First Monday

The interaction between technologies and society: Lessons learnt from 160 evolutionary years of online news services by An Nguyen

In mapping the evolutionary process of online news and the socio-cultural factors determining this development, this paper has a dual purpose. First, in reworking the definition of “online communication”, it argues that despite its seemingly sudden emergence in the 1990s, the history of online news started right in the early days of the telegraphs and spread throughout the development of the telephone and the fax machine before becoming computer-based in the 1980s and Web-based in the 1990s. Second, merging macro-perspectives on the dynamic of media evolution by DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) and Winston (1998), the paper consolidates a critical point for thinking about new media development: that something technically feasible does not always mean that it will be socially accepted and/or demanded. From a producer-centric perspective, the birth and development of pre-Web online news forms have been more or less generated by the traditional media’s sometimes excessive hype about the power of new technologies. However, placing such an emphasis on technological potentials at the expense of their social conditions not only can be misleading but also can be detrimental to the development of new media, including the potential of today’s online news.


The birth and development of mass media: A conceptual framework
What is “online news”?
Consumer news services over the telegraph
From the radio concept of telephony to audiotext news services
The faxed newspaper
Pre-Web computer-mediated online news: From teletext to videotex
The mutual shaping of technologies and society: Lessons learnt from the pre-Web evolution of online news




The Internet as a news medium appears to have emerged like an “overnight” event that took place out of the traditional media’s urge to defend markets. Shortly after Tim Berners Lee’s development of the World Wide Web in 1990 and the subsequent introduction of Mosaic (one of the first graphical Web browsers) in 1993, traditional media organisations hastily established an online presence, with the worldwide number of news sites with an offline origin growing from virtually zero in 1993 to 13,536 in 2002 (Nguyen, et al., 2005). This online migration was largely a panic-stricken and unprepared response to the “sudden” threat that the Internet posed to traditional news businesses. With so many exclusive features (such as immediacy, multimedia, interactivity, global accessibility, hypertextuality and so on), the Internet was widely perceived an ideal platform for people to keep themselves informed of their daily interest in a more effective, efficient and enjoyable way, which could lead the traditional news media to extinction, or at least reduced importance. The death of traditional media, especially newspapers, was and is a pervasive theme of business discussions (Ahlers, 2006; Boczkowski, 2004; Eid and Buchanan, 2005; Nguyen, et al., 2005; Nguyen and Western, 2006).

This paper looks at the past of online news itself to present a counterargument to this technologically fear-driven development. Merging a number of models and theories of media formation, including the evolutionary perspective and the social-conflict paradigm proposed by Melvin Defleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach (1989) as well as the concepts of “social supervening social necessities” and “the law of the suppression of radical potential” by Brian Winston (1998), I aim to make two major points:

First, despite its seemingly sudden emergence, consumer online news services, like any other news form, have been evolving through a number of social forms for more than 160 years, all of which follow the introduction of point-to-point communication technologies of their time, including the telegraph, telephone and fax machine. Second, and more importantly, placing an exclusive emphasis on technological power at the expense of social conditions, as seen in the massive 1990s online migration of traditional media, can be misleading and could be detrimental to the development of new media. The evolutionary process of online news has been taking place in circumstances in which technological capacities and social conflicts among the media themselves and between the media and society act both as accelerators and brakes. In this process, despite the fact that many online news forms, like Internet news of the 1990s, were developed by traditional media practitioners to respond to the threat posed by their technological potential, not all of them succeeded and survived. While some brought about significant changes in human communications, some vanished due to a range of social and technological “brakes” such as moral norms and values, laws, economic factors and the like. All this has an important implication for the future of Web-based news, which will be briefly discussed at the end of the paper.



The birth and development of mass media: A conceptual framework

The history of any medium is an evolutionary process. In Theories of Mass Communications, DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) utilised “the evolutionary perspective” to successfully argue that the emergence of the mass press, the development of motion pictures and the establishment of broadcasting all followed an evolutionary path from one form to another. Briefly, the evolutionary perspective assumes that the organisation and development of a society take the shape of a biological mechanism, which involves “natural selection, survival of the fittest, and the inheritance of acquired characteristics.” [1] The basic idea is that social forms, as integrated and interconnected parts of a society, are invented and undergo gradual changes to meet human aspiration for effectiveness in goal-attaining. Applied to media history, this “social Darwinism” is reflected in the fact that new technologies have been tried, in different social forms, to meet the widespread need for swifter and broader-reach communications systems. This evolution of the media involves the gradual and inevitable accumulation of small changes [2]. Not all of the social forms tried survive, but they all have some features inherited in today’s media. The modern newspaper, for example, “is a combination of elements from many societies and many periods of time”, which includes the Romans’ distribution of public newssheets before the Christian era and the use of wood-carving technologies for paper-printing in China and Korea long before their appearance in Europe [3].

The evolutionary perspective, however, does not provide an insight into how media are born and developed, and how the “survival of the fittest” occurs. Concerning this, DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach provided another notable explanation in which the entrance of a social form of mass communication into human life is determined by social conflicts. Similar to the evolution theory, the social-conflict paradigm involves a process of change. However, the change comes out of a dialectic process in which, different components of the society, being in constantly mutual conflict due to their different interests, compete with each other and resist the competitive efforts of each other. Changes take place either when one side prevails or when some compromises arrive. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach’s approach shares some features with Brian Winston’s somewhat more specific model of media development. Like the former, who argued that any cultural complex, such as a mass medium, cannot be born and become a part of daily life without a set of necessary social conditions, Winston (1998) explained the historical development of media within a social sphere. Accordingly, a medium emerges and develops in a social sphere in three transformation stages. At the risk of oversimplification, this could be understood as follows:

In the first transformation, the ideation process, scientific competence is tested through technological performance [4]. In this stage, solutions are tested and devices built. It might take years before an idea becomes a tested device. The telephone, for example, was theoretically conceptualised over two decades before Bell. The second transformation decides whether the tested devices, termed prototypes, can enjoy a wide diffusion. It is not technological effectiveness that always decides. In Winston’s view, abandoned devices “might work just as well as the device eventually ‘invented’ but will achieve no measure of diffusion because there is no externally determined reason for its development[5]. The decisive forces to move a prototype out of the lab into the society are termed supervening social necessities [6]. These necessities might be created by either (1) other technological innovations (such as the railway stimulating the need for telegraphic devices); or (2) a concentration of social forces (such as the rise of corporations and modern offices accelerating the use of telephones and typewriters); or (3) commercial needs for new products.

That a prototype enjoys supervening social necessities, however, does not guarantee that it will become a part of human life, or an “invention” as Winston called it. A prototype has also to conform to existing values and fit into established social patterns. As Winston argued, if supervening social necessities act on the diffusion of an innovation as “the accelerator … transforming the prototype into an ‘invention’ and pushing the invention out into the world”, then there is also a “brake” which he called the “law” of the suppression of radical potential [7]. This is the third stage of transformation, in which the new device’s potential damage to existing values is socially restrained. An invention, however needed it is, might not be accepted if it does not operate in a way consistent with established social norms. Indeed, the second and third stages are overlapped – i.e. they could happen at the same time.

In the discussion that follows, the major elements in DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach’s and Winston’s approaches will be integrated. To explain the evolution of consumer online news services, the starting point taken here is the view of the media institution as a business. As a business, the media are market-driven and are in “the visible hand” of money and markets [8], which creates social conflicts between themselves and sometimes between them and other components of the social sphere. As DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach [9] pointed out within the American context:

The mass media in America are competitive enterprises devoted to making profit. They compete with each other and pursue their interests in a complex web of restraints placed on them by the courts, federal regulative agencies, the moral codes of the society, their organisational structures, and the advertisers who support them. In addition, the press and government have a long history as adversaries. There are other arenas of conflict as well. These include controversies concerning the rights of the press versus the rights of citizens to privacy, the rights of government to protect its secrets in times of national emergencies, the rights of citizens to a fair trial, the rights of consumers to be protected from false claims in advertising, and so on.

With constant profit motives and under permanent competitive pressures, the media institution attempts to create new and commercially better news products to meet “supervening social necessities” or what I would sometimes term “supervening market demands”. At the heart of this process are two major interrelated components: the technologies that make media forms possible and the people who generate these media forms. Usually, the media business is not involved in the ideation process that results in technological prototypes. It can take decades before some people in the social sphere, whom I will follow previous research (e.g. Boczkowski, 2004) to label under the catchall term of “media actors” (or, sometimes, “media entrepreneurs”), to realise the potential of a technology in developing new media “artefacts”. Their involvement starts when an existing technology is seen as potentially profitable and/or destructive to their business. But it is not always established media investors/practitioners who initiate or run new media experiments. Quite often, as seen in the dotcom boom and bust, entrepreneurs with no prior experience in the content provision business but with expertise in new technologies are the first to realise its potential for content production and distribution.

With this in mind, we could further conceptualise “supervening market demands” as something imaginary in the first place. These are what media actors perceive or assume to be, but are not necessarily, existent in the market. The first set of real “supervening market demands” for a media form/service is, therefore, not one within the whole society but in the smaller context of the media institution. These demands derive from the urge to make more money from the new and/or to protect money made from the old. As media entrepreneurs try the new, they would find out whether their imagined “supervening market demands” are correct. In many cases, the experimented “better” services succeed as real demands exist or can be created. But in some others, they are abandoned as a consequence of either no real market demands or the law of suppression of radical potential. The second scenario happens when market demands do exist but cannot be created because of unforeseeable technical limits, moral modes, regulatory mechanisms, social values, and so on. Some initially unacceptable technologies, however, could eventually survive very well after continuous improvements to address their social and technical drawbacks. Others become relics of the past but might still have some traits inherent in modern communication forms. This underlines the evolution of communication forms, with “survival of the fittest” in the market being the most important ruling principle.

The history of consumer online news services largely follows this path, having gone through many stages of development in different and increasingly complicated social forms of which web news is the latest and most advanced. And even within each form of online news services, an evolutionary path is normally found. But before that, what is a consumer online news service anyway?



What is “online news”?

Despite its prominent status as a buzzword since the Web’s intrusion, the term “online” is an example of the underdevelopment of vocabulary in discussions about the speedy development of the so-called new media in the past four decades. It has been widely used, at least since the early 1990s, to refer to communication on the World Wide Web, which is so overwhelming an Internet application that it is often taken almost synonymously as the Internet. But “online” as a communication term appeared in the literature quite a long while before Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web in 1990 and before its penetration into the news industry in the mid-1990s. For example, in the early 1980s, it was already used to describe the new phenomenon of electronic publishing. According to Fidler (1997), it was born in the early days of telephone systems.

So what does “online” exactly mean? This is a deceptively simple problem that has received no single solution. The core element in most definitions of “online” communication today is the presence of an interactive computer network. Among the 26 Web definitions of “online” that I collected by using the “define” function on Google at the time of writing these words (24 April 2006), only one was presented with the absence of the computer network. One typical example is the definition by John Pavlik [10], who contended that “online” refers to “communication that occurs between users at two or more computers connected over a local or wide area network”. But there are disputes over whether computer-assisted interactivity between users and the computer itself as the receiving terminal are inevitable parts of online services. This can be seen in the mid-1990s Australian debate over the nature of an an online service. When the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) started its investigation into online content regulation, it defined an online service as

a system of information accessed through the use of public telecommunications network which allows the transfer in both directions of text, graphics, sound and video between a user, other users and the system.

Many of the nation’s individuals and organisations sent their critical feedback so that the authority ended up with three crucial amendments: (1) not all content is presented in multimedia forms; (2) there are alternative terminals other than the computer; and, (3) online services can be one-way but the interactive nature should be considered “a fundamental attribute” of online services. The final definition by the ABA thus reads:

An “online service” is a service that makes content available by means of a telecommunications network which enables the transmission of information between users and between users and a place in the network.

In other cases, interactivity is not considered a central element. Fidler, for instance, saw online communication in a much broader sense, as “services, interactions, or transactions that require continuous connection to an electronic communication network” [11]. More recently, Lister, et al. [12] defined “online” simply as “to be logged on to a server.”

One possible way to escape this “conceptual matrix” is to go through a gradual exclusion process by looking first at the dominant characteristics of the communication media from which those under the “online” umbrella are considered distinctive. We then can see that “online” is often depicted in contrast to the three major traditional mass media – print, radio and television. Of these, print media like newspapers, magazines, books and so on have a very distinctive physical image that could be easy to separate from online media. The task, then, is to distinguish online media from radio and television. What is tricky here is that all the three are based on electronic communication technologies and thus are difficult to discriminate. However, the question of what online media are could be further narrowed by subsuming radio and television under their usual umbrella of “broadcasting media”. Thus online media can be understood as electronic media that do not follow the traditional broadcasting model. And when talking about “broadcasting”, we are in essence talking about a content delivery/distribution method. A sensible definition of online communication, therefore, could be based on how it is different from traditional broadcasting in terms of distribution-related matters.

If this is agreeable, then the next task is to work out what broadcasting actually means. If broadcasting is understood as “to disseminate widely” as in dictionaries, then making content available and accessible on the Internet is in essence an act of broadcasting and so is publishing a newspaper, which is certainly at odds with common wisdom. As a jargon in communication studies, however, broadcasting is not so simply conceptualised; rather, it is a more specifically and narrowly understood as the act of sending a message simultaneously to every end user within the sender’s broadcast domain. Whenever content is beamed into the air from a radio or television station, every possible end-user (viewer or listener) within the sending station’s reach will inevitably receive it if the reception device is on – and the user has to consume it at that time, except when he/she has some time-shifting instrument such as the video cassette recorder. Broadcasting, in other words, is based on a simultaneous point-to-multipoint communication network, in which end users are connected to the sender only and not to each other.

This is where we can see the difference between broadcasting and online media. In an online environment like the Internet, there are two major ways of delivering content. The first is to store content in a central computer and make it available for users from connected computers to retrieve when they want. The second is narrowcasting or “multicasting”: pushing content to a specified group of users in the network such as sending e-mail news alerts to subscribers. In both cases, the delivery methods are different from radio and television broadcasting because (1) once made publicly available, content does not inevitably reach all possible receiving nodes within the network (i.e. it does not automatically arrive at all computers actively connected to the Internet like radio and television content reaching every radio or television set within its broadcast domain if the set is turned on); and, (2) content does not need to be consumed at the same time as it is delivered. These online services are consumed more or less on demand – the content needs to be actively sought and retrieved by network-ready users and the provider has much less control when and where it is used.

What makes both of these online delivery methods possible is the nature of the Internet as a point-to-point communication network. In this network, all users are physically (but not necessarily socially) connected to each other and the sender acts as only one node to which any other node can connect on a one-to-one basis when necessary. In this light, online services are different from electronic broadcasting primarily because of their reliance on point-to-point connection and thus point-to-point content delivery. This connection-based distinction between broadcasting and online services also makes sense from an etymological perspective because the birth of the term “online” took place shortly after telephone systems were introduced, when as many people had to share the same line, the use of such notices as “I’m on (the) line” was popular (Fidler, 1997). In essence, these notices denote a mode of being connected – here being connected to another node on the (point-to-point) telephone network. This nexus between point-to-point and point-to-multipoint communication is actually a basis to distinguish online from broadcasting services in Australia’s Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Australia, 1992).

For these reasons, in this paper, “consumer online news services” are defined as a set of news services distributed directly to a consuming public via point-to-point communication networks. These news services have for the most part been delivered “on the line” – i.e. over hardwire-connected telecommunication networks such as the telegraph and the telephone – but have also been made available in wireless environments in recent years. It must be noted that distribution here does not have the same meaning as transmission. A consumer service must be one that directly targets the consumer market (like today’s Web news). This means that telegraphic news provided by wire services to the provincial press in the nineteenth and early twentieth century should not fall into the territory of consumer online news services. Neither does the facsimile transmission of newspaper proof pages from a typesetting area to a far-away plate-making area, which started in Japan in 1959 and spread over the western world in the 1970s. In both cases, these news transmissions are, although “online”, just stages in the production process of the final news product for the consumer market – the newspaper. Put in another way, the history of online news traced in this study is a history of media actors’ continual efforts in taking advantage of point-to-point telecommunication networks to directly deliver news to end users.

From a producer-centric perspective, understanding online communication on the basis of distribution means is also sensible, if not crucial, for several reasons. First, distribution methods have always been at the heart of the news media’s operation in their history. As noted, conquering time and space in communication has been a central element in the development of human societies of all times and places (DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach, 1989; Marvin, 1988). The media business, in its long-established search for commercially viable news products, is not beyond this aspiration (Snowden, 2003). Second, the social shape of a media form depends very much on its underlining distribution method, although this is too often ignored in media research (Star and Bowker, 2002). Whether a media form allows one-way or two-way communication, or whether it is multimedia-presented or primarily on a single modality (the printed word, human voice or image), is determined by the capacity of the distribution technology. For instance, the shift from circuit-switching to packet-switching in the telecommunication network is the foundation for the Internet to enable advanced features such as multimedia content. Third, separating “online” from “offline” distribution provides a crucial tool to explore many issues of power and control that determine the success of online news ventures in its history. The very core fact here is that delivering an online news service usually requires the provider to use a third-party telecommunication service – e.g. the telegraph carrier, the telephone company or the Internet service provider. In contrast, for radio and television, the distribution is direct from the news provider to the consumer. This means that “online” and “offline” news providers will have very different levels of power in controlling the economic, political and technological nature of their services.

If we can agree on these points, then consumer online news services, like any other news form, have evolved in a number of forms for 160 years.



Consumer news services over the telegraph

The first form of online news services did not come from any mainstream organisation but from technology-savvy independent media entrepreneurs in the early days of the telegraph. The story began not long after Samuel Morse and his competent assistant Alfred Vail successfully demonstrated the power of the telegraph on 1 May 1844. As the first telegraph line on the 20-mile Washington-Baltimore route was established and made available for private use in 1845, there arose a group of “telegraph reporters” who, belonging to no particular editorial staff, were not “necessarily committed to (serving) the newspaper press” and “could transmit news to any customer interested in telegraph news” [13]. As one advertisement of these services reads, it served both the press and “commercial gentlemen and others desiring regular and special intelligence or private correspondence” from a distant point [14]. By satisfying “numerous paying customers by one report, at the price of one transmission”, these on-demand multicasting services diverted much profit from Morse’s telegraphic enterprises. To respond to the threat, one of Morse’s three commercial telegraph apostles, Henry O’Reilly, set up his company’s news service, which supplied “consolidated, uniform” reports along his western lines and the New York-Albany-Buffalo line to newspapers and private operators in areas that these lines passed. By 1873, in addition to serving 600 newspapers around America, the New York Associated Press had earned substantial money from special bulletins of “updated” commercial news, which were cooperatively distributed three to four times to major markets during business hours by the Western Union Company (Blondheim, 1994).

Consumer telegraphic news services also spread to other countries with a high level of telegraph development. In Canada, by 1871, the Gold and Stock Company had become a source of news about stock quotes, gold prices and other trade events for 800 bankers and brokers (Winseck, 1999). In England, the Electric Telegraph Company began to deliver telegraphic news to not only 120 provincial press members but also to other private subscribers in 1854 (Winseck, 1999). This news service covered parliamentary matters, commercial events, stock exchange prices and entertainment information such as gambling, racing and sports news. By the early 1860s, Reuters had the exclusive right over distributing “commercial and shipping news to private subscribers within 15 miles of London” [15]. In 1872, the Exchange Telegraph Company (Extel) started to offer a wide range of specialised news, information and entertainment content to the financial and other communities. With its controversial monopoly over the flow of news and information from the London Stock Exchange and later-established connections to stock markets in the U.S. and France, Extel was able to deliver exclusive stock-related data to brokers, traders and other financial workers. By the mid-1880s, Extel had over 600 subscribers (Winseck, 1999).

What were the drivers of the emergence of these services? Technologically, telegraph news services were by no means easy to use. They used codes that would be quite demanding to decipher and they would hardly look appealing in comparison with the newspaper of the time. Despite this, they thrived because there was a “supervening market demand” for news at the time, which is comprehensively depicted in Blondeim’s (1994) News over the Wire. On part of the public, there was a long “hunger” for timely and non-local news – especially news about political and commercial events on both national and international scales [16]. In the U.S. as well as in European countries, this became more urgent than ever in the decades before the telegraph, which saw a dramatic expansion in trans-Atlantic trade facilitated by a revolution in transportation. This stimulated the media’s need for timelier and broader-scale news. Competition for “being the first” between newspapers to attract readers became increasingly harsher, as seen in the following description of how pre-telegraph newspapers responded to the overwhelming market demand for news:

Initially newspapers employed private expresses to hasten the transmissions of news from Washington – first the pony express, later the locomotive express. In the former case, swift, full-size horses were dispatched in relay. In the latter, locomotives were chartered for special runs. Horses were most effective for short distances, with fresh riders, and of course only when unencumbered by heavy loads, let alone a coach. The rail express required a heated locomotive ready to run (on) an open track, with synchronized connections on other rail lines at the ready.

… Even more complex facilities were necessary for speeding news from overseas markets. Unlike congressional and political agendas, which arrived with regularity, trans-Atlantic transports carrying the latest European news were unscheduled; … the expected time of arrival could be established only within a matter of days. There were also enough unscheduled voyages, with each arrival possibly bringing crucial economic and political data, to warrant constant watch of harbour offings for the latest arrivals. The time-consuming process of docking and later of quarantine suggested to the enterprising news-gatherers that they could save time by pre-boarding vessels and stripping them of their news cargo prior to their entry into the harbour. [17]

Even with the pony express, steamboats and locomotives, the urgency of news did not diminish. In such a context, the emergence of the above news services is understandable. By the time the telegraph was introduced with a cheap and almost immediate correspondence, it was probably a “long overdue” invention. The market was ready – and as a common sense, when the market was ready, there would appear suppliers. That is, to use media sociologist Helen Hughes’s words [18], it was the “quickening urgency” of news, that gave rise to the earliest online news services.

Approaches to telegraph ownership and regulation were also crucial. In France, consumer telegraphic news services did not appear as the government saw the new technology as a political, not commercial, instrument. In the U.S., after a short period of state ownership, the Baltimore-Washington line was released for general public use, which saw the immediate emergence of telegraphic reporters, many of whom had already been serving as correspondents for the press (Blondheim, 1994). In England, the facilitation took place the other way around. After the state-run Post Office claimed ownership of telegraph systems in the 1870s, it created “a more open and transparent regime” to liberally license private networks and content providers, which was grounded on a “first come, first serve” basis to avoid undue favouritism. As a result, the decade saw a vital surge in the number of consumer news services over the wire like Extel [19]. Extel, after many unsuccessful legal efforts to eliminate competition by preventing new content provision licences from the Post Office, ended up acquiring many of these companies.

Another socio-political situation that facilitated this development was the common lack of legal, organisational or technical grounds to distinguish telecommunication and content services during the 1840-1910 period in Canada, Britain and the U.S. (Winseck, 1999). With concerns about the possible rise of irresponsible journalism and the circulation of libellous content, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that “it would seem that telegraphic companies are similar… to publishers … (because) they are all engaged in one and the same transaction, viz.: collecting, transmitting and publishing matter collected, the aid and participation of all being necessary to the publication” [20]. All this partly explained why the major players in the early consumer telegraphic news market were not the press but technology-savvy telegraph reporters and telegraph companies, although the former was well-aware of the strong need for breaking news and had larger budgets for and more experience in “speeding the pace of news” than any other party [21].

Indeed, the new technology was unfolding as a tremendous threat to the future of the press. Prominent publisher James Bennett was so overwhelmed by the telegraph’s immediacy that he declared the death of the newspaper: “The telegraph may not affect magazine literature but the mere newspapers must submit to destiny and go out of existence” [22]. Thus, the provision of updated news to private subscribers by telegraphic reporters and telegraph companies means that, for the first time in history, newspapers had to experience the unpleasant reality that they could no longer dominate the news field. But during the early days, with no control over telegraph lines, they had to use others’ telegraphic news services because they would otherwise have to pay much more to send their own reporters to the field. This was a remote reason for the birth of wire services such as the Associated Press.



From the radio concept of telephony to audiotext news services

As in the case of telegraphy, the telephone was made use of to distribute news more effectively not long after “Bell’s electrical toy” was invented in 1876. It started from “the radio concept of telephony” – the idea of delivering news and other content over the telephone line. As Briggs [23] explained:

…following the brief period before its two-way capabilities were fully appreciated, (the telephone) continued to be publicised as a device to transmit music and news as much as or more than speech; long after its multiple private and organizational uses had been exploited, it continued to offer the prospect of shared entertainment, information and instruction.

The concept was initially realised in the social form of, again, unprofessional news reports via early telephone operators. Aronson (1977) stated that during these days, it was not professional journalists but telephone operators who were the first to transmit news throughout many urban communities in the U.S. – “news about crises, like fires and floods, missing persons reports, man-wanted bulletins, crimes and so forth”. These services resemble today’s Web news in the sense that they made content available in a (human-operated) central database for users to retrieve over the phone line.

Telephone news services of these days, like their telegraphic counterparts, emerged and developed out of the thirst for news among the public. In fact, Bell’s original purpose in inventing the telephone was to make it possible for people to talk to each other from distances. However, while he had not perfected the device as intended, he was under constant pressure from his supporters to make money (Aronson, 1977). This is why Bell had to envision the telephone as a means to distribute news and other content such as music and drama. He was right. The telephone news services were “too successful”: operators, due to a number of technical problems, could not handle the excessive numbers of calls to meet the demand for news (Carey, 1982). As Aronson [24] remarked:

… in the larger cities and towns the large numbers of subscribers and the small numbers of operators made it virtually impossible to provide the personal service that continued to be rendered in rural regions. Company officials were aware of the changing nature of urban telephony as it grew but they found it impractical to continue the previous kind of service. Increasing complexity, the size of the traffic, the nature of the equipment, as well as operating arrangements for handling the load demanded more formality in managing the calls…. In cities, most calls involved little of the unusual, and the main consideration was prompt, accurate handling.

Despite this and despite Bell’s abandonment of his radio concept after perfecting his invention for long-distance conversations, telephone news continued to develop into more organised forms. One specific type of news, election statistics, was especially important in boosting the formation of what Marvin [25] called “the most ambitiously organised American effort to use new electric technologies to deliver the news” of the late 1890s. In the 1892 presidential election, through a coordinated effort of telephone companies in New York and Chicago, over 380 carefully edited telephone bulletins were sent out from a central point in New York to large waiting crowds at clubs and hotels in a wide area covering New England, most of the Middle Atlantic states, Wilmington, Washington, and Baltimore on the south, and Chicago and Wisconsin to the northwest (Marvin, 1988). For the Bryan/McKinley election (1896), “thousands sat with their ear glued to the receiver the whole night long, hypnotised by the possibilities unfolded to them for the first time” [26]. During this election, telephone news became more diverse, with three distinctive services mobilising hundreds of operators: news delivery to local hotels and clubs; news delivery to local exchanges (to which groups of around 20 subscriber lines connected via special telephones set up for election news announcement); and, central call-up exchanges (by which individual subscribers could call to retrieve election information from operators). See Marvin (1988) for more about the continuity and refinement of these services in the 1912 election.

The services were appealing. For one thing, as Marvin [27] pointed out, “election returns had been distributed by the telegraph since its invention, but the telephone added speed, immediacy and convenience”. For another, in the case of those following the news from their own homes, there was no need for intermediaries as “no codes were necessary” [28]. Amid the excitement, newspapers became “enamoured” with the telephone’s distinguished capacity “to communicate the thunder of events directly to an audience with an immediacy greater than that of the telegraph or newspaper alone” [29]. Many soon formed partnerships with telephone service providers to meet this demand. Among the major suppliers of election returns for the mentioned telephone news bulletins was the press. Other publications such as The North American in Philadelphia delivered their news summaries to the telephone companies so that callers could retrieve them “at any hour of the day and night” from operators [30]. Telephone news was so familiar that subscribers soon “came to feel that they had the right to receive such information when they called Central” [31]. These call-in newscasting services spread to rural America after telephones were brought there in 1894, and lasted until the radio age.

It was, however, not in the U.S. but in the Austrio-Hungarian empire that the ultimate development of the radio concept of telephony was first found. Nearly two decades after Bell’s proposal, the concept was developed into the more perfect form of the “telephone-newspaper,” introduced in Budapest in 1893 (Denison, 1901). After obtaining exclusive rights for telephone development in the country, Theodore Puskas – an inventor and ex-collaborator with Thomas Edison – divided this city of 500,000 residents into 30 circuits, each connected to 200-300 subscribers of his Telephon Hirmondo (Aronson, 1977). At the receiving end, for a minimal fee, subscribed family members could listen to news simultaneously through a wooden box and earphones (Gilbert, 1999). Gathering news in the same way as other newspapers (Denison, 1901), the programmed news service successfully operated for 23 years in a way that is surprisingly not different from today’s television and radio programming:

Each day a schedule or program was announced to the subscribers. The day began with a news bulletin and with summaries of the newspapers. In the midmorning, summaries of stock exchange prices were repeated at regular intervals while the Exchange was open. There were hourly news summaries for those who had missed earlier bulletins, and at noon there was a report on preceedings in Parliament. During the afternoon, “short entertaining stories” were read, “sporting intelligence” was transmitted, and there were “filler items” of various kinds. In the evening, there were theatrical offerings, visits to the opera, poetry readings, concerts and lectures – including repeats of Academy lectures by well-known literary figures. There were also “linguistic lessons in English, Italian and French which was hailed “as a great benefit to the young generation”… At (the central) office…, there were over 40 “reporters and literary men” in addition to the ‘the persons who actually speak to or transmit the news to the subscribers, and who are chosen on account of their good voices and distinct articulation. [32]

It must be noted here that while Telephon Hirmondo can be seen as a proto-broadcasting system because of its real-time content delivery (Marvin, 1988), it might also fit into the definition of online news in this paper because the content was delivered over a point-to-point communication network only to selected users, i.e. not all telephone network-ready users in Budapest. Its operation scope, however, was not limited and was increasingly broadened. By the latter half of 1900s, according to a witness, this “newspaper with only an abstract existence” was employing over 200 people (including non-editorial personnel such as office boys, linemen and janitors) “in the busy winter months” to serve “a veritable web” extending 1,100 miles of wire and “more than 15,000 of the best homes in the Hungarian capital” [33] . In addition to private homes, it was “invariably turned on in the doctor’s waiting room, in barber shops, cafes, restaurants, and dentists’ parlours – wherever people resort, in fact, sit waiting for any purpose whatever” [34].

Telephone newspapers, however, never appeared in other European countries, which is puzzling for several reasons. First, Hungary had an awful telephone infrastructure. As Colton (1912) observed: “Hungary seems a strange place in which to seek for anything novel in the telephone line, for next to Italy, which has 62,000 to serve a population of 33,500,000, Austria-Hungary has the worst telephone service and the least of it to be found in all Europe”. Second, the practice of multicasting content over the telephone was well understood in many European countries. Indeed, Theodore Puskas might well have come to the idea for his Budapest service at the International Electrical Exhibition of 1881 in Paris, where “long queues gathered … to listen to music transmitted by telephone from a mile away” [35]. In Britain, irregular phone delivery of theatre and concert performances had already been in place in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester in 1894, when a company named Electrophone started to regularly deliver entertainment content and religious services to telephone households and hospitals in London. Even this service met with this limited success, attracting a total of 600 subscribers after ten years of operation (Briggs, 1977).

However, the strange absence of telephone news services in non-Hungary Europe is, again, understandable in the light of what DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach defined as a social conflict with existing values or what Winston referred to as “the law of suppression of radical potential”. British observers usually attributed this to higher costs, no legal entitlement for the same right of access and the social difference between Budapest – a city of pleasure, and London – a city of business, where “time is everything” and “a man could not sit the whole day with apparatus to his ear waiting for some particular news or exchange prices” [36]. Briggs saw more issues beyond these. One was a sense of cultural resistance from the contemporary institutions, which saw the undesirable prospect of those “laid-on services” that, as The Electrician wrote, might lead people “sitting in armchairs and pressing a button” to a life of “no wants, no money, no ambition, no youth, no desires, no individuality, no names and nothing wise” [37]. Another reason was the vested interests of related businesses, especially the press. Unlike the Budapest service, Electrophone had to exclude news from its service, because this posed a threat to British newspapers, whose interests “were to remain strong enough during the 1920s and 1930s to prevent the BBC from developing a news service of its own” [38]. In Budapest, the press initially boycotted Pukas’s service but then quickly realised that this was not to replace them but could even stimulate public interests via brief news items that led to more newspaper sales. This was not realised in Britain until the 1940s [39].

Telephone news services did not die. They still find their “habitats” today, not only in developing countries but also in the developed world. The modern “telephone-newspaper” takes the social form of audiotext news, technically based on telephone voice information systems. By pushing buttons on their touch-tone phones, callers can easily and immediately access a central database and retrieve information of their interest such as breaking news, sports scores, stock quotes and soap opera updates. Some newspapers such as the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh even set up a toll-free phone number, on which public members can hear reporters reading news reports (Garneau, 1992) – a service strikingly similar to the nineteenth century telephone news. Starting from experiments in the late 1980s (Shedden, 1998), as late as 1993, about 420 American newspapers provided audiotext services – some for free (with inserted advertising) but most with a subscription fee (Piirto, 1993). The Atlanta Journal and Constitution received nine million calls in 1990, compared with 5.2 million in 1989 (Boczkowski, 2004).

The reason for this revival, once again, can be explained in terms of market demands and competition. To the consumer, the service is easy and convenient to use while the information database is rich enough to meet many news and information needs, especially the demand for classified advertising. To local businesses, being recorded on audiotext services with their products gives them a competitive edge. To publishers, the service involves low investment, ease of use and low risks while being able to either generate considerable money from subscribers and businesses. At the very least, these audiotext services create goodwill among readers, which boosts readerships and circulations (Piirto, 1993). As the Atlanta Journal and Constitution’s audiotext general manager put it: “It’s a lot like colour. You don’t make a profit using colour but it helps maintain readers” [40]. Finally, the popularity of these audio news services was impressive enough to generate some excitement and fear in an increasingly diversified media landscape. As seen in a comment made by George Wilson in May 1989:

The flood of new electronic products and services that the regional Bell telephone companies are creating will be nothing less than tomorrow’s system for distributing information to every American home… Depending on how they are used, these distribution systems will strengthen or shatter the traditional links between newspapers, their advertisers, and their readers. In short, the phone companies could reshape the media triangle. [41]



The faxed newspaper

The facsimile machine has also been made use of as a technology for news delivery but it did not enjoy immediate applications as in the cases of the telegraph and the telephone. Invented by Alexander Bain in 1842, the fax machine was not tried for home-delivery newspapers until the 1930s. The Milwaukee Journal started the experiments in 1934 and The New York Times followed suit (Pavlik, 1998). Fax newspapers of these days met with a failure due to many reasons including poor transmission quality, the unpopularity of fax machines and limited transferable content [42]. In the 1940s, the technology began to work well and the fax machine was gaining increasing popularity, giving rise to new hopes for the fax newspaper. As commented by the then NBC director of research in Journalism Quarterly: “The bright promise of a newspaper printed in your home has occupied a firm place in the bag of tricks with which prophets of the electronic future have delighted their audiences for years. This service is to be made possible by facsimile broadcasting – the transmission of reproductions of printed matter and pictures by radio into the homes.” [43] However, fax newspapers still could not make money because not many consumers wanted to spend money on them. As Albert Blade, a newspaper executive editor, recalled: “The technology worked. Experts writing in magazines said it was the coming thing…. But they could not get people pay for it.” [44]

Fax newspapers, however, were revived in the late 1980s and early 1990s with many newspaper giants as pioneers. Junk fax advertising was becoming popular; some services such as FaxFacts (supplying technical support, marketing information and installation instructions from industrial companies) and FaxTicker (providing access to information on a portfolio of fifteen stocks by using their personal identification number) were making money. The technology was gaining prominence in national election campaigns when candidates tried to send their messages as quickly as possible. And newspapers quickly jumped on board (Dizard, 2000). In Japan, The Daily Japan Digest was published as a faxed newsletter to provide summaries of important news in the country to decision-makers and businesses in the U.S. (Stokes, 1992). In the U.S., The New York Times in 1992 republished a faxed newspaper to primarily serve cruise ships, which was then expanded to a broader consumer market, including hotels that its print version could not reach (Pavlik, 1998; Dizard, 2000). It also faxed to subscribers other kinds of raw information such as tax forms and presidential speeches (Teinowitz, 1993). Other American newspapers offered, either free of charge or with some fee, faxed reprints of articles or faxed advertising. Some other papers went beyond these simple services. The Hartford Courant “pre-cycled” its content by faxing out a 1,500-word summary of stories of its next day stories to paying subscribers [45]. Others (e.g. Fortune, Upside, Cruising World, MediaFAX) provided fax-on-demand services, based on computer storage of documents for users, especially businesses, to retrieve via a touchtone phone and fax (Kauffman, 1994; Piirto, 1994).

Technically, the fax survived in the age of the Internet at least because it was easy and convenient to use and modern fax machines of the 1990s were chip-filled machines with more sophisticated capabilities. Also, at least until the early 1990s, fax technologies enjoyed a universal technological standard that Internet technologies did not. Economically, the cost of the fax machine was trivial for consumers and, as fax consumerisation was becoming “the fastest-growing service in the new telemedia environment”, the machine became a “newly competitive service” for newspapers [46]. Also, as the above services show, there were niche markets for publishers both to reach old customers and attract new ones. In 1995, the U.S. market for faxed news services were valued at nearly half a billion dollars and this was projected to grow by 40 percent annually till 2000 (Martin, 1995). By the late 1990s, however, the growth of faxed newspapers became slower, with niche market or on-demand fax information services being the main successful players (Dizard, 2000). Indeed, they “never took off”, with “several (folding) for lack of profits … and most of those that continued publishing became neither significant revenue centres nor objects of much enthusiasm among those interested in a digital future.” [47] However, they did not “(die) unmourned” in the 1990s as Kovarik (2002) suggested: a recent visit to the corporate Web sites of giant publishers like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal reveal that many still continue their fax news services today in addition to digital platforms. It would be interesting to see whether they would survive in an age when customised news/information is delivered to the e-mail box.



Pre-Web computer-mediated online news: From teletext to videotex

With the introduction of the computer into the news-production process, consumer online news services took some far more complex forms during the 1970s and 1980s. Apart from auditext and fax-on-demand services, all other computer-based online news services have been subsumed under the catchall, although controversial, term of videotex (without the t at the end).

“Videotex” in its very generic meaning involves delivering news and other content from a central database through the telephone line on to the TV or the computer screen of the news consumer and takes two major social forms – the text-only service and the text-and-graphics service (Patten, 1986). The former, called information banks or online databases (electronic collections of information), began with The New York Times’ database of story abstracts in 1969 (Shedden, 1998). They were then developed into full-text commercial infobanks during the 1970s by many news organisations, the first of which was The Global and Mail Canada. In 1997, there were 6,200 databases all over the world, up from 3,369 ten years before that (Pavlik, 1998). However, as the Web hastily penetrated daily life, the late 1990s began to see these services struggling to survive (Tenopir and Barry, 2000). Rather than dying, however, some databases that used to serve a wide public with popular content have evolved into specialised information services, with library users as their most substantial consumer base. Others – such as Northern Light – turned to the Web and mixed the free and fee models for their business. Still some others – like Reed Elsevier’s Lexis-Nexis – charge low fees in exchange for displaying limited advertisements.

The more popular and advanced text-and-graphics services are what “videotex” generally is understood to be today. There are two distinctive groups of services within this domain, one consisting of those content and communication services delivered to the computer screen and the other to television. The computer-based videotex group is associated with proprietary services such as America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, Delphi, Genie, Applelink, EWorld and the Source. Starting from CompuServe in the 1970s, these “online service providers” – as they are called – provided pay subscribers with a dial-up access, via a modem, to a range of content and communication opportunities, from updated news, weather, stock quotes, shopping information, encyclopaedia, games to e-mail, teleconferences, bulletin boards, chat rooms and so on. These were based on their own packet-switching technologies and interfaces that have been evolving from being merely text-based to being GUI (Graphic User Interface)-based. They attracted millions of users around the world and some are still doing well today after adjusting their business strategy from being proprietary services with hourly charges to being more like Internet service providers operating with monthly flat-rate fees on the Web. For practical reasons, however, this study will not delve into the development of these services. The focus here is videotex services delivered on to the television set, which are almost dead today.

The story of TV-based videotex (hereinafter shortened as videotex, unless when clarification is needed) began from the experiment and development of a news form called teletext at the BBC in 1972 (Logue, 1979). In an oversimplified description, teletext works as follows: a page of text is processed and edited at a terminal with a computer database before being digitally encoded and beamed over the air as audio signals. At the receiving end, the news consumer needs a decoder to accept the “sent” data and display the pages on her television screen. A news consumer can easily, through handling the buttons on the decoder, request any information that is available at the providing end. Teletext of the 1970s was hailed as a coming revolution in information delivery and consumption as well as in other realms of daily life. Although enjoying some successes, it quickly became a backward technology in the eyes of many media actors after the introduction of videotex.

In contrast to being beamed over the air, videotex data (both text and graphics) were sent through a telephone network to a user’s modem, which was connected to a decoder controlled by the user with a keypad (Tydeman, et al., 1982; Rogers, 1986). As a result of being distributed via the phone line, the volume of content in videotex services was much richer than teletext. Whenever the user needs some information, she needs to adjust the keypad so that the information displayed on the TV screen can be called up. Videotex thus has far more advanced features. While a teletext user could call up only a few hundred pages of text-only information from a computer database, videotex allowed the display of text and graphics on the screen, the user’s self-control of the information flow, and a vast capacity for information storage and news updates. The social form of videotex is also characterised by the capacity for two-way communication – a feature that no previous news media had. With a videotex service, the user can send and receive messages to and from the central computer as well as can communicate with users at other terminals in the network [48].

Videotex news began in Britain with the Ceefax service in 1976, following some fairly successful teletext ventures. They quickly spread across Europe and to other developed countries such as the U.S. and Japan. Except in France, however, most of these services ended by the late 1980s, with losses in the billions of dollars. In the U.S. alone, an estimated US$2.5 billion “(vaporised) into thin air” (Lefcowitz, 2001). Why?

The story of videotex is a clear example of how the media as a business adapt to and take advantage of new technologies to protect their commercial viability. It happened in a period when videotex was seen as the coming revolution in the news industry thanks to the mentioned outstanding features. Many media scholars and practitioners of the 1970s and 1980s believed videotex would bring revolutionary changes to human communications in general and the news media in particular (Fidler, 1997; Mayne, 1982; Pool, 1983; Smith, 1980). It was advocated as a technology that would change the nature of economic practices, public awareness, education and training and other social norms. In the language of the 1980s, the convergence of the two popular technologies of the telephone and television “could be a marriage of the century” and would become “the quintessential medium of the twenty-first century.” [49].

For the news industry, Ithiel de Sola Pool declared that “networked computers will be the printing presses of the twenty-first century.” [50] Very much like the Web of the 1990s, videotex was widely perceived to be both a potential solution and a potential problem for newspapers of the 1980s. On the one hand, the exclusive features of videotex made it a desirable new horizon in which the first to enter could be the best to make money in the future. AT&T predicted that by 1990, eight million households in the U.S. would have been installed with a videotex terminal and in another estimate, a US$10-billion market was projected (Lefcowitz, 2001). Videotex, in other words, was a golden opportunity for newspapers in their long search for better and more commercially viable news products.

On the other hand, this happened at a time when newspaper circulation had been declining for years, strengthening the obligation to adapt or die. Videotex was powerful enough to mean that, as Anthony Smith [51] put it, “the decade of the nineties (was) going to be one in which the traditional newspaper may face decline, extinction or at least complete internal self-appraisal”. A survey in 1982 addressing the potential use of videotex found that one-third of the respondents said “if (they) could get the contents of a newspaper on a TV screen… (they) might stop buying a newspaper.” [52] The threat was perceived to be serious enough for the Newspaper Association of America to take legal actions to prevent AT&T and other regional phone companies from entering the content provision arena (on the basis that it would produce unfair competition in the nascent electronic publishing realm). These telecommunication providers were prohibited from starting any videotex ventures for seven years by a court in 1982 (Boczkowski, 2004). The following description by Fidler [53] of the secrecy of his mission in the Knight-Ridder team to develop the first videotex news service in the U.S., Viewtron, further reveals how the panic was on:

A four-person development team, of which I was a member, had been selected covertly from staff of newspapers and subsidiaries within the Knight-Ridder group. James K. Batten, the vice-president for news, … asked each of us in private meetings to volunteer for a venture that he believed was of the utmost importance to the future of the company… He explained that Norman Morrison, Knight-Ridder’s director of information systems, had alerted the company to the potential threat posed by videotex technology. After executive visits to England, he and most of the other officers had become convinced that the threat was real and believed that Knight-Ridder must act quickly… The secrecy surrounding our mission was so tight that only Batten, a few other senior Knight-Ridder executives, and our designated team leader, John Woolley, knew all our identities before we assembled for the first time at the Portman Hotel in London.

Viewtron started its commercial operation in October 1983 and stopped in March 1986 after a total loss of about US$150 million.

So what went wrong? Winston’s ideas of supervening social necessities and the law of suppression provide an explanation here. As noted, there seemed to be a clear supervening market demand on part of the user, as surveys consistently found the public willingness to use videotex. These, unfortunately, were false necessities and the positive research quickly became considered “woefully overblown”, as media critic John Zonderman put it (quoted in Lefcowitz, 2001). McAdams (1995) explained this in an informal but concise way:

The story is that the companies that ran these tests did a lot of expensive market research, asking people who had never seen a computer, or anything else like videotex, what they would like in terms of information that would be delivered as electronic text. The people answered, and the horrible videotex systems were built to deliver what the people said they wanted… They tried it, they hated it and they refused to use it.

In reality, as soon as the novelty of the innovation wore off, people stopped using the systems. This was due to a number of social and technological problems. First, the cost was too high and unrealistic, including cost for the necessary device, which went up to US$600 (McAdams, 1995), and the subscription fee, which was initially set at about US$30 per month at Viewtron (Fidler, 1997). Second, the service was too difficult to use and sometimes annoying to subscribers. Data transmission speeds were “painfully slow”; it was “a strange, seemingly endless labyrinth of information” with no obvious structure for the user to browse easily for their favourite content; and, the page looked “dull and uninviting on TV screens.” [54]

Third, and probably most importantly, newspapers were not active enough in bringing videotex’s potential into its full strength. For one thing, videotex services were no more than repurposed newspapers with very little original content, which is at odds with the need for specialised news and information among its early adopters (Boczkowski, 2004). Also, important stories, especially exclusives, were not provided first because of the fears that they would fall into the hands of competing outlets. For another, newspapers’ imagined “supervening market demands” for videotex was just wrong: while the information need among subscribers was not well met, the most frequently used service, electronic mail, was not fully served. As Fidler [55] recalled, Viewtron research showed a clear trend that interpersonal communication with other subscribers was the more exciting and more highly evaluated feature than content “but that was not what anyone was prepared to hear at this time … (because) nearly everyone involved in the trial saw Viewtron as an advertising-supported electronic newspaper … (and) its potential role as an interpersonal communication medium was considered secondary”. By comparison, the France-based Minitel service – a rare survivor of videotex – succeeded partly because it quickly shifted from a focus on news and other content to one on interpersonal exchange, after realising that the latter was what would drive the adoption of videotex among users.

Interests in videotex news, however, came back in the early 1990s, when personal computers gained an increasing popularity and telecommunication providers were now allowed to enter the electronic publishing market. Partly under the recurring fear of being left behind, newspapers’ videotex services briefly resurged in the years immediately before the Web – this time not on their own systems but via online services like America Online (Fidler, 1997; Boczkowski, 2004). By the mid-1990s, the success of these experiments was limited, with a huge survey of 10,000 consumers finding a significant amount of dissatisfaction. As the Internet was opened to the general public and the Web quickly penetrated daily life, it was quickly chosen as the delivery platform of the future by newspapers and other traditional media. Thus, although failing, videotex laid the foundation for today’s Internet-based news; its place in media history is “a crucial missing link on the road to the Information Superhighway” (Lefcowitz, 2001).



The mutual shaping of technologies and society: Lessons learnt from the pre-Web evolution of online news

By connecting different news media forms that were previously seen as discrete developments, this paper has shown that the recent emergence of Web news is not a sudden “overnight” event but is the latest in a chain of continuous episodes in the evolution of consumer online news services over the past 160 years. In this history, all the point-to-point communication technologies existing in human life have been tried since their early days for news delivery. The social forms of online news have evolved from simplicity to complexity – from the use of a single new technology to the integration of the old and the new, from text-only to text-and-graphics deliveries, from one-way to two-way communication, from man-operated to the computer-operated central databases, from pull to push and so on. Some of them survive and find their niche markets today while others vanished due to a range of social and technological brakes. While the definition of online news as news over point-to-point communication network is open for historians and media researchers to debate, this is at least a prehistory of electronic publishing and part of the history of media convergence [56].

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the above definition of online news, however, the media development chain tracked in this paper reinforces several crucial points to ponder in modern new media discourses, the most fundamental of which is that simply predicting the future of a medium on the premise of its technological power is a naïve approach. However “powerful” a communication technology is, the decisive force to determine its diffusion is the many characteristics of the social sphere that are present at the time of its introduction. In other words, technologies’ impact depends more on the convergence of socio-economic forces than on their innovative potentials (Marvin, 1988). The clearest example is the telephone newspaper. As much as it sounded an awkward technology in today media landscape of radio, television and the Internet, it was a substantial improvement for mass communication at its time. But it enjoyed a substantial reach only in Hungary and did not exist in other parts of Europe or immediately failed in America. Other examples include consumer telegraphic news services, which were popular in the U.K. and North America but not in France in the latter half of the 1800s; or the coming “revolutionary” videotex, which was successful in France but failed in other Western countries in the 1980s.

To chart the socio-economic kinesis underlining this process, it is important to think of three main inter-related sources of influences: the historical context in which the technology is introduced, the people who create the media form based on this technology, and the people who use it. To be consistent with the media-centric approach in this paper, this diffusion dynamic could be explored from the starting point that under constant profit motives and/or permanent pressures to ensure commercial viability, the media as a business have always been playing a central part in determining the success of new communication forms. Out of this came the different forms of online news services mentioned above. This involvement, however, does not ensure that the media will make the best out of newer communication technologies to improve products and services because it depends on a wide range of other factors:

First, the extent to which a new distribution technology is made use of for better news products depends very much on the issue of who controls it, which in turn is determined by the political context concerning the technology, including the political ideology applied to the technology and its resulting ownership regulation (public versus private; exclusive versus inclusive rights). These factors affect both investors’ willingness to pour resources into new media development and the number of potential players in the process of shaping the social form of the technology. For example, the flourishing of consumer telegraphic news services in the U.K. in the 1870s was based on a “laissez-faire” and egalitarian ideology and approach in conferring access rights to lines by its owner, the Post Office. Or, Telephone Hirmondo enjoyed a wide diffusion in a city of limited telephone penetration because it was legally given the exclusive right to control the city’s telephone system, thus having a sufficient consumer base to deliver its own news and other content services. This issue of control could create a serious social conflict between communication infrastructure and content providers that might act as an impediment to the diffusion of new media, as can be seen in the legal lobbying efforts by the American newspaper industry to exclude telephone companies from videotex development in the 1980s.

Second, the media generate new news forms on the basis of what they are interested in and how they perceive the new technology, which is largely informed by their existing practices, cultural norms and values. In other words, media actors are usually associated with systemic restraints that have strong effects on the social shape of the technology – such as work routines, commercial motives, professional values, and so on. Sometimes, these restraints led media actors to be unable to “imagine” their consuming public and its supervening necessities, leading to a failure to develop the right product out of a technology. In the American experience of TV-based videotex, for instance, technologies did not translate into market demands not simply because the market did not exist. But these videotex ventures met with their ill fate partly because of a wrong assumption of and thus an exclusive focus on an overwhelming need for news and one-way information among the users. What users seemed to want was the communication more than content utilities of the system. As Ettema [57] put it: “Consumer videotex turned out to be a technology with considerable market push rather than market pull – or as sometimes said, a solution in search of a problem”.

It is also in this light that we can see the importance of users in the shape of media forms. To succeed, media actors would usually have to adjust and compromise what they think with what users really need. As a response to users’ demand, for instance, American telephone companies of the late 1890s substantially diversified their online services of election returns from 1892 to 1896. This point is clearer in the case of Minitel, which was more open to quickly realise the crucial importance of communication utilities in videotex and then, unlike its American counterparts, to aggressively incorporate them in the service. That is, the social form of Minitel was determined substantially, although indirectly, by its users’ needs and tastes. In other words, society is the greatest lab for new technologies to develop, in Winston’s words, from “prototypes” to “inventions”. Thus, although technologies do play an important role in the diffusion of new media, they are involved in a dynamically continuous process that is marked by the mutual influences between their technical capacities and the interests and values of their actors and their users. In any successful case, media actors are guided by users’ adoption and preference behaviours and depart from their old mentality and practice to, within existing technical capacities, continuously improve the social shape of their new products.

This, however, might not happen when the business imperative for developing new products does not primarily derive from the wish to exploit the innovative potential of new technologies per se. Viewtron and other American videotex services could have followed the same route as Minitel over the long run – the problem was that these experiments were put to an end, rather than explored for possible alternative avenues, as soon as it became clear that the “revolutionary” technology was not going to kill their core business, news provision. Indeed, videotex in the end was a failure with “mixed blessings” for American newspapers (Ettema, 1989). When announcing the end of Viewtron, for example, James Batten declared: “Videotex is not likely to be a threat to newspapers in the foreseeable future.” [58] The same sign of relief was found in the statement by James Holley, president of Times Mirror’s Gateway videotex service, on its closure: “We reached the point where we learned enough to know that (videotex) was not a threat to our newspapers or our cable companies or our magazines which is what drove us into this project in the first place.” [59]

In this light, it is still too early to support the common claim that the “powerful” Web will become the dominant news medium of the future. If history is a repetition process and the past can be seen as a prologue, all the above suggests that despite the many potential “revolutionary” technical features of the Web, it might become just another medium to deliver news — if it does not make money. Indeed, the same defensive strategy during the videotex period has been applied to the development of Web news in the past dozen years. With the main aim being to protect their existing businesses rather than to proactively exploit a new innovative medium, traditional media have been reluctant in pouring resources into developing their online news to its fullest extent. As a result, previous studies on the extent to which the radical potential of the Internet has been integrated into the modern online news services have shown disappointing results, with unique Web features such as multimedia and participation opportunities being largely underdeveloped and original content being still a luxury on mainstream news sites (Boczkowski, 2004; Chan-Olmsted and Park, 2000; Gunter, 2003; Lin and Jeffres, 2000; Massey and Levy, 1999; Nguyen, 2006; Salwen, 2005; Singer, 2003).

This is a particularly important point in the context that Web-based news is still not source of profit or is quite often a source of financial loss today. Although the Internet as a news medium has undoubtedly established itself as an integral part of our daily life, with its growth having shown no sign of stopping (Gunter, 2003; Nguyen, 2003; Salwen, et al., 2005), some producer-centric questions must be posed for its future. Would advertising and sponsorship work well enough on the Web so that news can be delivered free of charge forever? If not, would people be willing to pay for something that they are used to receiving without any cost? If the answer to both of the latter questions is no, then what way would Web news follow? Would it be just a service complementary to the traditional products like audiotext, or would it become dominantly a niche-market news medium with exclusive content for financial subscribers? Or something else? What does all this mean to the technical potential of Internet news? End of article


About the author

Dr An Nguyen currently teaches part–time in Media Studies at the University of Queensland and in Journalism at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. A former journalist in Vietnam and an award–winning early–career scholar in Australia, he has published scholarly research in the areas of online journalism and online news audiences, journalism education, and science journalism in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.



1. DeFleur and Ball–Rokeach, 1989, p. 33.

2. Ibid., p. 47.

3. Ibid., p. 49.

4. Winston, 1998, p. 4.

5. Ibid., p. 8, my emphasis.

6. Ibid., p. 6.

7. Ibid., p. 11.

8. Abrahamson, 1998, p. 14.

9. DeFleur and Ball–Rokeach, 1989, p. 36.

10. Pavlik, 1998, p. 141.

11. Fidler, 1997, p. 291.

12. Lister, et al., 2003, p. 389.

13. Blondheim, 1994, p. 44.

14. Quoted in Blondheim, 1994, p. 44.

15. Kieve, 1973, p. 71.

16. Blondheim, 1994, pp. 11–29.

17. Blonheim, 1994, pp. 27–28.

18. Blondheim, 1994, p. 38.

19. Winseck, 1999, p. 149.

20. Quoted in Winseck, 1999, p. 147.

21. Blondheim, 1994, p. 28.

22. Quoted in Blondheim, 1994, p. 37.

23. Briggs, 1977, p. 43.

24. Aronson, 1977, p. 33.

25. Marvin, 1988, p. 217.

26. Briggs, 1977, p. 43.

27. Marvin, 1988, p. 217.

28. Briggs, 1977, p. 43.

29. Marvin, 1988, p. 221.

30. Aronson, 1977, p. 32.

31. Aronson, 1977, p. 33.

32. Briggs, 1977, pp. 51–52.

33. Fitzgerald, 1907, p. 507.

34. Op.cit.

35. Briggs, 1977, p. 43; see also Marvin, 1988.

36. Briggs, 1977, pp. 53–59.

37. Quoted in Briggs, 1977, p. 56.

38. Briggs, 1997, p. 56.

39. A similar “telephone newspaper” called The Telephone Herald appeared in Newark, N.J., for a brief period between 1911 and 1912. It was a brief success cum failure due to many of the common problems discussed in this paper, including lack of control over the telephone infrastructure which the Budapest service enjoyed. For practical reasons, however, this interesting phenomenon was not discussed in details. Readers with interest can refer to Marvin (1988) for a brief but incisive discussion of this American telephone news service.

40. Quoted in Boczkowski, 2004, p. 32.

41. Quoted in Dizard, 2000, p. 164.

42. Pavlik, 1998, p. 58.

43. Beville, 1948, p. 7.

44. Quoted in Butler and Kent, 1983, p. 4.

45. Dizard, 2000, p. 47.

46. Op.cit.

47. Boczkowski, 2004, p. 32.

48. For more detail about the technologies and features of teletext and videotex, see Barr (1985), Mayne (1982), Money (1979), Montague (1981), Roizen (1980), Smith (1980) and Tydeman, et al. (1982).

49. Quoted in Kyrish, 1996, pp. 8–9; see this excellent review for more about the pervasive “revolutionary” language on videotex.

50. Pool, 1983, p. 224.

51. Smith, 1980, p. 244.

52. Butler and Kent, 1983, p. 7.

53. Fidler, 1997, p. 144.

54. Fidler, 1997, pp. 151–159; see also Lefcowitz, 2001.

55. Fidler, 1997, p. 148.

56. And if this definition of online news is not acceptable, then the above discussion is at least a timely attempt to call for more scholarly attention to the issue. Is “online” a too generic term to be helpful in any sense?

57. Ettema, 1989, p. 108.

58. Quoted in Boczkowski, 2004, p. 28.

59. Quoted in Ettema, 1989, p. 108.



D. Abrahamson, 1998. “The visible hand: Money, markets and media evolution,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, volume 75, number 1, pp. 14–18.

D. Ahlers, 2006. “News consumption and the new electronic media,” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, volume 11, number 1, pp. 29–52.

S.H. Aronson, 1977. “Bell’s electrical toy: What’s the use? The sociology of early telephone usage,” In: Ithiel de Sola Pool (editor). The social impact of the telephone. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 15–39.

Australia, 1992. “Broadcasting Services Act 1992,” at, accessed 4 March 2007.

T. Barr, 1985. The electronic estate: New communications media and Australia. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia.

Beville, H. (1948). “The challenge of new media: television, FM and facsimile.” Journalism Quarterly, 25(1), pp. 3-11.

M. Blondheim, 1994. News over the wires: The telegraph and the flow of public information in America, 1844–1897. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

P.J. Boczkowski, 2004. Digitizing the news: Innovation in online newspapers. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

A. Briggs, 1977. “The pleasure telephone: A chapter in the prehistory of the media,” In: Ithiel de Sola Pool (editor). The social impact of the telephone. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 40–65.

J.K. Butler and K.E.M. Kent, 1983. “Potential impact of videotext on newspapers,” Newspaper Research Journal, volume 5, number 1, pp. 3–12.

J. Carey, 1982. “Videotex: The past as prologue,” Journal of Communication, volume 32, number 2 pp. 80–87.

S. Chan–Olmsted and J. Park, 2000. “From on-air to online world: Examining the content and structures of broadcast TV stations’ Web sites,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, volume 77, number 2, pp. 321–340.

A.F. Colton, 1912. “The telephone newspaper – new experiment in America,” Telephony (30 March), pp. 391–392, at, accessed 15 June 2005.

M. Defleur and S. Ball–Rokeach, 1989. Theories of mass communication. Fifth edition. New York: Longman.

T.S. Denison, 1901. “The telephone newspaper,” World’s Work (April), pp. 640–643, at, accessed 15 June 2004.

W.P. Dizard, 2000. Old media, new media: Mass communications in the information age. Third edition. New York: Longman.

M. Eid and C. Buchanan, 2005. “North America: Multiplying media in a dynamic landscape,” First Monday, volume 10, number 11 (November),at, accessed 15 April 2006.

J. Ettema, 1989. “Interactive electronic text in the United States: Can videotext ever go home again?” In: J.L. Salvaggio and J. Bryant (editors). Media use in the information age: Emerging patterns of adoption and consumer use. London: L. Erlbaum Associates, pp. 105–124.

R.F. Fidler, 1997. Mediamorphosis: Understanding new media. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press.

W.G. Fitzgerald, 1907. “A telephone newspaper,” Scientific American (22 June), p. 507, at, accessed 15 June 2005.

G. Garneau, 1996. “The Web: Next step in interactive agenda,” Editor & Publisher, volume 129, number 7 (17 February), p. 2.

W. Gilbert, 1999. “Radio on the telephone,” at, accessed 15 June 2005.

B. Gunter, 2003. News and the Net. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum

M. Kauffman, 1994. “Just the fax, please,” Folio: The Magazine for Magazine Management, (1 August), p. 37.

B. Kovarik, 2002. Web design for the mass media. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, and at, accessed 12 June 2005.

J.L. Kieve, 1973. The electric telegraph: A social and economic history. Newton Abbot: David and Charles.

S. Kyrish, 1996. “From videotex to the Internet: Lessons from online services 1981–1996,” La Trobe University Online Media Program, Research Report, number 1, at, accessed 9 September 2001.

E. Lefcowitz, 2001. “Retrofuture: The information highway to nowhere,” Retrieved on September 21, 2001 from, accessed 21 September 2001.

M. Lister, J. Dovey, S. Giddings, I. Grant, and K. Kelly, 2003. New media: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.

T.J. Logue, 1979. “Teletext: Towards an information utility?” Journal of Communication, volume 29, number 4, pp. 58–65.

N.L. Martin, 1995. “Fax publishing: Fast facts,” Communication World, volume 12, number 8, p. 12.

C. Marvin, 1988. When old technologies were new: Thinking about electric communications in the late nineteenth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

B.L. Massey and M.L. Levy, 1999. “‘Interactive’ online journalism and English–language Web newspapers in Asia,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, volume 76, number 1, pp. 138–151.

A.J. Mayne, 1982. The videotex revolution. Hampshire: October Press.

M. McAdams, 1995. “The sad story of videotex,” at, accessed 5 November 2001.

S.A. Money, 1979. Teletext and viewdata. London: Newnes Technical Books.

P. Montague, 1981. “The electronic newspaper,” In: R. Winsbury (editor). Viewdata in action: A comparative study of Prestel. London: McGraw–Hill.

A. Nguyen, 2006. “Journalism in the wake of participatory publishing,” Australian Journalism Review, volume 28, number 1, pp. 143–155.

A. Nguyen, 2003. “The current status and potential development of online news consumption: A structural approach,” First Monday, volume 8, number 9 (September), at, accessed 4 March 2007.

A. Nguyen and M. Western, 2006. “The complementary relationship between the Internet and traditional mass media: The case of online news and information,” Information Research, volume 11, number 3, at, accessed 20 April 2006.

A. Nguyen, E. Ferrier, M. Western, and S. McKay, 2005. “Online news in Australia: Patterns of uses and gratifications,” Australian Studies in Journalism, number 15, pp. 5–34.

D.A. Patten, 1986. Newspapers and new media. White Plains, N.Y.: Knowledge Industry Publications.

J.V. Pavlik, 1998. New media technology: Cultural and commercial perspectives. Second revised edition. Sydney: Allyn and Bacon.

R. Piirto, 1994. “Just the fax, ma’am,” American Demographics, volume 16, number 11, p. 6.

R. Piirto, 1993. “Electronic news,” American Demographics, volume 15, number 1, p. 6.

I. de Sola Pool, 1983. Technologies of freedom. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

J. Roizen, 1980. “The technology of teletext and viewdata,” In: E. Sigel, J. Roizen, C. McIntyre, and M. Wilkinson (editors). Videotext: The coming revolution in home/office information retrieval. White Plains, N.Y.: Knowledge Industry Publications, pp. 9–22.

M.B. Salwen, 2005. “Online news trends,” In: M.B. Salwen, B. Garrison, and P.D. Driscoll (editors), 2005. Online news and the public. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

M.B. Salwen, B. Garrison, and P.D. Driscoll (editors), 2005. Online news and the public. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

J. Singer, 2003. “Campaign contributions: Online newspaper coverage of Election 2000,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, volume 80, number 1, pp. 39–56.

A. Smith, 1980. Goodbye, Gutenberg: The newspaper revolution of the 1980s. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

C. Snowden, 2003. “What’s happening? Mobile communication technology and the surveillance function of news,” Transformations, number 7, at, accessed 3 June 2004.

S. Star and G. Bowker, 2002. “How to infrastructure,” In: L.A. Lievrouw and S.M. Livingstone (editors). Handbook of new media: Social shaping and consequences of ICTs. London: Sage, pp. 151–162.

B. Stokes, 1992. “Faxing a daily fix on Japanese news,” National Journal, volume 24, number 43 (24 October), p. 2441.

I. Teinowitz, 1993. “Just the fax, ma ‘am,’ Latest newspaper refrain,” Advertising Age, volume 64, number 18 (26 April), p. pS–6–S–12.

C. Tenopir and J. Barry, 2000. “Are online companies dinosaurs?” Library Journal, volume 125, number 9 (15 May), pp. 44–50.

J. Tydeman, H. Lipinski, R. Adler, M. Nyhan, and L. Zwimerpfer, 1982. Teletext and videotex in the United States: Market potential, technology, public policy issues. New York: McGraw–Hill.

D. Winseck, 1999. “Back to the future: Telecommunications, online information services and convergence from 1840 to 1910,” Media History, volume 5, number 2, pp. 137–157.

B. Winston, 1998. Media technology and society – A history: From the telegraph to the Internet. London: Routledge.



Editorial history

Paper received 22 September 2006; accepted 15 December 2006.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2007, First Monday.

Copyright ©2007, An Nguyen.

The interaction between technologies and society: Lessons learnt from 160 evolutionary years of online news services by An Nguyen
First Monday, volume 12, number 3 (March 2007),