Our Spring 1963 issue included the only piece of science fiction CJR has ever published. Reporter Edward Edelson imagined with a mix of prescience and parody what computer automation might mean for the news business. The revolution began, dear reader, on a September day in 1967, when residents of a small Pennsylvania town awoke to find that their paper contained “the first non-human newspaper stories ever written.” The below paragraph originally ran above the piece.
The following is a work of the imagination; it may be one of the first items of science fiction written about the newspaper business. Its author is Edward Edelson, a reporter for the New York World-Telegram & Sun, who has been following closely the advances of computers into newspaper printing.
By the middle of the 1960’s, the experts were so certain of what would happen to American newspapers that there were no longer any debates about it. There were going to be fewer metropolitan newspapers, suburban papers would flourish, competition would fade sadly away, and television would continue to elbow newspapers into the tightest of corners. Within twenty years, it was freely predicted, every newspaper would either buy its way into a monopoly or be bought by a chain. With the subject becoming too hackneyed for hand-wringing, there was little reason to look for any revolutionary change in the nature of newspapers. It was just at this time that the revolution began.
Its father was George Hilburton Hargraves, who inherited the Bartlesberry (Pennsylvania) Clarion from his father early in 1965. The Clarion was a 7,200-circulation daily that had declined somewhat from its barely perceptible peak, reached early in the forty-three-year reign of the elder Hargraves. It was a stodgy, respectable sheet, not much worse than anything else in its class and firmly profitable. Hargraves père had paid little attention to anything but its net profit and his son, then barely 30, might have been expected to let things rock along as before.
But the younger Hargraves, a Harvard man, already a world traveler and something of a scientific dilettante, restlessly began making changes. Roaming through the Clarion’s rambling, outmoded plant, he asked unexpected questions, taught himself the printer’s trade and then began spending for new equipment. After six months the Clarion was making 20 percent more profit on the same advertising revenue. Now Hargraves read the paper thoroughly for the first time.
He had taken some interest in the Clarion’s news columns, as much as his schedule allowed, but he had few ideas about style and was indifferent to content, once he satisfied himself that the community was getting what it wanted. What impressed him most, as he read the collected back issues of the Clarion page by page, was “the sheer repetitiveness of the day-today items that made up the bulk of the news we printed,” as he wrote later. After a month of reading and classifying, he had the broad outlines of a new species of newspaper firm in his mind.
“The notion came to me,” Hargraves wrote, “as I read through the women’s pages of the Clarion. I read column after column of wedding, engagement and tea party stories, most of them very nearly identical except for names. It struck me one afternoon that there was no reason for a reporter to spend his time writing out the immutable formulas for births, engagements, weddings and deaths. Surely, here was the ideal place for science to save me money.”
The idea of turning machines to work on words was not unknown at the time. Computer translations of scientific papers were a commonplace, and some experiments in related fields were under way. Teletypesetting—the non-human setting of type using punched tape—was already common in the newspaper business. But though a method had been developed that allowed a reporter to punch a Teletypsetting tape as he wrote his story, automation for the most part had bypassed the news room. It was Hargraves’s vision of a new form of newspaper and his firm grasp of economics that were to change this.
He turned for help to Quincy Snyder, a resident of Bartlesberry who had just left his engineering job with Sperry Rand to experiment with unorthodox ideas about computers. Snyder, nearly as young as Hargraves and possibly a more zealous worker, became a perfect collaborator. During the weeks that followed, the two men held long, intense discussions in Hargraves’s cramped office, hammering out solutions to the problems that arose from Hargraves’s suggestions. Snyder proved to have as solid an understanding of newspaper economics as did Hargraves.