The one big thing that newspaper visionaries didn’t foresee

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the world wide web has been around for more than two decades now, or that it has caused massive and ongoing disruption of almost every form of content from books and newspapers to music and movies. In the early 1990s, only a few really foresaw that kind of revolution occurring in media, and as former journalist Mark Potts notes in a recent blog post, one of those who looked into the future with some accuracy was the former managing editor of the Washington Post, who wrote a memo to the paper’s executives describing what this future might look like and how it would change the industry.

Even more interesting than what this former editor got right, however, are the things that he and almost every other visionary completely missed — and one of the most important was the way that the news industry would be transformed by social media. From blogs to Twitter, that transformation (or what Om has called the “democratization of distribution”) has probably been more disruptive than any other technological development since then, and it is one that many media entities still have not fully adapted to or taken advantage of.

Potts, a former technology writer for the Post, explains that managing editor Robert Kaiser was invited by Apple chief executive officer John Sculley to attend a conference in Japan about the future of digital media, and the memo (which Potts has posted on his site as a PDF) was his attempt to sum up what he learned for the newspaper’s senior managers. Much of what Kaiser says seems blindingly obvious now, but as Potts notes:

“This was 1992, when ‘going online’ meant connecting to services like Compuserve and Prodigy via slow, squeaky dial-up modems. PCs had just made a transition to color screens, laptops were still a novelty, cellular phones were rarer (and bricklike) and nobody but Tim Berners-Lee had heard of the World Wide Web.”

Digital media means more than paper on a screen

Kaiser talks about the massive advancements in computing power that the experts at the Japan conference were describing, including processors that would be able to handle billions of operations per second and new technologies that would allow computers to “take voice instructions” and even “read commands written on an electronic notepad.” All of those things have come to pass, of course, along with the “easy transmission and storage of large quantities of text, moving and still pictures.”

Potts then describes how he and some other Post staffers used the impetus of the memo to come up with early prototypes for a digital version of the paper, using Apple’s HyperCard software — and while the display is crude, the elements of what would become the newspaper’s pioneering site (of which Potts was the co-founder) are all there, complete with images and links.

Kaiser’s memo undoubtedly helped push the Post towards the web, something both Graham and several other executives at the paper were early to recognize as a powerful force for journalism. And the Post chairman has continued to push for innovation, becoming an early proponent of Facebook — and a mentor to founder Mark Zuckerberg — and encouraging experiments like the Post‘s social-reading application for Facebook and its Trove news-recommendation engine, among others. As we’ve written before, the newspaper seems a lot more interested in pursuing these kinds of innovations than in erecting paywalls.

So Kaiser definitely got the emerging trends right. But the biggest thing that he and virtually every visionary missed was the impact of what would become known as “Web 2.0” — that is, the revolution created by tools like blogging pioneer Dave Winer’s Radio Userland software and Blogger, which Evan Williams sold to Google (s goog) before he went on to help launch another revolutionary social-media tool called Twitter. Between them, these two developments have done more to turn the world of traditional media on its head over the past two decades than any of the technological breakthroughs that Kaiser detailed in his memo.

Social media is a bigger disruption than faster processors

Not only did blogging lead to the emergence of some new-media powerhouses such as The Huffington Post (s aol), but the fact that the barriers to publishing had been permanently lowered allowed “the sources to go direct,” as Winer has described it. At first, only a few — such as billionaire media entrepreneur Mark Cuban — took advantage of this phenomenon to get their message out directly, without having to use the press as an intermediary; then the arrival of Twitter accelerated the process, as people like News Corp. billionaire Rupert Murdoch (s news) took to the network to tell their side of the story.

But even more transformative than this was the way in which Twitter and blogs and other social-media tools like Facebook have permanently changed the relationship between the media and what Dan Gillmor has called “the people formerly known as the audience.” Instead of relying only on mainstream journalists to tell us what is going on in places like Egypt during the Arab Spring, we have been able to see and hear about those events directly from people who are experiencing them — thanks to the efforts of pioneering journalists such as National Public Radio’s Andy Carvin, and his use of Twitter as a crowdsourced newsroom.

These tools allow readers to essentially generate their own newspapers using tools like Flipboard and Prismatic or even just Twitter itself, instead of having to rely on an editor’s idea of what is important — in other words, they can get their news unfiltered. Unfortunately, just as many newspapers and other traditional media companies took over a decade to really appreciate what Kaiser was talking about in his memo, it has taken almost as long for them to even begin to take advantage of the evolution in media that social tools represent.