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.