Back to the future

June 4, 2009

With the supposed demise of traditional media outlets looming, there’s been a lot of talk about whether blogs and the like can fulfil their old role. And so I was struck by this passage from Matthew Goodman’s book  The Sun and the Moon, which is about the New York Sun and the rise of the penny papers:



“The editor of the 1830 wrote most of the original content that appeared in a newspaper. He also introduced the material reprinted from foreign newspapers, selected letters from readers for publication, and often replied to the letters as well. The editor was the public face of the newspaper, his name often the only one that appeared on a masthead. Editors advised readers about what politicians to vote for, what shows to see, what books to read, even what foods to eat. A newspaper’s fortunes rose and fell on the personality of its editor.”

What strikes me about this is how it more closely describes the role of the a blogger than that of a newspaper editor today. Today’s newspaper editor is an executive overseeing perhaps hundreds of people in producing a product that strives to be comprehensive and objective. People often contrast blogs, with their lack of original reporting and their subjective point of view, unfavourably with traditional journalism, and wonder if they can really hold public officials accountable the way newspaper can.

And yet, for a large chunk of the history of American democracy, newspapers offered heavily opinionated coverage and stories that were often lifted straight out of other newspapers. No doubt New York in the 1830s would have been a better place if it had a huge institution like today’s New York Times employing hundreds of reporters to expose corruption and injustice. But massive newspapers couldn’t exist then because of the limits of printing technology.

A daily newspaper was a single piece of paper instead of a thick bundle of sections, and the presses of the times meant papers could only print at most 20,000 or 30,000 copies a day. Changes in technology and the market have radically altered newspapers since then, and they will continue to do so in the future.