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Cahn: An alternate internet history
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(Martin Cahn is on vacation this week but re-offers this April 2012 column, edited for space.)

Science fiction novels and comic books are filled with "What If?" stories. Marvel Comics had a long-running series of comics called, gee, "What If?" Harry Turtledove is the master of alternate history fiction, supposing what America might have been like if aliens interrupted World War II or the South had won the Civil War.

Let me flip a page here... for a good number of years now, the newspaper industry has been struggling with the internet. Except for the Wall Street Journal and a few other publications, everyone went free on the Web, hoping ads would pay for putting their content online. It didn’t really work and now, like the C-I did when it launched its new website in Oct. 2010, newspapers are putting up paywalls.

What if, however, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) had provided email services back in the mid- to late-1990s when the internet started to become a household name?

The USPS has been pretty much going to pieces since the rise of email. Stamps are still cheap compared to a lot of things, but the number of real letters has plummeted. Companies (and not so nice people) can send out mass messages or spam a lot more cheaply than sending tons of junk mail through the mail. Businesses can deal with taking payment from folks online, bypassing the need for paper bills.

About the only thing left is packages, and there are more times than not I would rather rely on FedEx and UPS than the postal service.

And, so, the price of postage goes up, USPS thinks about shutting down Saturday service and what mail we do get seems to come later and later.

Postal work is a thankless, noble profession. Even with the downturn, they are dealing with thousands upon thousands of packages and pieces of mail a day.

But what if they didn’t have to? What if they had jumped on to offering email services?

We all know it would not have been for free -- the post office would never work that way. Long-range scheme of things, though, it would have been cheaper for the post office to buy and install servers, charging people a very low price per email.

I think they would have taken on an AOL-like model, starting in the early years by sending out disks of software to hook up to and do business with the post office. The software would be free, but its services would not. Like today, you could buy stamps online, but they could have also provided email services. What, maybe 5 cents an email? Less?

Imagine: the internet where, at least in America, email is sent via the traditional post office. Would search engines such as Yahoo!, Google and the like ever offered free email? Maybe, maybe not. The history of how those companies came to those decisions might have been very different.

So, what if newspapers had taken the post office’s lead? I’m wondering if folks would have expected to pay for the online versions of the newspapers hitting their porches every morning?

Expected is the key word here. In our real history, people expect to send and receive email and have access to news and other content for free because that’s the way the story went.

But what if the expectation was you paid for things online pretty much the same way, although perhaps more cheaply, than you did in real life? Who would be top dogs now? What would Google be like today? How about Facebook?

Would there be so many pundits lamenting the "demise" of the newspaper business?

The questions actually are relevant even if we’re starting from a "What If" scenario.

How can the post office get back its mojo? Maybe it can’t, but maybe those folks need to go back to the drawing board.

And newspapers like this one? My argument has always been there will always be a need for trustworthy, high-quality journalism. Newspapers might disappear some day in the future, but newspaper journalism shouldn’t.

This is part of why we made the decision to start behind a paywall nearly 18 months ago. You pay for individual paper issues at convenience stores or purchase subscriptions. You do so because you see value in the work we produce.

Is our news any less valuable to you just because it’s online? It would have been nice if the news industry had followed my What If model from the beginning.

That didn’t happen. What did happen is we continued -- in print and online -- to bring you excellent coverage of our community.

Coverage worth paying for in whatever form.