Newspapers may die, but journalism and journalists will survive, with our help.

For some tens of thousands of years the news came to us by word of mouth. The news of what happened at Troy was a poem, called the Iliad, not written but spoken, first by the man Homer and then taken up and taken everywhere by his thousands of listeners.

The next step was when the spoken language became the written word. Then the news came to us, still perhaps by word of mouth, but much more efficiently by words written down on paper or something equivalent. But words on paper were for the longest time the possession of the affluent few, and probably only a few of those with the printed word now in their possession ever learned to read.

The third step was some six hundred years ago, with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. This was actually the reinvention in the West (as it was invented hundreds of years earlier in China) of movable type. Here is how Clay Shirky, an American writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, describes this moment in his blog piece, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.

“Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention,The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages. Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.”

And then there is this Wikipedia account of the first moments of movable type:

A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday,[6] compared to about 2,000 by typographic block-printing prevalent in East Asia,[7] and a few by hand-copying.[8] Books of bestselling authors such as Luther and Erasmus were sold by the hundreds of thousands in their lifetime.

And Shirky again;

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like? Chaotic, as it turns out….”

We’re now of course at the fourth step. We’re taking it, the step, or it’s more like a fast moving escalator and we’re trying to get and stay on board, and we’re not at all sure of our own footing, let alone what’s going on around us, —no more than they were in the mid 16th. century as books were rolling off the presses. Chaotic is our time also.

This last step is the Internet. Just as the printed word would more than replace the oral recounting of events, so the digital word, the internet, is now replacing the printed word and we more and more, billions of us, are online to find out what’s happening in the world. Will the newspaper, not to mention the book survive? Well maybe, but things will be entirely different now, as different as the Renaissance was from the earlier movable type less Middle Ages.

At present it’s the newspapers, if not yet the books, whose survival is threatened. I grew up along with everyone else always with newspapers lying around in the house. The arrival of the Sunday newspaper with the funnies was a big event in our home. No longer. I’m not longer even able to find even a few newspapers lying around in our entryway or cellar when I need them, either to wrap up a fish I’ve caught, or to protect the floor from paint splashes when I’m painting the walls.

Right now I’m again in Paris. I no longer even stop at the news and magazine kiosks at which during earlier times I used to make regular and frequent stops to see what was happening in the world. Now of course what’s in the kiosks is old news. If I want to know what’s happening I turn to my pocket smart phone where the news is always new.

The newspapers still have their defenders, but even the most passionate of them have no idea how to mount an effective defense. For who’s going to pay for the “news” when so much of it is almost free for the taking?

I remember reading somewhere (probably online) that the decline of print doesn’t mean the end of  journalism. Perhaps it was Mary Kissel, or Clay Shirky. In other words forget the newspapers, it’s journalism, it’s journalists that need defending. It was Shirky, I know, who said, when writing about the end of the Roanoke Times, that the closing of a local newspaper matters more than the closing of a local shoe store for just one reason — newspapers employ journalists.

Now in my own case I haven’t held a printed NYTimes in my hand for probably several years now, and yet there hasn’t been even one day in all those years when I haven’t read the (online) newspaper. In other words, I’ve had the enjoyment of the reporting and observations of probably the best group of journalists ever assembled anywhere and I’ve never held in my hands a printed word from any one of them.

So at the moment things are fine, but can they continue as they are? Clay Shirky who writes about these things online on his Blog pages says no. And that something will have to be done to protect the livelihood of the journalists, because we want them to go on bringing us the news of the world. They remain our only source.

Many solutions have been tried. The one that seems to work best is the very same one that worked so well in earlier periods when, say, as in 15th. c Florence the church and the rich by means of their riches made it possible for the artists go on bringing us their art. This sort of thing may be what is happening with newspapers, with Robert Murdoch’s News Corp. buying the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post, Chris Hughes’ of The New Republic, and probably many other publications that without print advertising are not able to make it. Here by publications I mean collections of journalists, those people that give life to the publication, which otherwise would be only paper.

In some real respects the talk about the death of the newspaper brought about by the digital revolution is much ado about nothing. It only sounds terrible because we confuse newspapers with journalism. Journalism, and journalists, are the very best source of the news and they do need our protection.

Let me conclude with these additional words of wisdom from Clay Shirky:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been fine up until now. But when that stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

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