Martin Nisenholtz Eyes the Digital Landscape from Atop the New York Times

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Ever wondered what happens to PhD dropouts? Take a look at Martin Nisenholtz.

Back in 1979, a full two decades before he would be appointed chief of New York Times Digital, Nisenholtz found himself nearing the tail-end of a PhD in Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. But as happens to so many other ABD’s, tedium claimed Nisenholtz before his dissertation could come to fruition. So, again like many others, he decided it was time for a break.

“I was just bored with my PhD program,” Nisenholtz says. “I had been in college for a long time. So I just decided to take a year off [and] move to New York.”

While the majority of us would be likely to call this the “finding yourself” portion of Nisenholtz’s life, Nisenholtz himself had a more meaningful exploration in mind–one that would not only reroute his career path, but also change the face of technology forever.

Upon leaving U Penn, Nisenholtz was hired by New York University to work on the first Teletext trial in the United States. For the uninitiated, Teletext/Videotex was an information retrieval service provided by TV broadcast companies, offering a range of text-based information that could be viewed on television sets with suitable decoders. “It could be news, it could be sports, it could be public information,” Nisenholtz explains via phone from his offices at The Times headquarters.

As sci-fi as it sounds, Teletext/Videotex was already thriving in Europe by the late 70s, though the public remains largely unaware that this was the first true form of interactive communication. “There was a huge amount of investment in the late 70s/early 80s in Videotext around the world,” Nisenholtz says. “Every major media company and in fact many governments actually invested in these systems in order to jumpstart the interactive world.”

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