Mark Twain’s latter-day career as a public speaker had its origins in a hulking mass of metal and wood. The Paige Compositor, as it was known, set type 60 percent faster than the Linotype machines of the 1880s. Twain sunk a fortune into James Paige’s invention. But the Linotype already had a head start in the newspaper industry, and the Paige units proved too temperamental for heavy use. Paige died broke. Twain declared bankruptcy — and hit the lecture circuit.
As the story of the Paige Compositor suggests, the evolution of journalism is closely intertwined with technological change. Improvements in printing gave rise in the 1830s to the penny press, bringing a mass audience to newspapers. The telegraph and the photograph revolutionized the news business, and radio and television turned it upside-down. Of course, it scarcely needs to be said that technology is now transforming the practice and even the meaning of journalism.
At this moment of existential crisis and boundless opportunity, Boston University journalism professor Christopher B. Daly has come along to provide some valuable historical context. His new book, “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism” (University of Massachusetts Press), is, at root, a comprehensive history stretching from Benjamin Harris and his one-off 1690 newspaper, Publick Occurrences, to Joshua Micah Marshall and his pioneering political website, Talking Points Memo. (Disclosure: Daly is a friendly acquaintance.)
The strength of “Covering America” is Daly’s emphasis on story. In a genre awash in mind-numbing recitations of names and dates, Daly has pared matters down to their essentials and given his characters room to breathe. (The book comprises 461 pages, not counting footnotes.) The result is ample space for people who deserve it. To name just a few, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Dorothy Thompson, Edward R. Murrow and Ernie Pyle are all discussed at some length.
But it is Daly’s attention to larger forces, including technology, that makes “Covering America” stand out. He writes about matters I had never heard of before. Learning about the role of urine in Colonial-era printing shops left me gobsmacked. Trust me on this: Life as a printer’s apprentice in the 18th century was nasty, brutish and malodorous.
More substantively, I was fascinated with some statistics Daly offers on the cost of launching a newspaper. In 1835, he writes, James Gordon Bennett started the New York Herald with $500. By 1851, the cost of entering the newspaper market had risen so much that Henry Raymond had to lay out $100,000 to start the New-York Daily Times. Several decades later, Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst and Adolph Ochs all paid between about $350,000 and $500,000 to purchase and reinvigorate their papers.
Those rising sums, though, were pocket change to what Gannett paid to start USA Today in the 1990s — about $200 million in annual losses over five years before the paper finally broke even. “In all likelihood,” Daly writes, “the $1 billion figure will stand as the all-time highest barrier for entry into the news business, if for no reason other than that there will probably never be a launch of a daily newspaper on that scale again.” Indeed, Daly notes that Ted Turner spent a fraction of that amount in launching CNN and steering it to profitability.
But if technological change was responsible for underfunded visionaries such as Bennett being replaced by wealthy moguls such as Hearst and, finally, by publicly traded corporations such as Disney and Comcast, technology is now fueling a new era of small-scale media entrepreneurialism. At the national level, Josh Marshall, Matt Drudge, Arianna Huffington, and others have demonstrated that it’s possible to create alternatives to mainstream journalism. At the regional and local level, hundreds of websites are reporting on their communities — although, at this early stage, only a few are large enough to deploy paid journalists.
Given that these projects share some DNA with the tiny newspapers that blinked on and off during the 18th and early 19th centuries, their proprietors might consider the journalistic philosophy articulated by Benjamin Franklin in his “Apology for Printers,” published not long after he started the Pennsylvania Gazette. It’s well worth reading in full, but here’s a sample:
Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.
This is journalism as a community forum — an outlet for civic engagement where people can come together and discuss issues of importance to them. Daly rightly calls it “one of the most extraordinary documents in the history of American journalism, one of the bedrock statements of its philosophy.” It’s an old idea that’s new again, and it’s at the heart of independent local news projects such as the New Haven Independent, The Batavian, Voice of San Diego and others.
In retrospect, we can see that two or three decades ago, when the media were at their richest and most powerful, they were also at their most profoundly lost. Daly describes a time of bottomless expense accounts, ever-rising profit margins, and a journalistic elite that was entirely out of touch with the public it supposedly served.
Thus perhaps the most significant development described by Daly is that technology, after pushing journalism from small, cheap and interactive to massive, expensive, and top-down, is now helping us to return to something like Franklin’s original vision.
Maybe few will get rich in the new media world that’s being created. But if journalists become less arrogant, more willing to listen, more connected to their communities, then we will have gained something of infinitely greater importance.