Just The Fax, Ma’am

Newspapers once saw fax machines as an opportunity to distribute breaking news to the masses—then they saw it as a way to reach the niches. Neither worked out.

Today in Tedium: Journalism is about telling good, important stories in ways that help expose sunlight, raise awareness, or keep people informed about their communities. But it’s also about distribution, something that the industry has struggled to perfect at times, whether by giving online networks their best stuff for free or sticking to sports when all signs point to that being a bad idea. This has led newspaper publishers in interesting directions, one of which I’m going to point out here. Today’s Tedium looks at the fits and starts of the newspaper industry attempting to publish the news by fax—because that was once considered a thing people wanted! — Ernie @ Tedium

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1921

The year that the International News Service, with the help of the U.S. Navy, first conducted a test involving the use of the radio system for sending data to telegraph printers. The service, owned by William Randolph Hearst, tested the idea out at four sites—Washington, Buffalo, Detroit, and New York. “The results were successful and proved beyond doubt that the telegraph printers that were then available could be operated by radio,” a 1924 issue of Popular Radio noted. This is considered one of the earliest examples of news distributed by facsimile.

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A 1934 magazine cover that discussed the promise of newspapers delivered by radio.

The idea of delivering newspapers over the radio was once a big thing, but it failed to take off

The April 1934 issue of the magazine Radio Craft, lovingly reproduced by the excellent American Radio History archive, painted a fascinating image of news distribution in the future: “Radio Set Prints Newspaper,” the headline stated.

It was one of a selection of fascinating covers for this magazine—a prior issue featured a device called “the phonosone,” which allowed those who were nearly deaf to hear the radio through their foreheads.

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So this magazine was clearly pie-in-the-sky with predictions about how radio technology would change the world. And the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Hugo Gernsback, laid out a case for why a device that could print a full newspaper was destined to exist. In his article, Gernsback pointed to a brand-new technology that relied on radio waves:

While none of these sets have, as yet, been built, I have outlined in these pages the technical details of bringing it about; and, though the system which I show here may not be the only practical one, I have selected it because a similar method is now in use by the Radio Corporation of America in their picture-transmitting devices which are in operation twenty-four hours a day throughout the week.

The device Gernsback is suggesting sounds like television, which had been just invented at that time but was not yet viable, and would prove infinitely more useful to the public. But in reality, he was talking about a radio receiver that could print out pictures on the fly. It was, effectively, a fax machine, albeit one that could only receive messages.

The idea might sound pie-in-the-sky given what we know about the 1930s, but it really wasn’t. The parts were already there, even back then. During the 1920s and 1930s, the newspaper industry had perfected the distribution of photos through the telegraph service, allowing for images to be used in newspapers throughout the country—though the machines that produced them were bulky and not cheap.

These services were improving over time, and eventually were put into use in wide-scale tests that were approved by the Federal Communications Commission, according to Smithsonian magazine. There was even technological competition—beyond RCA, which used a rotating drum system to build a facsimile, the inventor W.G.H. Finch created a system which used specialized paper to print dots onto a sheet of paper, line by line, as they came over the airwaves. In 1939, Finch’s system sold in demonstration form for $150 ($2,771 counting inflation), which was a lot of money for an unproven technology.

The secret to making this work? The fact that people didn’t use radio in the middle of the night, allowing radio stations to take advantage of the dead time to allow a service to print a newspaper onto a roll of newsprint—a strategy that has traditionally helped telecom tools as varied as online services and satellites with dissemination.

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A young boy tests out the radiofax system.

By the late 1930s, the technology had seen widespread tests, with radio stations around the country offering tests of the technology—and some pushback from those who worked in the newspaper industry, and felt that, if radio faxes had taken off, it would have led to the loss of 150,000 jobs.

So why didn’t we get our newspapers through the radio in the end? As The Radio Historian notes, a mixture of technical issues, format wars (RCA vs. Finch was the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray of its day), and consumer disinterest created problems with uptake.

“Despite all the promotion and hype, radio facsimile was a technology that the public never asked for and didn’t really care about,” writer John Schneider explained. “Facsimile printers were an expensive luxury for people at the tail end of the depression while newspapers were cheap and delivered to your doorstep every day. Neither could stations and publishers interest many advertisers in supporting the new medium, they preferred the familiarity and security of the traditional newspaper.”

And it probably didn’t help that, in the 1930s and 1940s, there were a lot of competing technologies that were much more efficient uses of the radio waves, including the budding FM signal and television, both of which picked up in a big way after World War II. In fact, World War II likely did more to damage the uptake of radio facsimiles than anything else.

Naturally, the public realized that having a tube that could distribute pictures into their homes was significantly more useful than something that could print newspapers—and the news would simply adapt to the format, rather than the other way around.

But there was still a place for facsimiles, even if the radio wasn’t involved.

1964

The year that the modern day fax machine, produced by Xerox, first came into being. The technology the company produced, which it called “Long Distance Xerography,” relied on multiple different kinds of technology to distribute printed information to different sources, including microwave, coaxial cable, or phone lines. (Eventually, phone lines became the medium of choice for most businesses.)

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The TimesFax website, circa 1996. (Internet Archive)

The most obscure news offering The New York Times makes might be a daily news service originally designed for fax machines

Buried on page 21 of the D section in a November 1989 edition of The New York Times was the kind of announcement that seemed destined to be missed by all but the nerdiest of news fans.

The headline said it all: “Times to Begin A Fax Synopsis.”

The idea, basically, was to make the information that the newspaper published available digitally to those in parts of the world that could use immediate access to those in East Asia who needed immediate access to important news from the best-known U.S. paper of record.

The fax machine, in its modern form, had been around for two and a half decades, and it was only just starting to crack into the mainstream enough that the average business might want one.

And unique services, some published by newspapers, were starting to build around it. In the late 1980s, for example, the Hartford Courant created one of the earliest modern fax-driven services, called “FaxPaper,” a daily news service for business people that launched with an only-for-business-people price of $2,500 per year ($5,177 today). This high-cost extra, which needed just two staff members to operate, only lasted for three years and saw its price fall significantly by the end—with just 2,000 subscribers, the Courant was charging $600 per year.

According to the book Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine, local newspapers lightly staffed these experiments, failing to put in the same level of TLC as they did the main edition. “Condensed versions of regular newspapers, lacking in graphics and depth, proved to be a recipe for failure since the lack of advertisers matched the lack of subscribers,” author Jonathan Coopersmith wrote.

The wild part about TimesFax, though, is that it very much became the exception to the rule. The Times, when it released the product, was especially adept at targeting, and the result is that, more than 30 years later, it‘s still actively produced, albeit under a different name. And rather than being a total castaway of a product, TimesDigest is reportedly read by 190,000 people each day. Yeah, I was shocked, too—and I read the NYT daily.

The secret to its continued production comes down to two things: Smart targeting, and a willingness to adapt. By specifically targeting Americans working in Asia at first, the NYT gained a lot of early momentum that it might not have had otherwise, and it eventually uncovered other places that would want a digest like this.

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The New York Times, in laser printer form. (via TimesDigest)

These days, the modern TimesDigest fits a full day’s news into 10 standard portrait-sized sheets of paper. While there may be art on some pages, most of the coverage is just text, with the idea of hitting highly niche audiences of people who don’t have a lot of time (business leaders, people at hotels), people who work in areas where pulling out a newspaper would be a challenge (people in the military), and unique cases where The New York Times simply wouldn’t travel well, even digitally (on cruises, in space). It has evolved far from its roots as a fax-focused newspaper analogue, and even in the ’90s, you could get copies of TimesFax in PDF format from its website.

And the NYT’s effort has even earned praise from high-profile media voices, like Politico’s Jack Shafer, who, while working at Slate in 2007, wrote this hilarious description of his first encounter with the cut-down digest of The Gray Lady:

I originally encountered the 8-and-1/2 by 11 publication last year in the whirlpool room of a Michigan health club. At first sight, I mistook the photocopied, stapled, and soggy thing drooping on the towel rack for a New York Times novelty wash cloth, and my instinct was to either trashcan it or use it to lather up a bar of soap. But as a devoted reader of everything from cereal boxes to the Yellow Pages, I gave TimesDigest a chance, and I’m glad I did.

In a lot of ways, a product like TimesDigest serves the same role as the free daily newspaper did, with a focus on trimming content, but with one big difference: It actually costs money—around $360 billed annually.

That cost is less than getting daily home delivery would cost, but then, you have to supply the paper, which is where the equation gets interesting. At 10 sheets a day, seven days a week, for 52 weeks a year, you’re going to be using 3,640 sheets of paper per year—which will set you back about $26 for 4,000 sheets of the cheap Amazon-branded stuff.

And then there’s the issue of printing out all those issues. The Guardian notes that, if you’re printing more than 2,000 pages per year, a laser printer is the most cost-effective option, and a single cartridge will get you a yield of about 3,500 sheets. Now, depending on your printer, you will spend anywhere between $60 and $120 on a black toner cartridge if you buy from a brand name, and a whole lot less if you go with a no-name.

(One could only imagine what the math must have looked like for radiofax.)

Long story short, the cost rises above that of a home subscription pretty fast if you’re buying for just one person. But where the real value comes into play is that you can print that one PDF out for as many people as you want in your office or yacht or spaceship, meaning that if you’re trying to reach a group of people, it’s a great deal.

Much like its leaky paywall and affinity for annoying columnists, TimesDigest works for The Times because it’s The Times.

$2.2T

The amount Steve Kirsch, a Silicon Valley executive who is best known for inventing the optical mouse, sued the company Fax.com for in 2002. The reason? He was so annoyed by the amount of wasted created by junk faxes, which cost around 10 cents each according to his estimates, that he wanted to kill Fax.com dead. “This has been going on for years,” Kirsch told the Associated Press at the time. “But lately it’s become more of a science, and both spam e-mails and spam faxes have begun to be more of a problem.” His efforts succeeded, and Fax.com shut down in 2004 after losing a federal lawsuit.

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(via Wikimedia Commons)

So why wasn’t the fax machine able to become a news distribution medium of choice?

It’s strange to think about in retrospect, but if things had shaken out another way, you might be getting messages like this one in fax form, rather than email.

In many ways, faxes offered a lot of benefits, including the ability to use desktop publishing software to produce content, the crispness of paper, and an electronic distribution model.

Plus, from a publishing standpoint, they had the potential to be thoughtful in the kind of content they distributed, allowing for extremely niche things to hit your fax queue. The dream of the 1930s, that people would be able to get highly specialized publications with narrow audiences but high targeting.

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Fishing news, in fax form. (via Newspapers.com)

And there were signs it could have gone that way. In Missoula, Montana, the local paper started up a publication called Fish Fax, a newsletter of sorts intended to assist an audience that was really into fly fishing with customized coverage. After its first season in 1991, the Missoulian’s one-page outdoor publication had 142 subscribers—each paying $19.95 for three months of weekly content.

“We just started sending out mailers last week and have 50 subscribers already,” distributor Roberta Leno noted in a 1992 profile. “This year, we even have a subscriber in Kenya in East Africa.”

Fish Fax lasted long enough that it might arguably be called the second-most-popular fax-based publication of all time, after TimesFax. Had faxes become a bigger thing, you could imagine good-faith publications like these having been more successful.

But faxes, by their very nature as a public medium, quickly created problems with information overload for businesses, while being overtaken too quickly by commercial influence. Simply put, junk faxes became a big problem almost immediately after they went mainstream.

“Fax machines are doing what regular mail used to: creating an overwhelming paper trail of important documents, junk mail, and unsolicited advertisements,” a 1996 Philadelphia Inquirer article stated.

In many ways, fax machines had all of the problems that electronic mail does today—but unlike email, a junk fax is wasteful, destructive, and costly. You can ignore junk email easily enough, but junk faxes cost you money every time they’re sent, and that was a major gear-grinder for companies that were focused on the bottom line.

By the time it had gained enough of a foothold that people were willing to build businesses around it, at the point it might have started transferring from offices to homes, it was already being disrupted.

The last time I had to use a fax machine—really, the only time that comes to mind—was when I had to send a job acceptance letter somewhere.

It wasn’t that long ago. We were just on the cusp of electronic contract signing, one of the final frontiers of the digital age, becoming common enough that you didn’t have to deliver a signed contract through a phone line.

It was an annoying process. I hope I never have to do it again.

Faxes still persist in some parts of the business world because of documents like contracts or sensitive medical data, which maintain a special status that gives faxes an added weight for that class of business-world user.

In many ways, it’s obvious what happened: Much like in the 1930s and 1940s with radio facsimiles, a competing technology improved much faster, more cheaply, and with more upside than the fax machine did.

There’s still a lot of waste floating around on the internet, but at least it’s set up in bits and bytes. Those take up a lot less space.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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