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Interview with Professor David Carlson

Interview with David Carlson, professor at the University of Florida and Director of the University Interactive Media Lab.
Date and Time: Wednesday, October 22, 1997, 1:50 PM
Location: Weimer Hall, Room 3219
Interviewer: Marc Kaplan

** - This interview was originally conducted for a History of Journalism paper. This is a transcript of that interview.

Interviewer: What is your academic background, where did you do your schooling and what was your degree in?

Dr. Carlson: I am not a traditional academic. I have an undergraduate degree only, a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Drake University. But I have 20 plus years of experience in newspapers, so I guess I have a Doctorate from the School of Hard Knocks. **Laugh**

Interviewer: So you have learned through living…

Dr. Carlson: That's right. **Laugh**

Interviewer: What initially attracted you to journalism?

Dr. Carlson: Well I am not honestly sure of the answer to that question. As early as I can remember I was attracted to journalism. The first thing I ever did in journalism was… when I was young I got a Christmas gift from my aunt and uncle, it was a little toy printing press. So when I was around six or seven years old I started putting out a one-sheet newspaper. I remember the first headline too… it was "Mrs. O'Neal Gives Birth!"

Interviewer: And Mrs. O'Neal was who?

Dr. Carlson: My neighbor. **Laugh**

Interviewer: How long have you been at the University of Florida and in what capacity have you acted during your tenure here?
Dr. Carlson: Well let's see, I have been here since the fall of 1993. My first year was as a visiting professional, a grant the college had gotten through Freedom Forum. After that they asked me to stay and they appointed me Director of the Interactive Media Lab.

Interviewer: Before coming to the University of Florida, what were you doing professionally in the field of journalism?

Dr. Carlson: I was founding editor of the Electronic Trib, which was one of two interactive newspaper products in the world.

Interviewer: What year was that?

Dr. Carlson: 1993.

Interviewer: Besides the Electronic Trib, have you been involved in the design or creation of any other electronic newspapers or online publications?

Dr. Carlson: Well let's see, since I got here I have been involved with probably half a dozen online systems, including one Bulletin Board System and several web sites.

Interviewer: When did you work on your first interactive or online paper?

Dr. Carlson: 1989.

Interviewer: Besides working with interactive, online publications, how long and in what way have you been involved with computers?

Dr. Carlson: Well in 1981, when I was a energy environmental reporter working out of New Mexico, my boss gave me one of the first portable computers, a Radio Shack Model 100 with a 300 baud modem built in. So as soon as I managed to get that thing to dial the phone and hook-up to CompuServe I was hooked.

Interviewer: So I imagine you were looking at StarText for example….

Dr. Carlson: Well I didn't actually discover StarText until sometime later but I was looking at CompuServe and The Source and I later found out that there were around 4000 users of CompuServe at the time.

Interviewer: As far as what I have read and researched, StarText was founded in 1981. How long after StarText was first put online did you actually see it?

Dr. Carlson: I don't think I actually saw StarText until some time later, maybe the mid-80's… after it was put out to the consumer. One of the reasons was in its first incarnation it was designed to be delivered to only Tandy computers. So because I didn't have a Tandy….

Interviewer: That's right. I think it was in the mid-80's that it was expanded to include other types of computers.

Interviewer: When did the idea of an online or electronic newspaper come into your mind? Have you always seen journalism in terms of being online?

Dr. Carlson: Well, that first time I logged onto CompuServe it was around 2:00 in the morning and my wife was asleep three rooms away. I don't know if you have ever seen a Radio Shack Model 100, it had a 40 character wide by 8 line LCD screen, so it was sort of like black text on this white background.

Interviewer: **Laugh** No I haven't…

Dr. Carlson: Anyway, I discovered that the AP Wire was on there, so I could read the wire. And I was immediately struck with the fact that I had discovered the future of newspapers! So I started dancing around the room, yelling and screaming and my wife wakes up, comes walking into the kitchen and she looks at me and she looks at this computer and she looks back at me and she shakes her head and goes back to bed. **Laugh**

Interviewer: She thought you were nuts? **Laugh**

Dr. Carlson: Yeah, she never said a word…

Interviewer: I want to get your feelings and ideas on some things I have read about since doing research for this paper. Many scholars and journalists in the newspaper industry in favor of the concept of the electronic newspaper equate the Internet to be as important to the future of the newspaper as the invention of the printing press. What are your feelings on this type of statement?

Dr. Carlson: Well I think it is potentially true, I expect it to be true. I think that digital media in general, whether it is delivered via the Internet or directly to your cerebral cortex – it doesn't matter to me, but I strongly believe that digital media in general will be as important to the history of mankind as the invention of the printing press.

Interviewer: Right now you feel it has more unrealized potential?

Dr. Carlson: Well certainly . You could equate it in some ways to what happened immediately after the invention of the printing press. There were suddenly lots of books published, but most of them weren't very good books. In fact an awful lot of them were pornographic in fact.

Interviewer: I didn't realize that!

Dr. Carlson: Yeah. So it also did not immediately cause widespread literacy among individuals. It took a period of time for those things to happen.

Interviewer: As with any new technology you always need a down period to adjust, in order to take advantage fully of its possibilities.

Dr. Carlson: Yeah. But I mean the eventual result of the invention of the printing press was widespread literacy and then things like the Industrial Revolution and the Renaissance period.

Interviewer: In May of this year a Baruch College-Harris Poll commissioned by Business Week reported that 40 million American adults had access to the Internet and 23 million were using online services in America on a daily basis. Do you feel that this is an accurate estimate of online use in America?

Dr. Carlson: I honestly have no idea… you see such wide diverging figures about Internet use that I have no idea who to believe. Although that 40 million figure I have heard from a number of independent sources so I would say it is probably as reliable as any of the numbers you hear.

Interviewer: And what are your feelings on the future of online use?

Dr. Carlson: I think that it will continue increasing exponentially. But there are certainly some unanswered questions about that. First of will the network collapse under the weight of usership? Will regular people be willing to put up with what today's Internet users kind of take for granted, a new version of RealAudio every three months or whatever? But I think that the Internet or its replacement will eventually be pervasive.

Interviewer: What do you mean by replacement?

Dr. Carlson: I think that in 10 year s or less we will have new wireless Internet service. We're not going to need phone lines.

Interviewer: Do you mean the use of satellites and that sort of thing?

Dr. Carlson: Well satellites, sprint spectrum radio technology… there are lots of different ways that it can be done. But there is no reason we have to be tied down to a piece of wire.

Interviewer: Phone lines have pretty much reached their maximum capacity, is that correct?

Dr. Carlson: Well yes and no. Everybody says that, they said that when they came out with a 1200-baud modem.

Interviewer: Oh really.

Dr. Carlson: Yeah. But I think today's Internet is like the hand carved wooden type they used when the printing press was first invented. Know what I mean?

Interviewer: OK. Yeah.

Dr. Carlson: But we are certainly going to see major advancements in that technology.

Interviewer: In 1996, Australian researcher Graham Green conducted a research project for the purpose of discovering what the term "The Information Superhighway" means to the general public. His results showed that most people really did not know what the term means. In your opinion, what does the term "Information Superhighway" mean?

Dr. Carlson: Well I think it is relatively nebulous term. I also think that any effort to equate what we have currently to the "Information Superhighway," well… we have more like the "Information Path," or the "Information Dirt Road" maybe. I think Gore was the coiner of the term and what it was meant to be was a new kind of high-speed method of communication and dissemination of all kinds of information.

Interviewer: One of the negatives associated with online newspapers is the fact that only a small number of online publications have ever really turned a profit. Why do you think that is and what do you think publishers should do to improve online publications?

Dr. Carlson: Well again I guess I think it is because we are in the infancy stage of this medium. There are not a sufficient number of eyeballs to generate the revenues that are necessary. But the potentials are so great, and that is why newspaper publishers are willing to continue throwing money down the rat hole.

Dr. Carlson: Eighty-five cents out of every dollar that the average newspaper spends goes for atoms: paper, ink, personnel, trucks, gasoline. The use of the Internet could lower the figure of eighty-five cents of every dollar to maybe five cents.

Interviewer: Who do you feel poses the biggest competition to the newspaper industry as far as online publications? I have heard the phone companies, Baby Bells, consumer online services?

Dr. Carlson: Well I think that in today's market probably the most serious competitors in the information business are the television networks; people like CNN, MSNBC.com, so on and so forth. One of the reasons for that are they have a better concept of how to do multimedia than most newspaper people do. Even more basic than that, they are used to working in a horizontal medium while newspaper documents throughout history have been portrait oriented while television has always been landscaped.

Interviewer: Despite the many studies showing the increased online use in America many people associated and not associated with the newspaper industry have said that the Internet and the World Wide Web are just fads. What is your reaction to this kind of statement?

Dr. Carlson: Well I can't honestly say, Marc, that my crystal ball is necessarily clearer than anyone else's…

Interviewer: But looking at the obvious increase in usage over the years….

Dr. Carlson: Yeah… I think we have already shown that it is more than a flash in the pan. The fact you can't even watch a television commercial without seeing a web address is an indication that it is happening. I think that there are a lot of reasons that it is going to continue to happen. From the publishers point of view it is cheaper, from the news producer's point of view it has the potential to be a much more compelling product than ink on paper ever was. From the public perception it is a faster and, when it becomes wireless and pocketsize, it will be a much easier and more convenient way to get information.

Interviewer: I am not sure if you can answer this or not but, as far as addressing all of the newspaper publishers who see it as a fad, what can be done to change their mind?

Dr. Carlson: Publishers are famous for saying "show me the money." So when people start actually making a profit, whether it be a newspaper person or someone else… although it is going to have to be someone in a legitimate business because porn sites are already making big money…

Interviewer: I guess we can't really look to them as guides.

Dr. Carlson: Yeah… that's not going to convince publishers. That's one thing. Another thing would be seeing significant new competition arise in their communities because they are very worried about protecting a franchise some have spent nearly 200 years building. I was in Denver a couple weeks ago and the Post and the Rocky Mountain News are going wild on the web. Not because they are making any money but because Microsoft is doing a sidewalk site, AOL is doing their "digital cities" thing.

Interviewer: So as soon as they see someone coming from behind, they will become more involved in order to protect the territory they already have.

Dr. Carlson: I think… yes… I think that is another possibility. Because it is not that expensive for a paper the size of the Rocky Mountain News, with a 400,000 circulation. Even if they have to spend $1 million a year to do their web site, that's a drop in the bucket. Compared to what they could lose in advertising to a successful competitor. Right? So there is that side of it. I also think that other things like peer pressure would affect a publisher's points of view. I could think of lots of things that would motivate them, but I think the biggest two would be the competition and the money to be made.

Interviewer: What do you think are the positives and negatives of an online paper as compared to the traditional paper newspaper?

Dr. Carlson: Well in today's world the negatives are that it is not intuitive to use, even though once you get to it on the web it may be very simple to follow. Or regular people to manage to hook themselves up the Internet for the first time are not… you know there is a significant learning curve there. Secondly it is not portable. And thirdly it is cost prohibitive for a large percentage of the population because you have to have a computer. Those are probably the three biggest negatives.

Dr. Carlson: And the strongest points… are that there suddenly is no space constraint. Historically the biggest problem newspaper have always had is that there is not enough room to publish the news they have…

Interviewer: Sixty percent for advertising, forty percent towards editorial content…

Dr. Carlson: And as matter of fact on a daily basis it is how much advertising was sold that determines what the news is going to be. Frankly newspapers are delighted to have it around seventy percent advertising. Any time it drops below fifty percent then the publishers get kind of concerned. Now that I lost my train of thought…oh, space. Space is one big deal. Another is, and space means more than all the news we have today. It means we can also have all the news that was published before available easily.

Interviewer: A database…

Dr. Carlson: Yeah a database of past information. Another strong point is they (online newspapers) are searchable. So now I don't have to read or glance at every page of the newspaper to make sure I didn't miss something I was interested in. Now I can search for things of interest. Thirdly is the ability to do constant updating. So instead of the newspaper I get at my doorway every morning, already having been six to eight hours old by the time I see it, with the use of the Internet the information can potentially be only minutes old. The things don't quite have yet because we just lack the bandwidth to deliver them, are the audio and visual. Meaning essentially, we can take all the best things about newspapers and the best things about radio and the best things about television, roll them up into a new package. Boy, think about the coverage of last nights World Series game. You could click on the still photo, play the video backward and forward…

Interviewer: Check the boxscore all at the same time…

Dr. Carlson: … slow motion. Decide for yourself if the umpire made the right call. Did the ball really bounce off Bonilla's shoulder or not? That's compelling!

Interviewer: How far away is this technology?

Dr. Carlson: Well, it's a bandwidth issue. Technologically we already have the capability of doing that stuff. So the issue is how long are the people willing to wait? If you have a 28.8 modem and we were to try to send you actual 30 frame per second video like you see on television, it would take you nearly an hour per minute. And I don't think people are going to be willing to wait that long. But how long….there are a whole range of estimates. I have heard people say… well here on this campus we are going to have Internet II in a few months.

Interviewer: Internet II is what?

Dr. Carlson: Internet II is the new, 100x faster educational only, research oriented version of the Internet. It will be able to do full motion video and digital quality audio in real time. But it will not be accessible to students, it's only going to be accessible to people for who need it for research purposes. So potentially its not far away, but how long until the general public has it… I would guess seven to ten years?

Interviewer: Explain the concept of an interactive and customizable newspaper.

Dr. Carlson: Well, there are… first of all interactive can be two kinds of things. You can interact with people, which is the obvious kind of interactivity, but you can also interact with documents. A real simple example of interacting with documents is being able to use a search engine to find something. But a more advanced form of that, that people are already doing is, for example having stories that are not told in linear fashion but instead the allow the reader to chose his own path for the story. More advanced examples of that kind of thing are, say you have a questionnaire and depending on how you answer questions #1, question #2 will vary and so on and so forth. So that is one kind of interaction. Interacting with people can be as simple as just being able to send e-mail to the staff of the newspaper. But can also be more advanced in terms of voice mail messaging, video messaging, all sorts of stuff.

Dr. Carlson: Customizable means, in my view anyway, that you can control the content of your newspaper. I don't think personally that anyone would want to control 100% of the content of their newspaper, because we all realize that there are news events that we don't know in advance that we want to know about. So there are ought to be a few holes in the newspaper that is controlled by the editor. But basically what I am talking about there is if you are a person who is really motivated by money, then the top of your front page could be not just how the financial markets performed yesterday, but how your personal wealth changed. If you are a big time sports fan, whatever the sporting event of the day… it could even be as silly as… maybe you collect Ty Cobb baseball cards. Why can't you tell your newspaper that anytime one of those appears in the classified for sale, you want to be notified. You know what I mean?

Interviewer: Yeah… the options are limitless.

Dr. Carlson: Some of that stuff seems so simple, why aren't we already doing it?

Interviewer: When do you think the online paper will be able to legitimately compete with the traditional paper?

Dr. Carlson: You mean actually, like compete in terms of numbers of eyeballs?

Interviewer: Yes, readership.

Dr. Carlson: Well I suspect that eventually it will. I think though that… I guess the question I am more commonly asked in that regard is "Do you think online paper will ever replace…?"

Interviewer: That comes to my next question…

Dr. Carlson: "…or will printed newspapers ever go away?" And my answer to that is certainly not within my lifetime and probably not within yours. I mean I think it is going to be a couple of generations. Because… I usually use my mother as an example. My mother is 84 years old. She has never used an ATM machine and she never will. There are a lot of people out there who like their newspaper just the way it is damn it.

Interviewer: Its familiar, they are used to it…

Dr. Carlson: You don't need an owner's manual, totally portable, so affordable you just throw it away when you're finished. There are things about printed newspapers that are pretty hard to be. So I think there will probably come a time, because we are going to see screen technology, for example, that so good that we will get images this good , flicker free on a screen. Screens that may fold up and go in your pocket. Or maybe something that plugs into your glasses and puts the images into virtual reality.

Dr. Carlson: I think we are going to see… I mean you got Andy Grove of Intel saying that by 2005 silicon computer chips are going to cost less than a penny apiece. Well that means, I suspect we are going to be seeing computerized scrap paper. You know? I think I will be giving tests in the future that I am actually handing you a little computer.

Interviewer: Well that is all I have. I appreciate you taking time out of your day to help me out.

Dr. Carlson: No problem. Very good questions.

Interviewer: Thank you.

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