Sometimes, being right hurts the most. I imagine that's how my father, Barry Bingham Jr., would have felt about the crisis that could end America's golden age of print journalism. My great-grandfather bought The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., during World War I, and my father ran the paper from 1971 to 1986. Now it's going through the same layoffs and cost-cutting measures that are happening to newspapers across the country. Lately, I've wondered a lot about what my father would be thinking right now—because he saw all of this coming.
Addressing his classmates at their 25th college reunion, my father predicted that by the time they met for their 50th, "most of what we read will be transmitted into our homes or offices electronically." This was a strange thing to say in 1981, when the revolution in personal computers had scarcely begun and no one had heard the words "World Wide Web." Unlike almost everyone else in the media industry back then, my father anticipated the coming era of electronic news, and he was genuinely excited about it. He believed newspapers could save themselves from extinction—but only if they adapted early and intelligently to new technology.
It became his passion—a subject of countless family dinner discussions. But as a gangly 16-year-old, I tuned out most of the talk. I was more interested in finding a party and a boy to kiss.
I wasn't the only one who turned a deaf ear. Newspaper people are a crusty lot, and Gutenberg's technology, with a few tweaks over the centuries, had held up well enough for most. My father would buttonhole colleagues at meetings, where they grumbled that he was distracting from what they considered their business: getting news onto paper and into a reader's hands. One former publisher told me recently that Barry Bingham Jr. "was the visionary among us. He said what we didn't want to hear and we ran from it."
And so, when the news broke late last year that subscribers to the Detroit Free Press would soon get home delivery just three days a week, I turned to my kids and told them their grandfather knew this would happen. He was a third-generation publisher, but he was keenly aware of how "new media" could positively affect the family business: his grandfather bought a radio station in 1922 and his father entered the TV market in 1950.
As a little girl visiting him at The Courier-Journal's office in downtown Louisville, my favorite stop was the deafening press room. I was too young to make sense of his efforts to modernize the operations, but under his management, the newspaper was at the vanguard of technological change. In 1973 he began replacing typewriters with word processors. The composing room was one of the first to be computerized, and my father marveled at the way content flew paperlessly around the building.
Out of this petri dish of the 1970s, my Datsun-driving environmentalist dad hatched his vision of what he called the "electronic newspaper." It would arrive, "Jetsons"-like, via cable, satellite or telephone lines, accessed and updated around the clock. Subscribers would pay lower rates. Trees would be spared, fuel conserved. Information was his passion, and his goal was to offer as much of it to as many people as possible. (He was such an info junkie that, many years later, when I was pregnant, he couldn't comprehend my decision not to find out whether I was carrying a boy or a girl.) He believed that the future of news lay in allowing readers to decide what was most important to them, as with today's customizable home pages. To most editors, this was heresy. This frustrated him and he made little effort to hide it. "This business," he snapped to a reporter in 1983, "is like the last dinosaur in the swamp."
In 1986 The Courier-Journal's pilot electronic edition, accessible by modem, made a promising debut. But within a few years, several family members decided to sell their stock in the company, and the Gannett Co. purchased the paper. His parents supported the sale over his objection. He lost his job and his platform.
As the Internet exploded, my father took a certain satisfaction in being right. But he was never a finger-wagger. By the time he died in 2006, at 72, he could have easily gotten his news online. Yet he kept his print subscriptions and read The Courier-Journal and The New York Times over breakfast. The swamp clung a little—even to him.