Do newspapers have to die for news to survive? In a recent article in The Economist, the magazine offered a reminder that the industry is still evolving, as it has been for more than 150 years. Case in point: the arrival of the electric telegraph in May 1845. Yes, pre-Twitter, news existed. The telegraph was an immediate threat to newspapers, whose survival hinged on the speed of fast boats, carrier pigeons and express trains. The arrival of the telegraph was thus greeted with the same worries that we have in 2010 about what the internet is doing to the news business.
So what’s so different about where we are today?
In a nutshell (and I know I’m simplifying this), technology has bridged that elusive “last mile.” While newspapers have gone on to flourish post-1845 (due largely to an increased volume of both news and demand), they faced issues with distribution. Social news today — where news finds you — has turned the industry on its head. The biggest question for news in the “now revolution” is context. Oddly, we’re not the first generation to call for that. In 1891, W.J. Stillman, a journalist and critic, complained in the Atlantic Monthly:
“America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence… The frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition.”
So 150 years and a little more, we are still looking for context. But here in 2010, there is much to be thankful for as new technologies allow us to work with better maps, better illustrations, better graphics — and by adding the voices of readers, a more measured experience.
Context is key. Do newspapers need to be around to make that happen?