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Newsies look forward to web's next great innovation

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

I suspect that my wife and I are the only people to become computer nerds because of the Rev. Billy Graham. It'll take a moment to explain how we got there.

Pamela already was a news junkie in high school. Routinely, she read magazines and newspapers aloud while her mom made dinner in the evenings. Her mom loved to listen; Pamela hated to cook. It was a good fit. 

In one of those pre-dinner recitations one evening, Pamela and her mom came across a story about the famed evangelist that mentioned, in passing, how Graham was so interested in the news of the day from around the world that he contracted with The Associated Press to have an AP news Teletype machine installed in his North Carolina home.

To the impressionable young Ashland, Ky., girl with an insatiable appetite for news, this was the height of luxury. Imagine being able to walk into your den any time you'd like, scoop up the yards and yards of pulp paper and read the news in its natural habitat, just as it was rattling and clattering into newsrooms all around the world.

The image stayed with her. 

It was 15 years later — she and I had met and married, and we were working side by side in a Huntington newsroom amid mountains of our own newsprint — when Pamela read a story on the wires about a startup service called CompuServe.

Based in Columbus, Ohio, CompuServe would go on to be the first major commercial online service in the America. It had many attractive features for the then-infant personal computer community — online chatting, games, email, discussion forums — but it was something else that attracted Pamela. CompuServe had signed a deal with the AP to put its numerous newswires online. With any personal computer, you would be able to read news as it was being reported from anywhere in the state or the nation or the world.

"We must have this!" she proclaimed one windy winter dawn as we scurried from the gray, damp parking garage to the lights and warmth of the newspaper office. Then, she told me about Billy Graham.

By Christmas, Radio Shack would sell us a TRS-80 Model 1 and a 300-baud direct-connect modem, which we would hook up to the telephone, dial a connection number and manually flip the switch when we heard the squawk from the line. Throughout the winter, after work, we cultivated our cyber-citizenship, exploring new worlds by keyboard. By spring, we were thoroughly hooked on the online life, chatting in real-time, cruising the discussion forums, making acquaintance with people, who still are friends all these years later. CompuServe became a centerpiece in our lives for the next decade. Eventually, with friends David Peyton and Stewart Schneider, I would even write books for Bantam and Random House about the online worlds we found in our digital wanderings.

Nowadays, looking back on those times, I feel a little like what an ancient immigrant must feel as he recalls The Old World. CompuServe is just shell of its once-glorious self, having been shunted aside by the World Wide Web, iPhone apps, Skype and the like. Billy Graham is long retired and putting his affairs in order. Pamela and I no longer spend our days and nights in newsrooms.

And yet, news still is central to our lives. Each morning, Pamela arises and before breakfast, before words to me or the cat, she "checks in," by which she means firing up her computer and zipping to assorted favorite news venues to see what has happened during her absence. And it hasn't been a very long absence, because the last thing she did before bed was to visit the same sites for a midnight briefing.

And increasingly, we don't so much go to the Internet as we let the Internet come to us. In terms of the 'net as news provider, one of the bigger innovations since the latter-CompuServe era has been the rise of assorted news alert services, often fired off by Twitter. Recently, as the situation in Syria changed by the hour, my iPhone vibrated day and night as the AP news app flashed with new developments. These days most breaking news has become buzzing news that zips directly to my shirt pocket.

But for newshounds everywhere, no recent hardware development has been greater than the development of the tablet. Twenty years ago or more, I used to dream of a minimalist device just like this, one that would enable me to plop down on a curbside anywhere and instantly connect with the world of information. Well, okay, stiffening knees and ever-more-fragile hips have ended my curb-plopping days, I suppose, but everything else about my happy little iPad meets the specs of that dream. The iPad or something like it may well be the platform for magazines and newspapers to be.

Actually, it already is.

Throughout the day, Pamela and I use our iPads for apps like Flipboard and Zite, which automatically collect content of online social media, news sources and other websites and present it in magazine formats. As if reading a constantly updated magazine, we "flip" through our social-networking feeds and feeds from websites. Once the feeds have been set up, the first page we see when the application is opened is a visual list of the subscribed content, like a personalized on-screen table of contents. It's a have-it-your-way kind of never-ending publications.

There's much discussion nowadays — inside and outside newsrooms — about the future of print and broadcast journalism. Will the Web eat the news industry as it has already lunched on the music and book businesses? Pamela and I, like most newsies, are eager to see what Amazon innovator Jeff Bezos does with his recently acquired Washington Post. If anyone is an expert at reinvention, it is Bezos, so this could be traditional journalism's best shot.

Whatever the outcome there, one thing seems likely. The net — the buzzing, tweeting, page-flipping net — seems to be cultivating new newshounds eager for whatever comes next.