Dr. To­mor­row warned pub­lish­ers; they didn’t lis­ten

Newspapers & Technology Magazine - - Contents - ▶ BY MARC WIL­SON COLUM­NIST

For many years, one of the top speak­ers at press as­so­ci­a­tion meet­ings —es­pe­cially in Canada — was Frank Og­den, a f utur­ist who billed him­self as “Dr. To­mor­row.”

He was among the very first to fore­warn pub­lish­ers — and lead­ers in other in­dus­tries — about the po­ten­tial dis­rup­tions that would be caused by the in­tenet.

“It’s a whole new ball­game out there,” he told au­di­ences as early as 1990 (even be­fore the World Wide Web be­gan). “Ei­ther you em­brace the tech­no­log­i­cal changes, or you’ll be left be­hind.”

More dra­mat­i­cally, he warned, “Ei­ther get on the steamroller of change, or be­come part of the road.”

Too few lis­tened.

Some even tried to as­sault him.

In fact, he was proud to pro­claim that, by his own es­ti­mates, more than 2,000 peo­ple had walked out on his speeches.

“I’ve had seven cof­fee cups and one chair thrown at me,” he noted pub­licly and proudly. “Three peo­ple even vom­ited.”

Many chal­lenged his cre­den­tials (and even his san­ity).

He con­ceded, “I have no aca­demic qual­i­fi­ca­tions what­so­ever. That’s my big­gest as­set. In­stead of a Ph.D., I have an LSD.”

He’d worked as a coun­selor for years in a Cana­dian psy­chi­atric clinic that suc­cess­fully — he claimed — used the mind-al­ter­ing drug LSD for treat­ments. He sam­pled the drug, he said, claim­ing “LSD opened my mind. It al­lowed me to think in new ways, to see the world dif­fer­ently.”

He warned us to al­ter our think­ing, too, with or without the aid of chem­i­cals.

I was on the same pro­gram with him in Canada, in 2000 or 2001. In the makeshift green room we shared he told me pri­vately, “I’m nearly 80 years old. I don’t make any pre­dic­tion that isn’t at least 20 years out so I won’t be around to be held ac­count­able.” ( He died in Van­cou­ver at age 92 in 2013. Many of his pre­dic­tions HAVE come true.)

Un­like Dr. To­mor­row, many speak­ers at news­pa­per as­so­ci­a­tion meet­ings since then have of­fered less-than-stel­lar ad­vice.

At one in­ter­na­tional jour­nal­ism con­fer­ence held in Paris in the mid-1990s, in­dus­try lead­ers gener- ally agreed that the best course of ac­tion would be to put all news­pa­per con­tent on the World Wide Web without charge. The the­ory was that ad­ver­tis­ing would fol­low the eye­balls. Many in the news­pa­per in­dus­try have been try­ing to put that ge­nie back in the bot­tle ever since.

Then there were those who ad­vised rais­ing cir­cu­la­tion rates to make up for cir­cu­la­tion de­clines. Of­fer less, charge more, and ig­nore the com­pet­i­tive land­scape. Of­fer less in an ever- in­creas­ing com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment.

Much ad­vice was of­fered that the in­dus­try needed to cut its way to prof­itabil­ity. That re­sulted in fewer and smaller pages, and smaller news­rooms.

And there those who said, “Let’s do ev­ery­thing we can to pro­tect print. Maybe the in­ter­net will go away.”

An­other the­ory of­ten bal­ly­hooed at con­ven­tions was that the news­pa­pers needed to do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to en­hance search en­gine (and so­cial me­dia) op­ti­miza­tion so Google, Facebook and oth­ers could dis­trib­ute the lo­cally pro­duced con­tent.

That the­ory worked — for Google and Facebook!

Since Google was founded in 1998, its value has climbed to al­most one tril­lion dol­lars. Facebook, founded in 2004, now has some 2.2 bil­lion monthly vis­i­tors and a net worth of some $150 bil­lion.

In the mean­time, news­pa­pers have fared not so well.

Pew Re­search says news­pa­per news­room em­ploy­ees dropped by 45 per­cent from 2008 to 2017, from about 71,000 work­ers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017. And since 2017, at least a third of all large news­pa­pers have had ma­jor lay­offs.

Pew Re­search also notes that to­tal week­day cir­cu­la­tion for U.S. daily news­pa­pers — both print and dig­i­tal — fell 8 per­cent in 2016, mark­ing the 28th con­sec­u­tive year of de­clines.

“If you are not aboard the steamroller of change,” Dr. To­mor­row warned, “you stand a good chance of be­ing part of the road.”

In­stead of lis­ten­ing to Dr. To­mor­row, folks threw chairs and cof­fee cups at him. They walked out of his speeches and vom­ited when they should have been tak­ing notes and tak­ing ac­tion.

He told them. They should have got­ten aboard the steamroller.

Marc Wil­son is founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of TownNews. He’s also au­thor of the re­cently pub­lished book "Kid­napped by Colum­bus," pub­lished by Flor­i­canto Press.

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