For many years, one of the top speakers at press association meetings —especially in Canada — was Frank Ogden, a futurist 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 generally 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.