Back in 1995, I interviewed a very smart man named Robert K. Hoffman, who informed me:

“Change is not only inevitable, it will wipe you out if you try to slow it down.”

Did I mention that this guy was very smart?

Robert Hoffman died in 2006 of leukemia, at age 59. I often wish he were still here, so we could talk some more about change, and especially about what it means for the media world of today.

Robert’s astute assessment of the inevitability of change has been much on my mind lately, as I have undergone some major changes of my own.  The big one, as readers of this blog know, was being laid off from the newspaper after more than a quarter century as a journalist.

Now, there’s a change that will knock you for a loop. And I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t.

Why should I have seen it coming? Because I know perfectly well that the business I left is not the business I knew in 1995.

That was the year I began using e-mail. I began exploring the web, which back then was a piddly fraction of its current behemoth self. I began realizing, dimly, that this World Wide Web deal was going to be a Really Big Thing.

What I did not realize then was how quickly the web would engulf the world of communications. How, within a mere decade, it would make everything else look not just excruciatingly slow, but so antique as to be positively quaint.

Up till the advent of the net, the newspaper business had moved at what might be called a stately pace. 

It took centuries after 1440 for Herr Gutenberg’s movable-type model to evolve into automated presses run by electrical power. A printing press in 1500 wasn’t all that different from a printing press in 1800. But in the 19th century, innovation began to speed up, as steam-driven, rotary and electrically powered presses successively made it possible to print first thousands, and then millions, of copies in a single day.

It took only a 30-year cycle of late-20th-century modernization for newspapers to evolve from hot type to cold type, then to VDTs (video display terminals, basically big clunky word processors) and eventually to PCs. The arrival of satellite technology and digital production obviated the need for the “backshop,” or composing room. The disappearance of those production jobs was the canary in the coal mine, but few of us on the editorial side spotted it at the time.

In the mid-to-late ’90s, the internet and e-mail began shaking up newsrooms as nothing before ever had. In the past dozen years, the news industry and the entire world of media have changed at a speed I would not have believed had I not been a front-row witness to it.

Lately, I find myself thinking back to this:

When I was in my senior year at the University of Florida, they took our class outside to the parking lot and ushered us into a big tractor-trailer that held a traveling exhibit: a prototype “modern” newsroom with the first VDT I had ever seen. It was about the size of a mini-refrigerator.

We were told something to the effect of: “This, children, is the wave of the future.” I am not sure any of us believed it then, in 1975.

But I sure do believe it now.

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