Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Plus ca change

“America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence,” he moaned. “The frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition.”
- W.J. Stillman (Journalist)

The above quote is typical of the panic we hear today on the subject of how the Internet threatens to destroy journalism (first off by way of destroying the newspaper business, but more fundamentally by destroying our attention spans and focus).

If you haven't heard of Stillman before you can be forgiven as he uttered the above quote in 1891. The doomsday technology at that time was not the Internet, but the telegraph. News was turning from something that traveled over days and weeks by ship, mail and carrier pigeon to something that traveled by wire in minutes and hours. People's focus was diluted as suddenly they had all the world's news headlines, not just local.

This piece in The Economist is a nice bit of history and a reminder that the basic need is still there, despite turmoil as the industry struggles to find new footing. More importantly, it's a reminder that these arguments are seldom new.

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