CJR knew about the iPad a good fifteen years before there was an iPad to know about. In a 1995 column, Stephen Isaacs reported on “the tablet,” a notional device dreamed up by the Knight Ridder innovation guru Roger Fidler and based on the recognition that, with the coming of the web, “ordinary folks now have the exciting capability of tracking down original sources via their own computers.” Fidler’s device would be “a letter-sized, slender (inch-thick), two-pound portable electronic ‘tablet’ ”; it would “combine both the look of a newspaper’s packaging” as well as consumers’ “perceived need for a mediator.” Users would be “constantly downloading new stuff, much in the same formats with which they are currently familiar,” and would use touch-screen technology to select stories—text, audio, video—and dive into more and more detail, “all stored in ample but tiny memory cards inserted in the machine.” The tablet would, Fidler figured, “eventually supplant our favorite newspaper, radio station, television newscast, magazine, even our Rolodex.”
Even our Rolodex! It’s worth repeating, though: a 1995 column. Nineteen-ninety-five, the year Larry first met Sergey. The year before The New York Times launched nytimes.com, its sparse little “Web-site.” The year when getting a cd-rom from America Online in the mail was still cause for excitement, when we forgave our modems their crackles and squeals because their noise carried, implicitly, the promise of connection.
Writing about journalism has always meant, to some extent, writing about the future of journalism. Reporters are, constitutionally, restless. We want to know what’s coming next, particularly when it affects us and our ability to do good work. And that has been true, of course, even prior to our present moment. But it’s been particularly true for CJR, which is—it can’t help it—a locus for professional anxiety and diligent navel-gazery.
I recently read through an imposing stack of future-of-news articles from fifty years’ worth of CJR’s media reporting. It was exhausting. But it was also exhilarating. And it revealed a fascinating range of reactions to The Future, the mother of all beats. There was the quaint (1993: “Former Senator Gore’s High Performance Computing Act is transforming the Internet into a grand national research and education network. . . .”); the breathless (1996: “Every boldfaced word or phrase in the piece indicates an Internet site you can experience yourself by linking to it. Just click.”); the amusing (1983: “Research reports and consultants variously estimate that by the year 2000 from 7 to 40 percent of the population will be using some form of videotex.”); the ominous (1984: “Even with secret log-on passwords, personal files may not be secure.”).
And the range makes sense: one of the responsibilities of a magazine of ideas, after all, is to see around corners—to give readers and change-makers and industry leaders a taste of the world not just as it is, but as it will be. And the future is anything but predictable. It is promising and frightening and beguiling and frustrating—often all at the same time.
But what’s striking about all the CJR stories—stacked, edges frayed, on my coffee table—is how intimately familiar they all seem. They are voices from the past that are eerily, wonderfully, at home in the present. Who is a journalist? they ask. How will new technologies affect that? Will those technologies undermine our ability to do our jobs, or improve it? How do we better connect with our audiences? How can we ensure that informational substance wins out over sensational drivel? How can we make reporting more profitable? Can we sell more and better ads? Are financial concerns compromising our ability to do journalism at the highest level? Should we consider government intervention to help support our work? Is that what the Founders would have wanted? Should we care anymore what the Founders would have wanted?
There’s a comfort to all this, a sense that what we’re experiencing now, at this moment in journalism—the tremors, the crumbles, the seismic shifts—has all been experienced before. Even in a world that finds tablet computers ubiquitous rather than imaginary, even in a world that finds machines and formulas (robots, algorithms, cyborgs) taking over tasks once done by humans, even in a world that finds us, somehow, gleefully celebrating the takeover . . . journalism is still journalism. The news, as an industry and an institution, has always faced challenges—challenges both unique to the times and common to the craft—and it’s always found a way to persevere. Changed, maybe—evolved—but intact all the same.