I read the news today, oh boy!
The Beatles had it right, but mostly in the news about the news. Everything is going to hell in a hand basket. With the latest round of cuts, ABC News, CBS News and NBC News have shed hundreds of jobs over the past two years and have about half the audiences they had in 1980.
The “Los Angeles Times,” cut close to half its newsroom. “The Washington Post” is closing most of its bureaus. “The New York Times” has been doing buyouts and layoffs for more than a year. The Tribune company is in bankruptcy. Newsprint plants are closing. “Time” and “Newsweek” are so thin they look like newspaper inserts. Advertisers are fleeing print and broadcast. The Internet is the place of choice for anyone under 25. Niche cable sites eat up all the available viewing time. And I haven’t even mentioned video games.
Have we reached the end of the known world, fallen over that last horizon where be not just dragons but Total Extinction?
First, let me give you a one-minute history of Communication In The Western World (CITWW). We leave out China because, while they invented everything first, they are not keen on communication.
Writing seems to have appeared first in Sumer, on clay tablets, about 3,300 years Before the Common Era. Most people stayed illiterate and bards and praise singers were the main communicators. Roughly 2,300 years later, Homer, or someone just like him in Ionia, pulled together the stories of Troy and Odysseus and enriched oral traditions, also encouraging Greeks to write down the verses on papyrus, a technical advance which the Egyptians invented to the detriment of stone carving.
Wood block printing developed in the Middle Ages, but the scribes of Paris had a pretty strong union until Gutenberg developed movable type, designed the printing press and in 1452 published the Bible, the first book ever printed in volume. Goodbye scribes, hello Enlightenment.
Four hundred years later, in the middle of the 1800s, you get the inventions of the typewriter, the rotary press, the Linotype and the first full-page newspaper ad (in “The New York Ledger”). The mass circulation press is born.
Fifty years later, Marconi invents the wireless and by 1920, the first licensed radio station is on the air. Twenty-eight years later, the first widely disseminated commercial television is broadcast. Twenty-one years after that, ARPANET begins development of the Internet. Twenty years pass, computers become ubiquitous, and the World Wide Web is set up. Five years later, America and the world go nuts in the Great Digital Bubble that litters the landscape with fiber optic hookups.
Attentive Reader will now have noticed two things: One, technology comes first with one thought in its head (radio for ships at sea, or an Internet for scholarly discourse) and then others figure out how to use it differently. Two, everything comes faster nowadays (2,300 years from the first writing to Homer, 400 years from Gutenberg to the rotary press, 100 years from Marconi to the Internet bubble).
But there is another truth. Nothing disappears. In venues around New York, you can still hear someone recite poetry in the old, oral tradition. Some things are still printed on flat-bed presses, one page at a time. Radio is still ubiquitous—television didn’t kill it. Each kind of communication seems dominant and then moves to a smaller part of the spectrum.
So what happens now?
Well, it wasn’t genius but World War II that made all the members of the news community respectable—they brought you the stories of the boys at war. They, like their readers, were joined in a great patriotic effort. And it wasn’t business acumen but a rising economy that poured money into news coffers so they could send people around the world and print great investigative stories that cost a fortune but satisfied prize committees.
In short, the men and women who bring you the news in this country and in similar countries in the West, are a part of the culture. They are certainly people of great individual value, but it took roads and rails and a change from home-made to factory–made goods to ensure the success of the mass-circulation dailies. They moved from total partisanship to objectivity when they became semi-monopolies and tried to appeal to all the people in a community, not just the like-minded. It also took the growth of wealth after World War II to allow people to buy expensive television sets.
And as our culture changes, so too will the news organizations that live within it. Nobody planned to have display advertising from Bloomingdales running alongside the news from Afghanistan. Nobody planned to set TV commercials at a minute, then at 30 seconds and now at 15 seconds each. ARPANET did not plan Wikipedia or The Huffington Post. These things grew from the efforts of smart people working over time to accomplish commercial and societal ends that were satisfying to them and to others.
Newspapers will continue and so will the news in the traditional forms. But a new technology is here. The old forms will occupy a smaller part of the spectrum. You, Attentive Reader, will determine where the new technology goes. You shape the culture. If you pay for quality, you will get it—just in a different form. Hello Enlightenment.
The author is the Fred Friendly Professor of Media and Society at the Graduate School of Journalism.