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Can you remember the first time you used a computer?

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Do you remember the first time you used computers? If you’re under 30 that’s like saying, “Do you remember the first time you drew breath,” so obviously I’m talking to my older demographic. If the experience was not traumatic, you are a rare specimen, indeed.

My first computer was a Hitachi Peach, in December 1983. It is a long-forgotten machine with 64K of memory and no hard disk – just an external floppy. I bought it from a friend because I had an important, urgent assignment – to write three sales training videos for Telecom.

I suppose I looked at it as a typewriter where I could keep writing without changing paper. Christmas and New Year passed almost unnoticed as I worked away.

Then in the early hours of one morning, with many hours of that day’s work nearly completed, it disappeared. The data that is. My precious writing – gone. I later discovered that, with its small memory, the computer would reach its limits and clear the buffer – and all the data within it. That was my first lesson in saving obsessively.

Nowadays we can’t imagine an office without computers, but back then it was a struggle persuading others that there would be benefits. It took about three years to persuade my accountant to hit the keyboard. Then in another year he was an expert on spreadsheets and accounting packages, and giving me instruction.

My best mate Chris Brewer lives in South Africa and he will tell you that I positively bullied him into tapping the computer keys. Guess what? These days he is Managing Director of Brewer IMS, Africa’s leader in media analysis software. Come to think of it, I never did ask for my cut.

Persuading staff to get into computers was hard. A secretary with fast, accurate shorthand-typing speeds could see no need for a machine she did not understand and secretly feared.

A smart experienced bookkeeper would look at Lotus 123 as something to slow her down. Boy did I have some struggles! Of course now they’re all experts with 20 years under their belts.

Journalism has been transformed by this digital revolution. When I was a cadet there were compositors downstairs on their Linotype machines producing sentences out of molten metal.

Getting journalists off their typewriters was as hard as getting the fags out of their mouths. But within a few years the compositors and the molten lead were gone and the newspaper had become a big computer.

In an inexorable process, newspapers themselves risk becoming obsolete. Yet another obstacle between the written word and its reader.

Now we read that both Rupert Murdoch and the Fairfax group CEO Brian McCarthy are toying with the idea of charging for news online. The suggestion has been buried in a tidal wave of scoffs, but take a moment to think about it.

If there were no newspapers, where would all those online sites get their news from? How would they pay for the huge infrastructure of journalists, editors and administrators needed to make it all happen? No, somewhere along the line something’s got to give – out of the wallet.

My own preferred model is already practised by some magazines. You get access to the web site – if you subscribe to the printed publication.

As someone who gets his news delivered every morning by the paper boy, I figure I make my weekly contribution. As for the others, let them buy their own paper, or pay an online fee.

In 20 years computers have changed the nature of business, communication and news. It has been a painful adjustment for a lot of people. But hey, we couldn’t imagine the world without them any more. So we have to create an economic model that supports what we have become.

Ray Beatty is a veteran ad man and regular Anthill contributor. He runs MarketingSolutions, a consultancy advising companies on how to turn around their unsuccessful advertising campaigns. www.ebeatty.com

Photo: Charlie Brewer

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