The promise of Teletext

From MARK MAYFIELD, University of Alabama, Office of Student Media:
I saw the fascinating link you had on the 1981 San Francisco TV report on the coming age of electronic newspapers. It reminded me that when I was editor of the University of Alabama student newspaper in 1977, we published a story about this subject. We based it on an interview with a UA journalism professor, Kenneth Edwards, who had been studying the coming technology. (Edwards later wrote a sort of landmark article about this for The Futurist magazine in 1978). Will be happy to send you the full text of the story if you decide to do any follow-ups on this subject. [I told him to send it along for posting.] It’s interesting to go back and track this.

By the way, I’m the editorial adviser to student media here at the university. I just returned to campus after 30 years out there in the biz, where I served as editor-in-chief of House Beautiful magazine, among others.

From The Crimson White
University of Alabama student newspaper
Nov. 17, 1977

Teletext puts newspapers in homes via television
By DAVID SIMPSON CW Academics Editor

The weary commuter drags into the living room after another working day. He, and millions like him, usually want two things: a cold drink and a summary of the day’s events.

Drink in hand, he picks up a small device resembling a pocket calculator. He presses a few buttons and watches the television before him come to life. A multi-color display appears on the screen. The viewer is offered a list of general topics- local news, sports, entertainment.

The avid sports fan punches out the number listed beside “sports” on his control panel and watches a list of sports headlines flash on the screen. Again he chooses, and is soon reading a preview of the Monday night football game. Such a scene is not merely a fascinating idea. The “electronic newspaper” already available to “teletext” subscribers in Great Britain.

Kenneth Edwards, an associate professor of journalism at the University, visited England this summer to study the teletext systems.

“I became convinced we should stop thinking of that colorful cathode ray tube in our living rooms as a television picture tube. It is really an information screen, instead.” Edwards told a professional convention after his return. “Teletext” describes three separate services in England. All feature printed
information fed directly to the subscriber’s television set. Edwards points out that the extensive indexing available in teletext systems makes information easier to find. A few punched buttons replace flipping
through a newspaper in search of a sole piece of information.

Teletext also increases the total amount of information available to the user. “The viewer could decide and select for himself, in a matter of seconds. whatever kind of information he wants to see immediately.” Edwards said. Teletext can be constantly up-dated, Edwards said. and can provide its up-to-the minute service cheaper than newspapers because of the absence of printing and circulation costs.

Those advantages have some newspaper executives worried. “If we think of newspapers as being the printed object that is delivered to our homes we may be talking about replacing newspapers with an electronic signal,” Edwards said. “But if we think, as I do,” he added, “of newspapers as organizations which
disseminate news and information by the most efficient methods available, then we are thinking in terms of applying a new technology to an existing institution.” An American teletext system almost certainly would cause some changes in the newspaper business.

Edwards said one newspaper editor told him that sports reporting would probably have to place more emphasis on background stories “because any teletext viewer can call up all the sports results immediately.” Edwards, however, believes American newspapers will survive the advent of teletext. The newspapers’ current monopoly on writers and editors gives them an enormous advantage, he said.

Teletext is a spreading phenomenon. Edwards reports that the concept is developing in Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Holland. In England, an independent estimate predicts that four million Britons will be using teletext by 1982, according to Edwards.

In this country, interest is swelling. Since his Oct. 18 speech to the Institute of Newspaper Controllers and Finance Officers in Washington, D.C., Edwards said he has received two or three requests for teletext information every day. The requests come largely from newspaper executives, he said, who are
interested in using the concept of the “electronic newspaper.”