The Day of Infamy for Newspapers


For the newspapers, July 1, 1980 is a day of infamy.

(And no, it isn’t because at the time “Do That To Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille was one of the biggest hit songs.)

July 1, 1980 is the day when the Columbus Dispatch launched the first newspaper website and put free content on the web.  It was quickly joined by 11 other newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is the day newspapers committed mass suicide.  Oh, it has been a long and terrible death – with other ills along the way – and technically the patient is still breathing.  But make no mistake about it, the era of mass-produced printed newspapers has come to an end and we’re living through the death throes.

The future of newspapers is digital delivery via portal devices – be it tablets or mobile phones.

We forget, however, that putting free content on the Internet wasn’t a given for newspapers (and other traditional news organizations).  It didn’t have to be this way.

If a newspaper publisher today invented a time machine, she would likely travel back to July 1, 1980 and pull the plug on the project.  And then seek out the culpable individual who came up with the bright idea to give away free content and punch him squarely in the jaw.  Because when the newspaper business finally gasps its last breath newspaper executives will look back to July 1, 1980 and lament: “Why the hell didn’t we charge for the content?”

Newspapers have been struggling with the internet ever since.  As noted in the 2011 State of the News Media report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism:

“Newspaper organizations continue to insist, as they have for several years now, that they are transforming themselves to take advantage of the digital future. But the path is hardly a well-marked four-lane highway, and the effort often seems comparable to chopping through the jungle with a machete.”

But it is difficult to charge people for content that you have been providing them for free for many years.  The result of this practice is that newspapers turned their most valuable asset “news reporting” into a freely exchanged commodity.  As more people have gone online, they replaced newspaper subscriptions with RSS feeds and web searches.

Why pay for news in a printed format when those same articles are given away for free at the click of a mouse?  Often an article can be found first and free online before being printed and distributed to paying customers.  That’s not a recipe for keeping paying customers happy.

Lately, newspapers have turned to paywalls.  Providing some content for free while forcing readers to pay for premium content – seemingly at random.  This practice has been met with mixed results at best and alienates large swaths of readers.  As the blog Newspaper Death Watch notes in a recent post:

“One of the major reasons the newspaper industry is in such dire straits right now is because barriers to entry have collapsed. Paywalls are an invitation to competitors to take away all but the most loyal (i.e., oldest) readers.”

Not good.

It is too late for printed newspaper content.  But just imagine what would have happened if newspapers had never rushed to the internet and instead protected their content and forced web users to register and pay for articles.  The way we experience the internet would be completely different.

What are your thoughts on newspapers and their continued struggles with online content?


Poynter’s New Media Timeline

2001 State of the News Media report by Pew Research

The Internet’s Free Problem

Newspaper Death Watch post “Newspaper Paywall Free-for-all”

2 Responses to “The Day of Infamy for Newspapers”

  1. Ok, dumb question of the day… Are you saying the Columbus Dispatch had a website roughly 15 years before first comercially available web browser? Did the www even exist in 1980? How many people actually had computers at home then?

  2. Not a dumb question at all.

    According to Poynter’ New Media Timeline for July 1, 1980: “The CompuServe dial-up service begins working with at least 12 Associated Press member newspapers. The first newspaper to go online was The Columbus Dispatch on July 1, 1980. The other papers included: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, the Los Angeles Times, The Virginian-Pilot / Ledger Star, The Middlesex News, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (The CompuServe/AP collaboration would end in 1982.).”

    See the Poynter link in the post for more details.

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