The internet threatens newspapers — in 1845

Digging around in an online archive of old American newspapers, I came upon an article entitled “The Electro Magnetic Telegraph — A Great Revolution Approaching” from the New York Herald, published on May 12th, 1845. I quoted some of it in The Victorian Internet, but re-reading it I was struck by how closely it reflects what is happening today, and I think it’s worth quoting at greater length:

If this mode of transmitting intelligence fully succeeds and comes into universal operation — as no doubt it will — an entire revolution in many of the present institutions and elements of society will be effected.

In regard to the newspaper press, it will experience to a degree, that must in a vast number of cases be fatal, the effects of the new mode of circulating intelligence. The telegraph may not affect magazine literature, nor those newspapers that have some peculiar characteristic. But the mere newspapers — the circulators of intelligence merely — must submit to destiny, and go out of existence. That journalism, however, which possesses intellect, mind and originality, will not suffer. Its sphere of action will be widened. It will, in fact, be more influential than ever. The public mind will be stimulated to greater activity by the rapid circulation of news. The swift communication of tidings of great events will awake in the masses of the community still keener interest in public affairs. Thus the intellectual, philosophic and original journalist, will have a greater, a more excited, and more thoughtful audience than ever.

This prediction was wrong, of course. The telegraph did not destroy newspapers — it provided them instead with a vast new supply of information. It became worthwhile to produce several editions of a newspaper a day. If there was a fast-moving story, people might buy more than one paper a day. The telegraph was great at delivering news, but it could not deliver it directly to subscribers, since it was an expensive, hard-to-use point-to-point medium. So the telegraph actually strengthened the newspapers’ existing business model, which was to aggregate news for readers, and  readers for advertisers.

Today the problem for the newspapers is that the modern-day telegraph, the internet, does undermine their model, because it’s easy to use and ubiquitous. Indeed, the newspapers have been undermining it themselves by making their content available free online, where there are fewer advertising dollars available. In recent days there has been a lot of fuss about whether newspapers should deny news aggregator sites, such as Google News and Digg, the right to link to their stories. As many observers have pointed out, but very few newspaper bosses seem to have realised, this would be idiotic, because aggregators drive a lot of traffic to news sites. Having fewer readers would hardly improve matters; what is needed is a new business model. I think newspapers will have to start charging for their content in some form, and that will be easier to do if they have something distinctive to offer. But many newspapers have been going the other way, following the herd and rewriting wire copy in response to what seems to be popular on Digg or the Drudge Report.

The article from 1845 had it right. Newspapers “that have some peculiar characteristic” (such as the Wall Street Journal, which does charge readers) will be better positioned. And journalism “which possesses intellect, mind and originality, will not suffer.” Of course, I’d like to think that applies to The Economist, which has just had a bumper year, and is generally doing well. The gloomy prediction of the death of “mere newspapers” at the hands of new technology turned out to be wrong in 1845, but seems to be coming true 164 years later.

  1. An Xiao said:

    Super interesting – I bet we can find similar discussions around the threat of television and the radio on newspapers.

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