What newspapers can learn from the past

Sometimes to look forward you need to look back, way back.

Consider this:  Both recording information by writing and the telephone — two experiences ubiquitous today were once cause for a bit of alarm.

Sound familiar? Just as some news organizations today bemoan the Internet and its ability to offer content for free and its inability to pad pockets with ad revenues of the level that came from print, people once worried the written word and telephones would change life as they knew it. And they were right.

It’s interesting because there’s much I believe we can learn from that fear.

First, it was warranted in many sense. Both the written word and the telephone changed the world, society, culture. Some changes I’d argue were for the better, but certainly a way of seeing the world was lost.

Travel back in time with me, and I’ll explain. (I promise, I’ll get around to journalism eventually.)

The printed word

The philosopher Plato cautioned way back in about 370 B.C.  in Phaedrus that writing knowledge down could destroy oral tradition. People would lose the ability to remember stories and epic poems, he worried, writes Howard Rheingold in the book, “The Virtual Community.”

The thing is: He was right. I think it’s safe to assume that few people today can recite “Beowulf” or pretty much any epic poem from memory. And remembering long stories or poetry isn’t part of western culture today. That was lost.

The way we store, access and appreciate stories, narratives, information is very different from the way people did in Plato’s day.

But in the end a main benefit was: More people had access to knowledge. You didn’t to wait for a story or poem to wend its way to your village through oral tradition. Once the printing press came along in the 1400s, spreading knowledge became even easier.

That brings us to today, a world where I can Google Beowulf and reach a plot overview, a list of characters and explanation of the themes in seconds. (Not to mention the fact that I could also find an e-book of Phaedrus.)  It’s progress, and it’s not. The art of telling a story aloud was lost, but in its place came greater efficiency and greater dissemination of information. Something was gained; something was lost.

The telephone

The telephone was invented in 1876, but it took almost 67 years before 75 percent of the American population embraced it. (That’s slow compared to say the television, which took just 7 years.) People just didn’t really get all the telephone could offer. Alexander Graham Bell expected the phone to serve sort of a music broadcasting role that radio later filled, according to Robert Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone.”  Doctors were even leery of the telephone because they worried it would allow their patients to summon them for every little thing.

Telephone executives could not imagine the telephone’s socialization potential, so they expected it to become solely a business tool. But the users, the people, had other ideas and turned it into a way to connect with others. Could they imagine our world today where telephones are wireless, razor-thin and can play music, display radar of approaching storms and allow us to read books as we wait on line at Starbucks?

Here’s my point and how it relates to the current crisis in journalism:

  • We today cannot imagine what the Web may provide for news organizations.  We’re right to be a bit leery of the Web’s power to spread information quickly because it’s awesome. But we can’t turn back time any more than Plato could. We can be part of shaping the future of how the Web is used. (Remember when list serves and chat rooms were novel; could those users have imagined Twitter or the special-interest social-networking sites of today?) We should follow the lead of the users, the readers, as we shape it. Those in power may not know what the future of the Web holds, but the users will pave the way, as they did for the telephone.
  • Something will be lost: It cannot be helped. A funny story making the rounds on Twitter lists 10 reasons you’ll miss newspapers, including their superior use as kindling. But, seriously, much more will be lost if printed newspapers cease to exist. Reading a news story online is different than reading one in print. There’s something about holding a newspaper in your hands and folding it to a usable size as you browse through a section that just isn’t the same as the serendipitous surfing on the Web. Plus, we scan online, versus read. But you cannot move ahead without leaving something behind.
  • Something will be gained: You can’t beat the Web’s ability to add richness to a story. It’s so much more useful to readers to link to a definition of a technical word or to background information or a related article, than it is to stick this information in a shaded box next to the story or (God, forbid) on the jump page.  I remember in the 1990s when adding a graphic to your story was all the rage, and reporters complained, as if making information easier for readers to digest was somehow selling out. I think it’s tough to argue that readers can have the same interactive experience in print that they can online. They just can’t. But we can’t gain something unless we lose something, too.

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9 thoughts on “What newspapers can learn from the past

  1. Pingback: Fixing News or Fixing Paper | Ryan C. Miller.com - Social Media, Design, Tech, Commentary - broadcasting from Utica, NY

  2. The Internet is the most powerful tool in the world these days. There is nothing that can beat it at spreading information all over the world and informing people in the fastest way possible.

  3. You are right on so much, if you ask me. I especially think of the mobilphone as something I would prefer to live without if I could. This is an invention that have made my life so much busier. Well, I don’t mean to say that I would love to see all phones disappear from the face of the earth, but I think back to the times when we didn’t have phones. People could reach me anyway. If they really wanted to see me, they came over for a chat. And if I was away, they waited untill I came back. Today I feel that I have to be available all the time. Sure, I know that I can switch the thing off when I want, but then you got a lot of explaining for certain people to do. Maybe a sidetrack, but just a thought..- Ray J. – Mobilhuset:Mobiltelefon uten abonnement

  4. I couldn’t agree more that the internet is the most powerful tool at the moment. In my opinion other forms of communcations will become obsolete soon – I mean, who needs a test message if you can send an email? Why pay for a phone when you can use an online phone system?

  5. The Internet has changed the world we live in, the written word we read and the things we see. The power of the Internet is far greater than any other published media.

  6. It would be strange to not be able to wake up on Sunday, grab a cup of coffee, and sit on the porch reading the paper. Some things shouldn’t “evolve”.

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