On telegraphs and newspapers

So I just finished reading this book called The Victorian Internet about the transition between the pre-telegraph age, and the post-telegraph age, a transition that took less than 20 years, in which the maximum velocity of messages accelerated from the speed of a horse or boat to the speed of electric current in a wire.

It seems to parallel very nicely the messy transition we’re experiencing right now between the newspaper age and the internet age which Clay Shirky’s crystallized in his recent post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”:

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.

As an aside, it’s somewhat scary to think of a newspaperless world. How will I explain to my grandmother, the first female editor of the Ohio University Post, the first women hired by the Editor and Publisher located in NYC, copy editor of the Buffalo Courier Express, editor of the Amherst Bee—a newspaper woman if there ever was one—that newspapers are becoming obsolete. Not news, and certainly not journalism, but the newspaper format she knows and loves. This time Clay Shirky has something quite hopeful to say:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

Thinking back to the book, I was really taken by a story from the Crimean War, which was the first large conflagration fought in that post-telegraph era. Previously the British newspapers had published the times and details about ships’ comings and goings, partly for transparency, partly to ride the wave of popular support for the war. In the pre-telegraph era, news of a departing military ship traveled no faster than the ship itself. So there was no security risk of publishing that information in the paper. Tom Standage writes:

Normally the troops would have outstripped the news of their arrival. But with the telegraph network marching across Europe to the enemy in St. Petersburg, daily reports of the British plans, lifted from that day’s copy of the Times, could be telegraphed to Russia.

This is inconceivable to us firmly entrenched in the post-telegraph era. It’s hard to imagine a world where the very act of printing something doesn’t also make it instantly knowable and accessible.

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