seen “House of Cards” but the fact there are 30 million subscribers means video is now way ahead of where the news business was 35 years ago. But established visual media--television--still is stupid about online video, unsure how to use it and monetize it.  

Watching that TV report, though, you also sensed some of what was lost. The story was reported by the station’s “science reporter” and it lasted more than two minutes, and it was relatively substantive. There was also the assumption that many people wanted to read the daily paper. There were staffs at newpapers and television stations.

None of that is like things are now. Watching that Trash-80 glow with the day’s news, uploaded slowly, makes you realize, once again, that a decade from now, what we get from video online, and how often we use it, will be nothing like it is now. The anchorwoman on that San Francisco station concluded getting news online would never replace the 20 cents readers paid for the daily paper. Back then, she seemed to be right on the button. 

pj@mediapost.com  

2 comments about "Remembering CompuServe, 35 Short Strange Years Ago".
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  1. Dan Greenberg from Impossible Software, GmbH, September 24, 2014 at 10:54 a.m.

    Picking up a few of your themes - news, transformation, and video:
    Last year, there was a campaign that created a customized video news show in seconds. See http://bbh-labs.com/tag/mentos/ One thing to note... which is also true between newspapers of old and online papers... is that Fresh News is customized to you, not a broadcast of the same news to everyone. This may be what the future holds for video.

    Disclosure: We're the video technology that - coupled with some AI - made Fresh News possible.

  2. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, September 24, 2014 at 4:52 p.m.

    So true, PJ. I jumped on the videotext bandwagon in 1982 with CBS/IBM/Sears' Reach --> Prodigy. Weeks to make graphics happen. Fast-forward to 1992 with two little girls and my dad bought us a "camera phone" with which we could see our family in Connecticut. In five years, I was again working on a newspaper (Gannett) that did not allow the Internet in the newsroom so as not to distract the reporters. That lasted two years. What an amazing series of waves!

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