Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
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Publishers: The opportunities are in the niches

Many thousands of digital media entrepreneurs all over the world are finding ways to fill the gaps left by traditional media

A potentially embarrassing exercise is to read articles you wrote a few months or years ago. Sometimes it’s because you made predictions that were way off base.

I was recently browsing through some old columns I wrote when I was publisher of the Baltimore Business Journal. One of them was about how high-speed fiber-optic cable service made me a passionate advocate of the Internet. I gushed, so now I blush.

Screenshot of the home page of the Baltimore Business Journal in 1997, from The Internet Archive.

It appeared on 25 November 1997 under the headline, “Plumbing the internet, it’s easy to get religion”. Sorry I can’t provide a link. It’s behind a paywall.

Researching in your pajamas

The column began with a couple of examples: “Public libraries could be in danger. Last week I was preparing to call on a potential client. Our ‘Book of Lists’ was my first source of information on that firm’s revenue, lines of business, clients, and size of work force. But to find out about that company’s national operations, I went to its World Wide Web site. This is why every business needs one.”

I went on.

“There I could peruse news announcements, including the company’s recent acquisition of a German company, the profit margins from various lines of business, and company strategy. The information helped break the ice during the call on the client.

“I did this research at home in the evening, and information I found was unlikely to be available even in a university business library.

“Early one morning before appearing on a radio talk show to comment on the stock market’s plunge and recovery, I checked a couple of websites to see what the Asian markets were doing. I didn’t have to sit in front of the television and wait for a business news program to come on and hope that the anchor would address this topic. I got the information right then, when I needed it. I did it in about five minutes, right before leaving for the office.

“Whether it’s instances like these or researching a school project, the Internet is fast becoming so convenient that, for me, it’s an indispensable tool.”

The early days of digital

Before the Internet, there was CompuServe, a digital information service launched in Columbus, Ohio. As a business news editor, I used its free service to access a database to follow news about two dozen publicly-traded companies based in Ohio.

CompuServe’s dialup service was good for my purposes at the time. But it was not fast enough when the World Wide Web (the WWW that most of us call the Internet) came along in 1989. For younger folks, I should point out that this was years before the launch of Google (1998), Facebook (2004), and the iPhone (2007).

This image is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. It was originally posted to Flickr by Secretlondon. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.

So, I was not a big fan of the World Wide Web at the time. The free dialup service I was using wasn’t fast enough to make the Internet experience satisfying. (My apologies to my brother-in-law, Rick Kuhn, who was one of CompuServe’s earliest employees). By comparison, today’s broadband services are at least 1,000 times faster.

All of that changed suddenly, I wrote at the time. “I recently subscribed to a fiber-optic modem service that accelerated my searches to light speed. It’s incredible. I can flit around from site to site as quickly as if I were punching the channel button on a TV remote.

“I feel as though I have been struck by a lightning bolt. At last, the computer, when linked to a powerful telecommunications network, can really begin to do intelligent work instead of rote, repetitive tasks suited for a dumb animal. And when the speed of transmission is great enough to provide timely responses — the Internet’s biggest disappointment previously — it becomes attractive to the non-nerdy.”

Lightning vs. the Pony Express

At the time, I could see all the advantages of the Internet for strengthening journalism. I couldn’t see how the technology would also devastate the advertising-based business model for the industry.

So I continued to rhapsodize about this new tool:

“This already has made it much easier for a newspaper to get up-to-date information for its readers. Only a dozen years ago [1985], while I was covering the savings and loan disaster, I was using an information system that resembed the Pony Express. To get documents from the Securities and Exchange Commission, you had to telephone an information service in Washington, which then searched the paper files at the SEC, made a copy, and sent it out by courier at a cost of about $50 to $100.

“Now you can get the document on the Internet yourself for nothing — while sitting at home in hour pajamas. Is this a great country or what?”

Shock and awe

Then, I gave readers a historical perspective: “Only nine years ago, I saw a fax machine in a newsroom for the first time. Today, everyone has a fax number on his business card, even his email address. A business today must have a website. Not having one is like having an unlisted phone number. You’re missing an opportunity if you don’t.” [In 2022, the URL is https://www.bizjournals.com/baltimore/])

“That’s the message of the lightning bolt for me or anyone in business. The Internet gives you another chance to touch your customers or potential customers at their convenience, on their terms. Paradoxically, it creates a new kind of intimacy, despite all the technology involved.

“On the Internet, opportunities abound.”

Conclusion: some good and bad predictions

Today, in 2022, I remain a fan of the Internet and digital media, especially in terms of its speed, global reach, and virtually limitless content. Also its convenience: you can access content whenever or wherever you like, on whatever device.

The “researching in your pajamas” concept has taken on a new currency because of the covid-19 pandemic. Many people who worked from home are resisting employers’ pleas or orders to come back to the office. Who needs the stress of a daily commute?

What I got almost right: public libraries are not in danger since they adapted to the Internet. They added computers with Internet as a key part of their offering. Many people without Internet access at home or work — especially the poor — get it only through libraries.

Much of the information is free, true enough. But much valuable information is behind paywalls or government imposed blackouts. And much of the free information is false or misleading. Like print and broadcast in previous decades, the Internet has become a vehicle for propaganda, misinformation, and hate speech.

And, of course, I didn’t see how the technology platforms, mainly Google and Facebook, would destroy the business model of general interest newspapers. Metropolitan dailies in the US are shadows of their former selves.

I also didn’t see how this same technology would spark a journalism revolution. Many thousands of digital media entrepreneurs all over the world are finding ways to fill the gaps left by traditional media. The opportunities are in the niches. It takes innovation to make them work. That’s what this blog is all about.

James Breiner

This article was originally published on Entrepreneurial Journalism, and is republished with permission.
You can connect with James Breiner on LinkedIn here.