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Telegraph Road

A Town Called Courant - newspapers for sale in an imagining of mid-America, using Google Sketch Up 8 and RenderIn, after the lyrics of Mark Knopfler; by/(c) Martin Hickes 2011. 


A short history of the news.

A LITTLE like the obituary of Mark Twain which appeared in the New York Journal while the great writer was still extant, the launch of Rupert Murdoch's new news-app The Daily can only once again respark the debate as to whether the so-called death of newspapers is greatly exaggerated or otherwise.

Murdoch's hi-tech new medium may have the 21st century written all over it, but apart from mixed reactions which say its big on style and low on readable content, to some it will be viewed as being the latest shiny goldfish in the murky pool of the history of the media.

If nothing else, it is also proving to be a semantically engaging challenge for wordsmiths and linguists – what to call the new format?

Epaper, Digi-news, Iblog, Inewspaper, news app? Indeed, the general global concept of what to do next with your hand-held gizmo of choice, it starting to look to like a technological conjugation exercise.

To date, users can choose from an Iphone, Ipad, Ipod, ebook, Ibook, ubooks, seeBook, Cbook, BeBook, Eye book, iLiad, Nook, Cybook, Babble, and Bibliotech [other gadgets are also available]

Most things 'do what they say on the tin' – in fact, those things which have become icons of infinite ergonomic necessity, even more so.

'News-paper'; 'tin-opener', 'suit-case', 'bi-cycle'. To use the modern web design parlance, the objects of the everyday are refreshingly WYSIWYG - or 'what you see is what you get'.

The 'news' - and its sniping cousins 'gossip' and 'scandal' – all a bit like the Grim Reaper- have been around since the dawn of mankind; in fact 'the news' – that strangest of properties when you think of it - has been pimping itself in various guises and formats since the dawn of time.  A little like some cheap drag act, it doesn't mind in which garb it meets its audience next, as long as it draws a crowd.

Newton may have had his gravity, Einstein his space-time, but the 'news', that other strange universally attractive force, a bit like quarks, also has its own parallels; it can be strange, charmed, have spin and have up and down properties. For years, it has been like the whitehorses cresting the waves of human fate. Sometimes the journalistic ocean is calm; other times it rages.

The story of the news probably started when the first hunter-gather mentioned to his or her mate that the grass was greener in the other valley; or since Ugg suggested that Ogg should tickle the first dino-steak with flame.

Its real birth probably lies in the scandalous nature of the first proto-humans, perhaps being rooted in the happenings and consequences of 'the world's oldest profession' and the affaires des couers of those early days.

And just like the best pantomime villain, the news has taken many forms.

Word of mouth in the old days gave way to town criers and the epistolary revolution of pen and ink.

Caxton's invention of the printing press must have been to the Middle Ages what Sir Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the www proved to be to the late 20th C, and to the news of today.

In Ancient Rome, Acta Diurna, or government announcement bulletins, were made public by Julius Caesar. They were carved in metal or stone and posted in public places.

In China, early government-produced news sheets, called tipao, circulated among court officials during the late Han dynasty. In 1582 there was the first reference to privately published news-sheets in Beijing, during the late Ming Dynasty.

Prior to newspapers proper, in the early 17th century, official government bulletins were circulated at times in some centralized empires.

In 1556, the government of Venice first published the monthly Notizie scritte, which cost one gazetta.

These were handwritten newsletters and used to convey political, military, and economic news quickly and efficiently to Italian cities (1500–1700)— sharing some characteristics of newspapers though usually not considered true newspapers.

However, none of these publications fully met the classical criteria for proper newspapers, as they were typically not intended for the general public and restricted to a certain range of topics.

The printing press was invented in around 1450 and quickly spread to other major cities around Europe; by the time the Reformation was underway in 1517 there were printing centres in over 200 of the major European cities.

They became the primary producers of both Reformation works by the Protestant Reformers and anti-Reformation works put forth by the Roman Catholics.

Histories of the world – previously the arcane and sacrosanct securities of medieval monks and religious scriveners – began to see the light of day, as well as the first printed forms of verse tales.

But 'the news' was never really legitimised until it met, literally, the press.

'The press' has since become one of those great metonyms of the English language; originally it meant the physical wood-stained inky thing which printed words on paper. Today, just as Hollywood has come to represent the popular film industry, 'The Press' now represents journalism, newspapers and even the wider media scene.

The news was originally known as the 'courant' and newspapers took their first names from such.

The first English-language newspaper, 'The Courant out of Italy, Germany, etc.', was published in Amsterdam in 1620. The first English daily, The Courant, in 1702.

The first newspaper in the world is thought to be a German newspaper published in the Holy Roman Empire in 1605, while the New England Courant became one of the first newspapers of the New World.

Benjamin Franklin's brother James began the New England Courant in Boston. The Hartford Courant, founded in 1764, is the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States.

Around the time of the birth of the newspaper, pamphleteers had begun circulating the first 'propaganda' to the chattering classes of the chocolate houses and coffee houses of late 17-18th C England.

In London, coffee-houses preceded the club of the mid-18th century, which skimmed away some of the more aristocratic clientèle. Jonathan's Coffee-House in 1698 saw the listing of stock and commodity prices that evolved into the London Stock Exchange.

Advances in printing technology related to the Industrial Revolution enabled newspapers to become an even more widely circulated means of communication.

In 1814, The Times (London) acquired a printing press capable of making 1,100 impressions per minute while the Wall Street Journal made similar advances.

The FT was launched as the London Financial Guide on 9 January 1888 by Horatio Bottomley, renaming itself the Financial Times on 13 February the same year.

Describing itself as the friend of "The Honest Financier and the Respectable Broker", it was a four-page journal; the readership was the financial community of the City of London, its only rival being the slightly older and more daring Financial News. In 1893, the FT turned light salmon to distinguish itself from such.

By the 1950s, those seeking 'the news', while not deaf to the happenings of the world, still had few choices; nor needed many others.

There was the newspaper, the radio or to those who could afford such in post coronation Britain – the television, and of course the ubiquitous if often jaundiced 'word on the street'.

In a sense, 'the news', that strangest of forces which never really minds its conduit, had never had it so good.

Certainly from a newspaper point of view, newspaper circulations peaked. Radio had long been challenging its exclusively to the medium but for breadth of coverage, newsprint could not be rivalled.

The Times Of India, founded on November 3, 1838 as 'The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce' during the British Raj, achieved the largest circulation of any English language newspaper in the world, a position it still retains.

But it was during the mid 1990s, via the instantaneousness of multi-channel television, changes in telephone regulations which saw the rise of cable and satellite comms companies, and the rise of the internet – that 'the news' found various new conduits.

But the new-found media, which proved to be an oil-strike from some, also issued in the gusher of inevitability for many in the traditional outlets.

Many journalists and editors in traditional industries who have witnessed the emergence of multimedia news have 'enjoyed' an experience which must have been somewhat akin to those steam train drivers who watched both diesel and electric trains overtake them with a sense of excitement - but tinged with trepidation.

While their skills would always be needed, to many die-hard hacks – and perhaps readers - somehow the future looked a bit too sleek.

Since the beginning of 2009, the United States has seen a number of major metropolitan dailies drastically pruned after no buyers emerged, with others reduced to a bare-bones internet operation.

In mid-town America, some have slashed home delivery to three days–a–week, while prodding readers to visit the newspapers' internet sites on other days.

In Tucson, Arizona, the state's oldest newspaper, the Tucson Citizen, said it would cease publishing on March 21, 2009, when parent Gannett Company failed to find a buyer.

Even more painfully perhaps, Colorado's Rocky Mountain News closed in Feb 2009, just days shy of its 150th birthday.

In its own heart rending online front page epitaph, published at midnight, it said:”Goodbye Colorado...We will scatter. And all that will be left are the stories we have told, captured on microfilm or in digital archives, devices unimaginable in those first days.”

Some readers commenting on the loss said it hurt like the loss of a trusted friend. More can be read here.

Against possible expectations by those readers who regard editorial to be king, newspapers are driven by advertising sales – advertising chiefs carry just as much clout as many editors, representing the interests of what up until recently has represented around 70 per cent or more of a newspaper's revenue; nigh on 100 per cent with free newspapers.

The rise in more instantaneous and more proliferate outlets for 'the news' – quite apart from the perception that print media per se has the 20th C still written across such- has had a double whammy on both circulation and ad revenues.

In the United States, as a benchmark example, according to the Newspaper Association of America, 2009 saw a drop of 28 percent from 2008 in overall newspaper print ad revenues–- and that year was already the worst for the industry for years.

In 1950, national newspaper print ad revenues in the US were some $2bn per year according to the NAA stats; this largely blossomed exponentially to £23bn in 1984 but while the percentage increases and revenues increased throughout the 90s (up until 2000 to $48bn) their rate of increase over the period was slowing.

While a comparable peak of actual revenue was also hit in 2005, percentage increase figures were already in decline.

Since then, print advertising revenue in the US has plummeted by more than 47 percent, to just $24 billion from $47 billion in 2005.

And while online advertising has been growing (except for 2009, when it shrank, perhaps just as worryingly by 11 percent), it still amounts to just 10 percent of what papers make via advertising via print.

According to The New York Times, the last time advertisers spent such a small amount on newspaper ads was in 1986.

But some observers have noted that if you take inflation-adjusted dollars into account, the last time newspapers took in less in ad revenue was when Kennedy was shot. Maybe Kennedy's failed vision of the 'American Camelot' marked the real end of newspapers' grandeur.

While newer figures are being eagerly awaited, until the end of 2009 figures at least, the new wasn't replacing the old at anything like the necessary rate.

On circulation income, the public spent $1.3bn on newspapers in the US in 1956; this peaked at $11.3bn in 2003 but has seen a gentle decline since to just over $10bn.

In 1964, just after Kennedy was killed, 80 per cent of US adults said they read a daily newspaper. By 1997, that figure was down to 58 per cent. By 2007, it was down to 48 per cent.

But there is some good news. Perhaps against expectations, the actual number of paid-for newspaper sales in the US is still healthy but down from a peak in 2004.

Online news, and the conversion of newspapers into e-newspapers is widening their reach like never before; and their demographic at both ends of the age spectrum.

In Dec alone in 2010 in the US, 100m unique visitors visited newspapers' websites, an increasing trend, albeit spending on average just over three minutes on them per visit.

Some newspapers still use newsboys and girls on bicycles to fling papers to the bottom of gardens or drop them in mail boxes. Today, e-newspapers' fling is global.

Perhaps the most worrying development seems to be a prevalent perceived culture among the 30 some-things and youngsters of today that they no longer think they should pay for their online news content.

Just as up-loaders of copyrighted material to the fledging YouTube might have thought this legitimised the activity in the ultimate free-for all, thankfully now changed, online content seems to be suffering from the same mis-conceptions.

But just as good journalism and content is the life blood of democracy, even to the emergent online news sites, against a seeming enduring unwillingness of e-users to pay for such, and until pay-walls bite, ad revenues remain their life blood.

But worryingly, it's a revenue which many feel is being spread too thinly across the whole multimedia field – newspapers, e-papers, television, radio and other outlets.

Nay sayers say if the extrapolation continuous, the last ever print newspaper will be printed in mid 2044.

In the mid 1980s there were 1700 paid-for daily and evening newspapers in the US. In 2009 there were just over less than 1400. In 1940, there were almost 2000.

Sunday newspapers' circulations have been in decline since a peak in 1996, even though the actual number of paid-for Sunday papers has seen a marked increase in the US since the 1940s up until 1994.

As another case in point, The Ann Arbor News was a newspaper serving Washtenaw and Livingston counties in Michigan. Published in Ann Arbor, under various names from 1835 to 2009, The News was part of Booth Newspapers, owned by Advance Publications Inc.

The News was published in the afternoons during weekdays and in the mornings on weekends and holidays. It published special sections throughout the year.

The newspaper – which had no major rivals in the town - ended its 174-year print run on July 23, 2009. The publisher blamed the loss of classified advertising revenue and noted 'the seven-day-a-week print model just is not sustainable in the particular very low home ownership demographic of Ann Arbor'.

The paper has been replaced by AnnArbor.com, which carries daily news stories and is accompanied by print editions on Thursdays and Sundays.

Of the 272 people employed as of the announcement of the paper's closing, less than ten percent were hired for the new format.

The closure also ended The Livingston Community News, a free weekly newspaper for Livingston County published by the Ann Arbor News.

Nevertheless, against such gloom, The NAA on its website remains upbeat. Its website states:

'Online newspapers have become a vital resource to the public, providing up-to-the minute news, as well as acting as venues for information specific to the communities that they serve. Editorial content is provided by most online newspapers free of charge to the reader, as the dissemination of this news and information is paid for by advertising. Unnecessary regulations creating restrictions that hinder digital advertising are a threat to the vitality of the free online newspaper.

'In addition to a hard copy product, many newspapers provide an online version for their subscribers, usually at no cost or a small, nominal fee. These online versions provide subscribers with up-to-date information about issues of local interest. Legislation that would change the taxation of these subscriptions would be an additional cost of doing business. Furthermore, many newspapers have broadcast operations. Any change, such as increasing the royalty rates Web broadcasters must pay for streaming music, would increase the costs of doing business and reduce the profitability of the operation.”

As just one conduit of 'the news' these days among the many, newspapers have tried to improve their credibility, appointing ombudsmen, developing ethics policies and training, using more stringent corrections policies, communicating their processes and rationale with readers, and asking sources to review articles after publication.

Other key processes remain unchanged in the interests of democracy and freedom of speech; the refusal of journalists to name sources, and very often the refusal of editors to let third parties see a story before it is run out of some PR nicety. Journalism unions have bemoaned the pruning of sub-editors in the face of improved new technologies which allows journalists to paste stories directly into pre-designed pages. Quite apart from guarding against the errors which might creep in to copy [this article included! - MH], 'subs' were tradtionally the watchful sentinels against the twin demons of journalism, namely libel and contempt of court. Many citizen journalists have little knowledge of such.  

Some newspaper publishers have also been quick to point out that in terms of its global carbon footprint, the new tech of the 21st C is less eco-friendly – ergo, the powering up of millions of laptops or likewise to read content online is more energy hungry than a man picking up a newspaper at the breakfast table.

Notwithstanding the fact that, given a certain amount of trees have been felled to produce the paper on which the newspaper is produced, the argument has perhaps some weak credibility.

And yet, the dawn of a new century often, by some strange quirk of fate, brings in a tide of change. More than that, communities have changed.

For those familiar with the Lake Wobegon tales of Garrison Keillor, to many, newspapers seem to have more than one foot in those days still; representing the stolidity and old-time feel of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Years ago, Mark Knopfler, lead guitarist and lyricist from the British band Dire Straits, himself a former journalist, penned the elegaic song Telegraph Road.

In it, he painted a picture of a long time ago; some whenever; a musical elegy for a lonely man on a track, who builds a cabin and a winter store, and who ploughs the ground near a cold lake shore, to make a home in the wilderness.

After years of change, the dirty old track turns into a telegraph road. In the words of the song: 'then came the churches, then came the schools, then came the lawyers, then came the rules...telegraph sang a song about the world outside; telegraph road got so deep, and so wide.....like a rolling river...'

Today, there can be no doubt about the breadth, depth or flow of the telegraph road.

Those who also recall Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the late George Roy Hill's gentle elegy to the decline of the Old West, might recall Paul Newman's frustration at the advent of the new-fangled bicycle over the trusty old horse.

The appeal of the film – Hill himself was descended from a family of newspaper owners – lies not so much in the amiable humanity of the pair, but in their frustrated defiance of the fact that their once marvellously fecund ways are coming to an end.

Newman's meiotic last words of the film as the battered and beat up amiable rogues are surrounded by the Bolivian cavalry, facing what can only be presumed to be an inevitable fate, and muttered to Redford's Sundance in a deliberately, understated fashion are: “For a minute there, I thought we were in trouble...”.

Such could equally serve as an epitaph for journalists, humanists at heart in the remains of the newspaper age, who, while not quite out of their depths, are perhaps sensing their toes are certainly no longer reassuringly touching the sandy floor of the once balmy media ocean. For some, the Bolivian cavalry has been mustering for years.
Perhaps the greatest irony lies is the fact that at this, the Spring Tide of the Information Age, many a newspaper publisher, editor, journalist or copy boy, is finding that the lifebuoy of knowledge is only just maintaining their buoyancy. And that might also apply to the media barons.

To return to the beginning, with regards to The Daily, even if it fails in its specified intent, it's perhaps fitting that, if nothing else, in being launched at New York's trendy Guggenheim Museum– the ultimate repository of art and past and present objects of desire - it will already have taken its place alongside the other cultural icons of the 20th and 21st C.

In terms of sheer art and aesthetic appeal at least, it has been given a head start against those apps also being born into the techno-maternity wings of today, all vying to be the new glint to catch the public eye in the frantic salmon-leap against the breaking torrent of 'the news'.

Whether we choose to surf the news wave - either physically or metaphorically - or to let it wash over us, the wave will just keep on breaking, flinging some high up on the sand, and leaving others in its backwash. And it will just keep on swooshing.

Which as any journalist, film-maker, media mogul, lyricist or indeed fisherman knows, is a tale as old as time.

Perhaps the last word should be left to the original master-wordsmith:

  • Shakespeare: Julius Caesar:

    Brutus: “There is a tide in the affairs of men.
    Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
    Omitted, all the voyage of their life
    Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
    On such a full sea are we now afloat,
    And we must take the current when it serves,
    Or lose our ventures.”

(c) Martin Hickes 2011