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Video: Web-like newspaper delivery in 1981

Newspaper publishers have no excuse for reacting slowly to the Web. Benefits of digital delivery were evident 28 years ago.

The Internet shouldn't have caught newspaper publishers by surprise. Early warnings that the Web could change their businesses cropped up as early as 1981.

A 28-year-old report from KRON-TV in San Francisco, a copy of which was found on YouTube, shows that newspapers were already experimenting with digital delivery to personal computer users.

"Imagine if you will," said a KRON female newscaster, "sitting down to your morning coffee and turning on your home computer to read the day's newspaper."

The following report is about how eight newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times had joined a service that would send digital newspaper copies to home-computer owners via phone lines.

The service was crude by today's standards. The process of transferring a full digital newspaper to a computer took two hours. The service charged $5 an hour so it meant spending $10 to obtain a paper that could be had for 20 cents at the corner newsstand. Still, KRON reported that of the 2,000 to 3,000 home computer users in the Bay Area, 500 had indicated interest.

It was early to be sure. Mainstream adoption of the PC was still a few years away and the Internet as we know it was still more than a decade in the future.

But the process should have given newspapers a rudimentary understanding of the power of digital distribution. History shows the sector was slow to react to the rise of the Internet. Now, surveys show much of the public prefers receiving news from Web-based sources over newspapers, and many of the country's most prestigious papers are in financial trouble. Some papers, including The Christian Science Monitor have stopped publishing some print editions.

"This is an experiment," said David Cole of the San Francisco Examiner in the TV report. "Were trying to figure out what it's going to mean to us as editors and reporters and what it means to the home user. We're not in it to make money."