Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993

In the spring of 1993 I attended a conference on journalism and technology at Columbia University. It was a time when the digital culture that was to emerge was right on the brink: the Internet was not nearly as much of a force in the lives of ordinary people as were commercial services like Prodigy, and Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, had just been released. With The Boston Globe just having run an image of the story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix after that conference, I thought I’d reproduce it here in full.

Future Watch: Lost in space

Why the electronic village may be a very lonely place

Copyright © 1993 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

May 7, 1993: From 500-channel interactive TV to portable electronic newspapers, an unprecedented explosion of information technology awaits us in the next several years. These services, media analysts say, will allow you to tailor news programming to your own interests, do your banking and shopping at home, and make restaurant reservations with a hand-held computer while you’re sitting at a bus stop.

Certainly the speakers were bullish at this past week’s conference on “Newsroom Technology: The Next Generation,” sponsored by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, at Columbia University, in New York. Expert after expert talked in rapturous tones about the “information highway,” fiber optics, coaxial cable, digital compression, and the like.

But there’s a dark side to the emerging electronic village, acknowledged almost as an afterthought amid the glowing financial projections and the futuristic technobabble. And that dark side is this: as information becomes increasingly decentralized, there’s a danger that consumers of that information — all of us, in other words — will become more and more isolated from society and from each other.

What’s being lost is the sense of shared cultural experience — the nationwide community that gathered to watch, say, the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, or the Watergate hearings, in the 1970s. Media analyst Les Brown, a former television reporter for the New York Times, believes that for all their “insufferable arrogance” during that era, the Big Three networks “served the needs of democracy very well.” With 500 channels, he fears, users will choose news programming that suits their political biases — if they choose any news programming at all.

“Whatever happened to everybody talking to each other?” he asked during the Freedom Forum gathering. “What happened to this big tent we used to have? As the media become more democratized, they may serve the needs of democracy less well.” Continue reading “Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993”

Don Hewitt, 1922-2009

I felt no need to say something nasty or snarky (or much of anything) yesterday when syndicated columnist Robert Novak died. He was, in essence, a minor figure, and he probably would have agreed with that assessment. I do think his sins have been exaggerated over the years, especially with respect to the Valerie Plame Wilson case. As Jack Shafer observed in Slate, it appears that Novak didn’t even realize the value of what he had.

On a strictly personal basis, Novak appears to have been well-liked, despite his reputation for prickliness. I once did a brief telephone interview with him for a profile I was writing of someone who’d worked with him. He was charming and generous with his time. I found his column to be a hodgepodge of indeciperable bits of insiderdom, but I enjoyed his glowering “Prince of Darkness” television persona. Late in life, Novak found his true calling.

Now we learn that Don Hewitt (photo), a longtime CBS News producer and the creator of “60 Minutes,” has died at the age of 86. Hewitt was a great journalist — among the greatest of his generation. No, “60 Minutes” has never been all that it could have been. But Hewitt was forced to work within the constraints of a commercial television system that put more and more emphasis on profit during the course of his long and productive career.

I think it was Hewitt himself who once said that, in one respect, “60 Minutes” was the worst thing that ever happened to network news. Why? Because it was the first time network executives realized they could make money from what had previously been regarded as a public-service obligation.

As with Walter Cronkite, Hewitt’s death’s is an enormous loss, bringing us back to a time when television news was better than it is today.

Robert Novak, 1931-2009

Romenesko is rounding up coverage here. And yes, Wikipedia has already incorporated his just-announced death into its Novak bio.

The Prince of Darkness checks in

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak writes about his battle with brain cancer. Well worth reading. And best wishes to the Prince of Darkness, a true American original.

Novak to retire immediately

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak announces his immediate retirement, explaining that his medical situation is “dire.”

On (not) building for the future

What a strange sentence Richard Pérez-Peña wrote in describing the problems faced by the Chicago Sun-Times in finding a buyer. From tomorrow’s New York Times:

The Chicago Sun-Times is the kind of trophy that once appealed to deep-pocketed buyers. It has a big audience in a big market, a storied name, and stars like Roger Ebert and Robert Novak.

Ebert, as you probably know, has been battling brain [sorry; that was his on-air reviewing partner the late Gene Siskel] cancer for many years, and can no longer speak, though he continues to write. Novak, who’s 76, just announced that he has a brain tumor.

It’s not disrespectful to point out that no newspaper executive would buy the Sun-Times thinking he’d have Ebert and Novak in his stable for any length of time. Pérez-Peña knows this. What were he — and his editors — thinking?

Robert Novak has a brain tumor

Here’s some bad news. Just a few days ago we were all snickering at conservative commentator Robert Novak after a pedestrian somehow ended up on his windshield without his seeming to notice it.

Now it turns out he’s been diagnosed with a brain tumor and is being treated in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Media Nation extends its best wishes to the Prince of Darkness, a true American original who helped define the modern political columnist and the television talking head.