Herald looking ahead to the next 120 years

Photo by Jim Hendricks

Photo by Jim Hendricks

We all have a pretty good idea of what newspapers and other media have done over the past 120 years. The question now is: Where will they go in the next 120?

It's a simple question, but the answer is pretty complex.

There are a great many people trying to divine an answer to that question right now, and not just newspaper operators. Television is seeing its landscape change and its viewer base fragment. Radio has competition beaming in from overhead satellites. The Internet has millions and millions of sites screaming for attention.

Everyone in the media business wants to know where things are headed and how their particular operation can stay relevant.

Without a doubt, the Internet is the biggest game-changer that has come along in decades. A computer -- even a cell phone -- gets you on a superhighway of information traveling at breakneck speed on wide lanes that have few road signs.

That's a lot different than the information environment that existed when the presses rolled on the first Albany Herald 120 years ago this month. In that 120-year period, newspapers have grown, adapted and endured as new forms of media have come into play, often with expert predictions of the demise of print journalism. But every morning, people still get their newspapers delivered to their homes and workplaces.

The newspaper is the one information product that is created from scratch, made into a final product and physically delivered to you within a 24-hour period. And there's something about news and photos printed in ink on paper that other media can't imitate. People clip wedding announcements, birth announcements and photos of people they know. If you hear something on the radio or see something on TV, it's gone in a flash. With a newspaper, you pick it up when you want it, read it on your schedule and keep it as long as you like.

But the Internet has done one thing for newspapers that nothing else has -- it has given us a chance to compete on a more level playing field with television when it comes to reporting breaking news. For most of my 28 years plus at The Herald, newspapers have operated on a 24-hour news cycle. A reporter works on a story, files it by the end of his shift and any updates has to wait for the next roll of the presses to be neatly folded into another first draft of history.

As we've improved our website and news room equipment, we've moved away from that old-style cycle and, in the last two years, have been consistently breaking news stories online. Readers who sign up for our news alerts are regularly the first to know about news that happens in metro Albany. Throughout the day, we update information in stories, adding details as they become known. What we're striving for is newspaper-quality journalism at Internet speed.

Another advantage we have found with the Internet is interaction with our readers and website visitors. Newspapers have always been a vehicle for expressing opinions through letters to the editor and guest columns on the editorial page and, over the past decade in The Herald's case, in The Squawkbox column.

Now, however, visitors to our website can comment on articles in real time. Once a reader registers on albanyherald.com, he or she can start or carry on conversations about what's going on, or just share their observations. Readers also can post photos on our Spotted page and get updates through social media such as Facebook. The near future will see more blogs, video and other interaction develop.

What this does is break down perceptions of walls between readers and their newspaper. We're constantly looking for ways to take advantage of the electronic frontier that is still maturing, incorporate new ideas into the newspaper that will make it more vital to readers and create a reliable, accurate news operation in which the print and electronic products complement each other for the benefit of our readers and advertisers.

No one can say it will be a smooth road ahead. There will be some bumps and there will be times in which we'll have to break some new trails. As I look at an old manual Royal typewriter sitting in my office while I peck away at a keyboard hooked up to my laptop and watch the words pop up on my monitor, the notion strikes me that change isn't something new for our business.

Downstairs, we have a Linotype machine on display from the days when hot metal was molded into type. That device, by the way, was labled by Thomas Edison as the "eighth wonder of the world." Before it came into use, few newspapers had more than eight printed pages in an edition.

The Herald's offset press cranked up in 1977 and when I came to work here in 1983 the news staff had moved to computers from typewriters the previous year, but I can remember when it took a good hour and a half to complete the process that would allow a rare full-color photograph to be placed on the front page. The fax machine and email have gone from novelties to necessities, and reporters no longer check in while on assignments from pay phones, but from cell phones, often texting in updates to stories posted on our website.

The prospects for advances in the years and decades to come are just as amazing. And 120 years from now, I'm sure another person with the title of editor will be sitting here -- perhaps looking at my laptop, keyboard and monitor sitting where that old Royal is now -- and thinking just how much the business has changed since those archaic things were the tools of the trade.

Email Editor Jim Hendricks at jim.hendricksalbanyherald.com.