Do not go gentle: The “dying” newspaper


The death metaphor for newspapers: It is everywhere. For example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Even The Economist and The Hannibal Blog have used it.

I suspect this is because journalists (and bloggers are journal-ists too) love crisp, primal metaphors, which usually leads to sex or death, if not taxes.

That said, the metaphor is, of course, utter and silly nonsense. In this post I want to suggest why.

Indulge me with a “brief history of the media”, which comes with an R-rating for subjectivity, exaggeration and incompleteness. My point is only to lead up to a new and better metaphor for what is happening to the news industry.

1) Trojan War (ca. 1200 BCE) to ca 750 BCE

The mainstream media of post-Mycenaean and pre-Archaic Greece live* through their heydey of oral story-telling about the great war. Audiences are captive, attendance is good.

An upstart working in a new medium, Homer, disrupts the industry with great success by writing the stories down. After initial concern about the death of oral story-telling, new and smaller audiences form in every Greek polis whenever Homer’s Iliad is read out loud in the Forum, cheering at the precise point in his  long list of Achaean ships when the local hero is named. A consensus emerges that oral story-telling has changed context but is alive and well, benefiting from the written word.

2) High Renaissance: Gutenberg to Aldus Manutius

The mainstream media of monastic Europe, monks, are living through their heyday, transcribing Aristotle by hand (= manuscript) until lunch and getting sloshed in the brewery downstairs thereafter. Readership is elite, limited and assured. Barriers to entry are high.

An upstart working in a new medium, Gutenberg, disrupts the industry with a new patent. An investment bubble leads to other start-ups such as Aldus Manutius who starts printing not Bibles but paperbacks for the masses. The European clergy warns of the death of the media, with dire consequences for civilization. Within a century, gazettes and books are everywhere, literacy is up, vernacular languages flourish, and a consensus emerges even among monks that their calligraphy, though it has a new context, is as sought-after as ever, as well as entirely sufficient to subsidize the goings-on downstairs.

3) Mid-nineteenth century

The radio industry is in its heyday. Recent predictions that radio would cause the death of newspapers and live orchestra performances have turned out to be wrong, with all media flourishing happily. During “prime-time” (a neologism), entire families gather around a large box in the living room to listen to FDR’s fireside chats.

But a new medium challenges the industry. Called “television“, it abhors the mainstream-media tycoons, to whom it is “half Greek, half Latin: no good can come of it.” The death of radio is announced and widely mourned.

Within a decade, it turns out that radio is more popular than ever, though in a new context. It has moved out of the living room and prime time and into the car during commute times. A new heyday is proclaimed.


Any history of the media suggests that

  • no medium ever dies when a new medium arrives because
  • the old media instead change context–social, spatial, temporal–and live on happily ever after

What metaphor might capture this idea?

  • From geology: sedimentation
  • From Eastern philosophy: reincarnation

Who knows. But death it ain’t!

So the challenge is much less primal and more subtle than our headlines make it seem: to figure out what the new contexts for our old media will be, in order to prepare them for a new heyday.

*Pedant alert: Media is a plural word, medium is the singular.

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8 thoughts on “Do not go gentle: The “dying” newspaper

  1. 4) The coming dark age. Bandwidth is very precious. Content providers own everything and charge a premium. The Government taxes every binary digit to pay for water. The concisely written paragraph will rise from the crypt. Peasants write down useful pieces of information and keep them in folios. These folios can be read and re-read with complete privacy. Ideas are formed and observations made without consensus. This will be during a period when hybrid vehicles are burned for warmth. A leader named Andreas Kluth emerges. He is recognized by the pelt of a golden retriever that he wears over his shoulders. People with sunken eyes and speaking with split infinitives hail his clarity.

    And by the way. I saw the papers yesterday and I say yes, Jessica is putting on weight. It’s over between us.

  2. I am so glad you said Golden Retriever and not Yellow Lab.

    Andreas would look better with a Airedale for a shawl. It would compliment his hair color, don’t you think Mr. C?

    This could be a whole new thread for Andreas.

  3. The current passionate and polemical discussions about the future of news, remind me of what Bertrand Russell said, that “………when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgement……….”.

    Despite Bertrand Russell, I feel compelled to add more of my opinions on the future of news:

    – All major foreign-language newspapers will publish full English-language editions of their online publications. Le Monde Diplomatique already does this, and Der Spiegel has gone a quarter-way towards it. This reflects a trend.

    – Online software language translation programmes, like Google’s, will become so reliable that we, who are English-speakers, will click on foreign language sites, and read, via Google’s translator, the content in easily comprehensible English (not now the case). This does, admittedly, make redundant what I said about the inevitability of English-language online editions of foreign newspapers. But then, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…………..

    – The advent of the Kindle and its like, will expand the current discussions about the future of news, to include the future of the printed book.

    – Because of the exponentially improving video technology, we may soon become an almost exclusively audio/visual culture. When we click on to a news site, it’ll have only videos of journalists talking extemporaneously (or semi-extemporaneously) to us. Thus journalists, if they want to get ahead, will have always to diet and work out regularly in the gym, so to look good in their videos.

    Again, this does make redundant what I said earlier about online print journalism. So you should suspend your judgement

  4. Would you settle for me in a Schnauzer loincloth?

    I’m sceptical about your point about English speakers reading foreign-language pubs, not on technical grounds but on grounds of cultural demand…

    But re the Kindle, let me do a quick post pointing to my piece on that. And then, back to the story-telling thread….

  5. ‘All major foreign-language newspapers will publish full English-language editions of their online publications. Le Monde Diplomatique already does this, and Der Spiegel has gone a quarter-way towards it. This reflects a trend.’

    Anglicization is happening in news, but it is still limited. For example Al-Jazeera ostensibly has an English site, but most of it is wire reports and conspiracy theories. For all the papers I read in the region (dar-alhayat, al-ahram, al-ghad, al-sharq alawsat) , hardly a glimpse of the editorials and in-depth reports make it into English. While I’m not as qualified to talk about Xin-Hua, my impression based on limited chinese is that there is another significant gap in coverage.

    This makes sense, because al-sharq al-awsat, for example, is not going to be able to compete with the New York times for international coverage. But it has a niche in educated Arabic speakers and regional news. The reverse (English -> Localized languages) does seem to be happening. I read Fareed Zakaria’s columns reprinted in Arabic as well as many directly translated wire reports.

    Le-Monde and Der-Speigel are natural examples of where linguistic, geographic, and cultural proximity make a natural environment for English publication, but I’m not sure they represent the world as a whole.

    Andreas- tell your editors I would really like the Economist in Arabic! 😉

    • I’m quite impressed by your language abilities. Especially since you’re studying a dialect of Hannibal’s Punic. And yes, I’ll find a way to pass on that request, although I wouldn’t expect any progress by the next issue…. 😉

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