No Saint George to Slay This Dragon

It all started in 1439 when, after two years of experimenting, Johannes Gutenberg unveiled his moveable type and a printing press capable of reproducing identical copies of books and/or news reports on paper.

It is true the Chinese had invented paper and printing centuries earlier, but it was Gutenberg’s inventions that launched an explosion of knowledge which remained unmatched until 1989 when the World Wide Web via the Internet released a great tsunami of information that now threatens to overwhelm us.

There had been moveable type before Gutenberg. Both China and Korea had used clay or porcelain type to print on paper and China claims to have published the world’s first book – Diamond Sutra – in 868. In a similar but heavily contracted time frame, the Internet had been around for close to half a century before “www.com” became household slang and now threatens to make extinct words on paper which have been a vital part of our lives for centuries.

It was Gutenberg’s press that brought us print journalism with, so some historians claim, the discovery of America by Columbus; the first great international story printed and read unchanged from one city to the next. It was a “news” story written to take anyone who could read to a once a mysterious place beyond the edge of the world. But, it wasn’t long before simple facts were not enough for news writers or their readers.

The advent of the printed page was as sensational and dramatic in its day as the Internet explosion is proving in ours – and to the general populace, just as bewildering. The world in which news had been transmitted by word of mouth or official decree was suddenly awash with single sheet pamphlets spouting every opinion known to man, with truth and fiction often intertwined and proclaimed as fact.

The pamphleteers, who occasionally made sense but often were gloriously inaccurate and irresponsible, survive as 21st Century tweeters, Facebook friends or “bloggers” like me.

From that first confusion of voices sprang the first organized newspapers, which leaned heavily on horror stories to attract readers to more mundane items on politics and politicians. In his The History of News, Mitchell Stephens provides documented early “news” stories presented sombrely and seriously as fact. My favourite is from 1614 under the byline of “AR.” He prefaced his story on “a strange and monstrous serpent (or dragon) living in a forest “only thirtie (cct) miles from London” with a promise to his readers to send “better news if I had it.”

His dragon was “nine feet or rather more in length” with “two great bunches so big as a large foote-ball (cct)” on its sides which “as some think, will grow to wings.” AR said he hoped God would destroy the dragon “before he grows so fledge.”

“AR” would be right at home on the Internet today where “dragon” stories can be paraded, unhindered by balanced theories and void of facts. “The Net” itself has become a 21st Century dragon – coming ever closer to silencing what has been the reasonably steady voice of serious newspapers for centuries. Like AR, I  hope for intervention, divine or mortal, to knock this dragon on the head before “he grows so fledge” But fear I hope in vain.

Not that modern newspapers don’t deserve a shake. They have failed to meet the electronic challenge by trying to match its speed when they should have held their ground as bastions of sober insight. The Internet is geared to a world in such a hurry that it’s happy to be fed crumbs of twittering information and fragments of illiterate thumb-texted messages. Newspapers have the singular ability to freeze-frame time, stop the clock, slow down the thought processes and give their readers time to read, mark, and inwardly digest.

Unfortunately, most newspapers, swept up in the electronic speed contest, are trying to run with the hares when they should just be rumbling along with the strengths of endurance and dependability and just the facts and calmly stated opinions.

Mitchell Stephens puts it this way: “The new media have assumed the franchise, but they have not picked up all the services … It is now possible to know what they served for dinner last night at the White House, but it is becoming more difficult to know why an ambulance pulled up at the house down the road … (we can) learn exactly why the space shuttle exploded, but (it is) more difficult to find out what’s being built on the lot around the corner … we are losing news of our neighbourhoods … (and) risk losing those neighbourhoods and our identity as participants in them.”

It’s happening at ever increasing speed and there isn’t a Saint George in sight to slay the dragon.

 

 

3 comments

  1. I agree local is key. The rest is on the internet although those who create it are not compensated. It’s mostly stolen.

    But the business structure has radically changed.

    During my 35 years in daily newspapers we received national and international news from wire services at low cost and surrounded it with ads at high cost. This provided the revenue to fund local news production.

    Today most ad revenue has gravitated to Google and its cohorts leaving little to fund local news.

    I’m at a loss as to how this can be rectified and I fear it cannot be.

    The dragon is safe because there is no money to fund the services Mitchell Stephens has in mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s