The following is the first part of my inaugural lecture at City University London, ‘Is Ice Cream Strawberry?’. The total runs to 3,000 words so I’ve split it and adapted it for online reading.
The myth of journalism and the telegraph
Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. And he invented the telegraph. The telegraph is probably one of the most mythologised technologies in journalism. The story goes that the telegraph changed journalism during the US Civil War – because telegraph operators had to get the key facts of the story in at the top in case the telegraph line failed or were cut. This in turn led to the objective, inverted pyramid style of journalism that relied on facts rather than opinion.
This story, however, is a myth.
The tale of civil war reporting and the telegraph was investigated by David Mindich, in his book on objectivity in journalism. He found that the inverted pyramid style didn’t actually become anywhere near common in newspapers until after 1900. In fact, he credits a government war secretary with the innovation: Edwin Stanton, a sort of 19th century Alastair Campbell who wanted to manage news of President Lincoln’s assassination.
(By the way, he was also the first US lawyer to use the defence of temporary insanity)
But in addition to Edwin Stanton, there were other key factors in the rise of modern journalistic style: in particular, institutions such as the Associated Press – which explored the new business models made possible by the newswire – and cultural change, such as the rise of the scientific method.
The telegraph didn’t change anything about journalism. Instead, it was the culture of journalists who had experienced higher education, changes in the culture of education itself, and the commercial demands of wire services, who over a period of decades changed their style so that news stories could be adapted by dozens of regional clients.
So: people, culture, and institutions. Not technology.
Fast forward a century and the world is still riddled with mythology about technology’s effect on the media. We ask if Google is making us stupid, if the iPad will save newspapers, if Twitter can save democracy.
We seem to forget that it is people who invent technologies – and that they generally invent technologies to solve problems. Then people use the new technology to try to solve those problems – and others besides. And that raises new problems, so we have to invent more technology to solve the new problems, and so it goes on, and on, with new problems replacing old problems and inventors never being out of work.
And boy does the media industry have problems.
Digitisation and convergence: The Legacy of Leibniz and Lovelace
The media’s current problems begin with two more people: Gottfried Leibniz, a 17th century mathematician credited with inventing the binary system. And Ada Lovelace, who helped develop the first computer program in 1843. They were solving problems of their own, and identifying new ones, which in turn were solved again, and so on.
Now at some point people in the media industry came across the legacies of Leibniz and Lovelace. And they thought: “Hm, this looks interesting. Perhaps we can use these technologies to solve our own problem?” And their own problem was the same as that of every company: how can we make more money? How can we produce our product more cheaply? How can we sell the same thing twice?
The solution, they decided, was to digitise as many of the processes in news production as possible. They wanted convergence.
And at first, it worked. Production costs went down, productivity went up.
(I’m reminded here of a small fact about Gutenberg – that the earliest known examples of printing using Gutenberg’s technology are indulgences, suggesting that the church – or at least individuals within it – saw printing as a way to solve their own problem of raising funds. Of course by flooding the market with these indulgences, the Roman church found itself with a new problem: Protestantism)
But over time new problems came up – and the news industry is still trying to solve them.
Part 2, Cars, Roads and Picnics, can be read here.