The Sky is Falling!


It’s been a busy week for the “death of newspapers” camp. We’ve had Michael Hirschorn’s Atlantic Monthly piece forecasting the demise of The New York Times by May, Jack Shafer weighs in at Slate, James Surowiecki in The New Yorker, Clay Shirky raises some very interesting points, and today Fred Wilson joins the chorus with My Focus Group of One.

A simple Google search for terms like “death of newspapers” or “end of print” will yield millions of results. Some media websites and blogs have “death watch” sections of their sites, ready to ring the bell and announce a new heavyweight champion. Yet we’ve been doing this since the early 1800s–dishing condemnations of past technologies and rushing to announce the incarnation of the next big thing.

Let’s travel back to a brisk morning on March 22nd, 1876. New Yorkers picked up their morning newspapers (yes, print) to discover news of a new form of communication currently being demonstrated in Boston and New York, a novel device that was destined to change the way humans interacted.

On page 4 of The New York Times, the article begins by describing this new device, currently being called the “Telephone,” and the exploring the possibilities “The Telephone could afford humanity.” The writer quickly jumps into a description of the device, which “…somewhat resembles a Morse instrument…with an ear-trumpet and a curious collection of miscellaneous machinery.” As the article continues, we are offered a variety of potential uses for this “instrument,” including the possibility of listening to music or hearing the “cooing voice of a female lecturer,” but as we read on, the writer makes the not-so-obvious point about what people will say about this new technology: “The universal use of the telephone will, of course, be viewed with disapprobation by the sound-producing part of the community, just as the introduction of labor-saving machines was met by the hostility of the laboring classes.” We are warned that “no man will leave his own study” or “will care to go to Fourteenth street and to spend the evening in a hot and crowded building. In like manner, many persons will prefer to hear lectures and sermons in the comfort and privacy of their own rooms, rather than go to the church or the lecture-room.” As these warnings continue, we are told that …the telephone, by bringing music and ministries into every home, will empty the concert-halls and the churches.”

Pretty dramatic. No?

A little over a year later, on November 7, 1877, on page 4 of The New York Times sits an article entitled “The Phonograph,” which opens with a very familiar vision: “The telephone was justly regarded as an ingenious invention when it was first brought before the public, but it is destined to be entirely eclipsed by the new invention of the phonograph. The former transmitted sound. The latter bottles it up for future use….With the aid of the phonograph, sermons can be stored away in the cellar, to be brought out years hence with their tones unimpaired by age.”

The writer makes a noble attempt to explain the technology behind the this new invention, and then goes on to state the obvious, again: “It is evident that this invention will lead to important changes in our social customs. The lecturer will no longer require his audience to meet him in a public hall, but will sell his lectures in quart bottles, at fifty cents each.” The writer continues, with the claim that “…there is good reason to believe that if the phonograph proves to be what its inventor claims that, both book-making and reading will fall into disuse. Why should we print a speech when it can be bottled, and why would [the next generation] learn to read when some skillful elocutionist merely repeats a novel aloud in the presence of a phonograph. Instead of libraries filled with combustible books, we shall have vast storehouses of bottled authors.”

Accusations of people “never leaving their house again” or books and the written word “ceasing to exist” didn’t start with the telephone or the phonograph. These assumptions come with each new invention or technology. Printing presses, telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, radios, moving images–are all born into a world where their antiquated predecessors are soon-to-be deceased forms of information delivery. They are the new, and the old will have no place in this novel world. That is, until the next thing comes along.

The way we tell stories and consume content inevitably changes with the birth of these new technologies. The voice of the predecessor doesn’t instantly die when a new form of communication arrives, it begins to morph and adapt to the changing climate, or as the current pundits aptly predict, it won’t survive. But take a 10,000 foot view–we’re just in the infancy of this wonderful melded form of journalism and media, where each form of broadcast borrows from the other as a method of storytelling. We’re not going to wake up tomorrow to find out that newspapers no longer exist. Yes, in the long run, a large contingent won’t survive, and the ones that do will tell stories very differently than they do today, carving out a new, ever-changing narrative. But this evolutionary process is going to take time. History tells us so.