It seems like the old telegraph system is suddenly getting lots of new attention. A few weeks back, we wrote about some lessons
from the old telegraph system that could be enlightening in the net neutrality debate. And, now, James Gattuso
points us to a fun read over at The Economist about how people freaked out that the telegraph was going to kill newspapers
. There was concern about how this device would lead to destroying quality reporting, getting people to focus more on the quick hits, and that there would be less reason to do "real" reporting -- leading to more annoying opinion writing, rather than actual journalism. Sound familiar? Of course, it didn't work out that way:
What lessons does the telegraph hold for newspapers now grappling with the internet? The telegraph was first seen as a threat to papers, but was then co-opted and turned to their advantage. "The telegraph helped contribute to the emergence of the modern newspaper," says Ford Risley, head of the journalism department at Penn State University. "People began to expect the latest news, and a newspaper could not succeed if it was not timely."
Today, papers are doing their best to co-opt the internet. They have launched online editions, set up blogs and encouraged dialogue with readers. Like the telegraph, the internet has changed the style of reporting and forced papers to be more timely and accurate, and politicians to be more consistent. Again there is talk of news being commoditised and of the need to focus on analysis and opinion, or on a narrow subject area. And again there are predictions of the death of the newspaper, with hand-wringing about the implications for democracy if fewer publications exist to challenge those in authority or expose wrongdoing.
The internet may kill newspapers; but it is not clear if that matters. For society, what matters is that people should have access to news, not that it should be delivered through any particular medium; and, for the consumer, the faster it travels, the better. The telegraph hastened the speed at which news was disseminated. So does the internet. Those in the news business use the new technology at every stage of newsgathering and distribution. A move to electronic distribution--through PCs, mobile phones and e-readers--has started. It seems likely only to accelerate.