Plotting a technological history of journalism

Electric telegraph

  • July 27, 1866 – SS Great Eastern completes laying of Transatlantic telegraphic cables
  • By 1852, miles of American telegraphic wires had grown from 40 in 1846 to 23,000
  • In 1849-1869, telegraphic mileage had increased by 108,000 miles

Cost of information transmission fell with its increasing ubiquity as well as instantization of global communication.

  • Usefulness of information was preserved through transmission-time, increasing its shelf-life, making production of information a significant task
  • Led to a boost in trade as well

Advent of war – especially political turmoil in Europe and the American Civil War – pushed rapid developments in its technology.

These last mentioned events led to establishment of journalism as a recognized profession

  • Because it focused finally on locating and defining local information,
  • Because transmission of information could now be secured through other means,
  • And prompted newspaper establishments to install information-transmission services of their own –
  • Leading to proliferation of competition and an emphasis on increase of the quality of reportage

The advent of the electric telegraph, a harbinger of the “small world” phenomenon, did not contribute to the refinement of journalistic genres as much as it helped establish them.

In the same period, rather from 1830 to 1870, significant political events that transpired alongside the evolution of communication, and were revolutionized by it, too, included the rapid urbanization in the USA and Great Britain (as a result of industrialization), the Belgian revolution, the first Opium War, the July revolution, the Don Pacifico affair, and the November uprising.

Other notable events include the laying of the Raleigh-Gaston railroad in North Carolina and advent of the first steam locomotives in England. Essentially, the world was ready to receive its first specialized story-tellers.

Photography

Picture on the web from mousebilenadam

Photography developed from the mid-19th century onward. While it did not have as drastic an impact as did the electric telegraph, it has instead been undergoing a slew of changes the impetus of which comes from technological advancement. While black-and-white photography was prevalent for quite a while, it was color photography that refocused interested in using the technology to augment story-telling.

  • Using photography to tell a story involves a trade-off between neutrality and subjective opinions
  • A photographer, in capturing his subject, first identifies the subject such that it encapsulates emotions that he is looking for

Photography establishes a relationship between some knowledge of some reality and prevents interpretations from taking any other shape:

  • As such a mode of story-telling, it is a powerful tool only when the right to do so is well-exercised, and there is no given way of determining that absolutely
  • Through a lens is a powerful way to capture socio-history, and this preserve it in a columbarium of other such events, creating, in a manner of speaking, something akin to Asimov’s psycho-history
  • What is true in the case of photo-journalism is only partly true in the case of print-based story-telling

Photography led to the establishment of perspectives, of the ability of mankind to preserve events as well as their connotations, imbuing new power into large-scale movements and revolutions. Without the ability to visualize connotations, adversarial journalism, and the establishment of the Fourth Estate as it were, may not be as powerful as it currently is because of its ability to provide often unambiguous evidence toward or against arguments.

  • A good birthplace of the discussion on photography’s impact on journalism is Susan Sontag’s 1977 book, On Photography.
  • Photography also furthered interest in the arts, starting with the contributions of William Talbot.

Television

Although television sets were introduced in the USA in the 1930s, a good definition of its impact came in the famous Wasteland Speech in 1961 by Newton Minow, speaking at a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

It is this space, the “vast wasteland”, upon the occupation of which came journalism and television together to redefine news-delivery.

It is a powerful tool for the promotion of socio-political agendas: this was most effectively demonstrated during the Vietnam War during which, as Michael Mandelbaum wrote in 1982,

… regular exposure to the early realities of battle is thought to have turned the public against the war, forcing the withdrawal of American troops and leaving the way clear for the eventual Communist victory.

This opinion, as expressed by then-president Lyndon Johnson, was also defended by Mandelbaum as a truism in the same work (Print Culture and Video Culture, vol. 111, no. 4, Daedalus, pp. 157-158).

In the entertainment versus informative programming debate, an important contribution was made by Neil Postman in his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death, wherein he warned of the decline in humankind’s ability to communicate and share serious ideas and the role television played in this decline because of its ability to only transfer information, not interaction.

Watch here…

And continued here…

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Arguing along similar veins in his landmark speech in 1990 at a computer science meeting in Germany, Postman said,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

In his conclusion, he blamed television for severing the tie between information and action.

The advent of the television also played a significant role in American feminism.

de Tocqueville & the news

That the switch from newspapers to digital handheld devices – for the purpose of sourcing all my news – is limited only by my comfort-level with technology is telling of some shortcoming of the print industry.

The changing journalistic scene is a reflection of the way people engage publicly and of how public discourse has changed. Quoting Tocqueville,

A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought.

Believe me, I still do seek out the newspaper to be certain on some matters, but I am also a dying breed. News has changed from page-long pieces to 140-character tweets, but the information we are getting has tripled. As Neil Postman argued in 1990,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

There is too much to read and to process. Today, people are quite likely to be discussing news over coffee, especially in light of the fact that almost all information tends to be “newsified”.

Tocqueville says in the same piece,

The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

My questions are, thus, two-fold. Do we live in a society that is increasingly unequal? Or have we transformed to become so individualistic that a common voice can no longer exist?

Alexis de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville addresses the newspaper, and the responsibilities of the Press by extension, in terms of their capacity to unite. In the same chapter, he also draws upon democracy’s tendency to leave individuals “very insignificant and lost amid the crowd”, the the responsibility to homogenize which lies with the newspaper.

While these notions may have coincided in Tocqueville’s times, the landscape of governance has changed vastly. For one, Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, at a time when democracy itself was as new as the emerging print industry, when its spread and depth were both limited.

For another, for me to able to infer that the power of the newspaper is waning, I am also inferring that the newspaper must exist only on paper, that news cannot be delivered in other forms, and that all peoples must unite themselves under the light of one beacon, not any other. Are we right in thinking this?

So, while the newspaper – as an entity comprising words in ink and ink on paper – may be on the decline economically, the responsibilities of the paper are now in different hands. As for Tocqueville’s cautioning against the individualists, much is to be said.

In the execution of goals democratically, Tocqueville’s faith in which mires his thoughts, there will be opportunities to “wrong the people” by desiring an action that feels right personally. In other words, the French philosopher has not considered the evils of populism in vouching for the newspaper.

Today, however, technology enables so much that things work the other way round. Instead of firing up common beacons, discrete ones, classifiable in terms of social status, culture, financial needs, and personal desires, are lit, and people flock to them.

I concede, there is a barrage of news, but there is also democracy in news! I can finally get what I know I will use the most. Is that wrong? In fact, does it even suggest a conflict in any sense?

I must also concede that Tocqueville was right in championing the cause and function of democratic rule, but that it mandates representation above all else is something not to be forgotten.

In the ongoing version of the discourse between public policy and responsible journalism, individuals have the responsibility to cure more evils than they cause, individuals must hone their own moral framework, and individuals are tasked with interpreting democracy in a way that perpetuates its essence. Is this so bad?

Even if the newspaper has left us, the notion of news hasn’t, not in this “post-reporter era”.

de Tocqueville & the news

That the switch from newspapers to digital handheld devices – for the purpose of sourcing all my news – is limited only by my comfort-level with technology is telling of some shortcoming of the print industry.

The changing journalistic scene is a reflection of the way people engage publicly and of how public discourse has changed. Quoting Tocqueville,

A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought.

Believe me, I still do seek out the newspaper to be certain on some matters, but I am also a dying breed. News has changed from page-long pieces to 140-character tweets, but the information we are getting has tripled. As Neil Postman argued in 1990,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

There is too much to read and to process. Today, people are quite likely to be discussing news over coffee, especially in light of the fact that almost all information tends to be “newsified”.

Tocqueville says in the same piece,

The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

My questions are, thus, two-fold. Do we live in a society that is increasingly unequal? Or have we transformed to become so individualistic that a common voice can no longer exist?

Alexis de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville addresses the newspaper, and the responsibilities of the Press by extension, in terms of their capacity to unite. In the same chapter, he also draws upon democracy’s tendency to leave individuals “very insignificant and lost amid the crowd”, the the responsibility to homogenize which lies with the newspaper.

While these notions may have coincided in Tocqueville’s times, the landscape of governance has changed vastly. For one, Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, at a time when democracy itself was as new as the emerging print industry, when its spread and depth were both limited.

For another, for me to able to infer that the power of the newspaper is waning, I am also inferring that the newspaper must exist only on paper, that news cannot be delivered in other forms, and that all peoples must unite themselves under the light of one beacon, not any other. Are we right in thinking this?

So, while the newspaper – as an entity comprising words in ink and ink on paper – may be on the decline economically, the responsibilities of the paper are now in different hands. As for Tocqueville’s cautioning against the individualists, much is to be said.

In the execution of goals democratically, Tocqueville’s faith in which mires his thoughts, there will be opportunities to “wrong the people” by desiring an action that feels right personally. In other words, the French philosopher has not considered the evils of populism in vouching for the newspaper.

Today, however, technology enables so much that things work the other way round. Instead of firing up common beacons, discrete ones, classifiable in terms of social status, culture, financial needs, and personal desires, are lit, and people flock to them.

I concede, there is a barrage of news, but there is also democracy in news! I can finally get what I know I will use the most. Is that wrong? In fact, does it even suggest a conflict in any sense?

I must also concede that Tocqueville was right in championing the cause and function of democratic rule, but that it mandates representation above all else is something not to be forgotten.

In the ongoing version of the discourse between public policy and responsible journalism, individuals have the responsibility to cure more evils than they cause, individuals must hone their own moral framework, and individuals are tasked with interpreting democracy in a way that perpetuates its essence. Is this so bad?

Even if the newspaper has left us, the notion of news hasn’t, not in this “post-reporter era”.