Newspapers are dead as mutton -HG Wells, 1943 (No, they're not)

By Cory Doctorow


Here's a clip of HG Wells in 1943 predicting the demise of the newspaper, as people abandon print journalism in favor of using their telephones for up-to-the-minute news.

In one way, it's very prescient -- "using the telephone to get the news" isn't so far off from what we do on the web today. But in another way, it's exactly wrong (after all, it's been nearly 70 years and there are still newspapers), And it's wrong in a way that futurists are often wrong: it assumes a clean break with history and the positive extinction of the past. It predicts an information landscape that is reminiscent of the Radiant Garden Cities that Jane Jacobs railed against: a "modern" city that could only be built by bulldozing the entire city that stood before it and building something new on the clean field that remained. Every futuristic vision that starts with a clean slate has a genocide or an apocalypse lurking in it. Real new cities are build through, within, around, and alongside of the old cities. They evolve.

As Bruce Sterling says, "The future composts the past." What happened to newspapers is what happened to the stage when films were invented: all the stuff that formerly had to be on the stage but was better suited to the new screen gradually migrated off-stage and onto the screen (and when TV was invented, all the "little-screen" stories that had been shoehorned onto the big screen moved to the boob-tube; the same thing is happening with YouTube and TV today). Just as Twitter is siphoning off all the stuff we used to put on blogs that really wanted to be a tweet.


So with the advent of television, radio, telephones, mailing lists, the Web, wikis, Twitter and other new media and platforms, the important-but-ill-fitting stuff that we put in newspapers because it had nowhere else to go moved off to the new, more hospitable turf.

The experiment that we are presently conducting as a society is aimed at discovering what kind of information and transactions are really and truly "newspaper material" and not material that we stuffed into the margins of a newspaper because we needed it and newspapers were the only game in town. It may be that there's nothing left when we're done, that there's a better way of delivering every word and every picture in the newspaper than to print it on broadsheet and fold it in eighths, in which case, newspapers may die, or they may end up being the territory of newspaper re-enactors, the equivalent of hobbyists who knap their own flint or re-enact the Battle of 1066.

Or it may be that newspapers do have a small and important and moving clutch of information and stories and images that really, really are better on paper. Maybe the audience for that will be too small and specialized to support a large business, and maybe the audience will club together and treat newspaper like a charity, the way that opera (another medium that lost a lot of its stories to more popular and hence cheaper successor media) functions today. Or maybe the cost of producing a paper will dip so low that we won't particularly need a business to support it (Clay Shirky: "Will we still read the New York Times on paper in the future? Sure, if we print it out before reading it").

Or maybe there is a large and substantial and popular insoluble lump of newspaperstuff that no successor medium is better at hosting, a critical mass of popular material that sustains newspapers in a diminished but substantial niche, perhaps like vinyl records.

Bruce Sterling and Richard Kadrey's Dead Media Project collects hundreds of dead media, but as Sterling and Kadrey admit, most of these aren't really dead -- someone, somewhere is still using them. These are media that discovered a new niche or outcompeted an ancestor for an old niche, flowered and filled the whole niche and its neighboring territories, and then got outcompeted by their own descendants. These descendant media came into being because their ancestors got people thinking about new ways of framing and transmitting the stories they wanted to tell, ways that were more hospitable than the present state-of-the-art. The more successful a medium is, the more it will attract attention from inventors who chafe at its limits and want to invent a new system that lacks those limitations.

But a medium that has contracted after a great flowering isn't dead or dying: it's merely being whittled down to size, proudly hosting the material that it hosts better than anything else. Not dead as mutton -- alive as a lamb who's found the corner of the paddock where she thrives best.

The newspaper is 'dead as mutton', says HG Wells. (Thanks, Chris!)

(Images,: Dead Sea newspaper, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from inju's photostream; Old newspaper, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from shironekoeuro's photostream)

Published 11:55 pm Fri, Dec 3, 2010

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

28 Responses to “Newspapers are dead as mutton -HG Wells, 1943 (No, they're not)”

  1. mskogly says:

    I agree. But I am curious to see how radio will survive the next century. Commercial radio has thrived for at least 90 years, and seems to still be flint strong, but the youngest listeners now falling off, but not as rapidly as I would have thought.

    • g0d5m15t4k3 says:

      I’m 26 and listen to the radio every morning because I am both: too damn cheap to buy Pandora (the free version would run out fast for me) & get tired of listening to the same CDs over & over (even MP3 CDs). I would actually listen to the radio at work all day long if they allowed it. Am I a minority? Or am I just old enough to still be clinging to an old technology?

  2. Stewart Haddock says:

    Sorry for the aside, but why are his feet so dirty?

  3. hellomeow says:

    But com’n, the guy was pretty damn close on. I mean, telephones… who would’ve thought? :)

  4. hellomeow says:

    and i’m sorry, but can someone please tell me what that flesh looking thing is next to his neck? it looks like he sprouted another head!

  5. turn_self_off says:

    indeed, evolution, not repeated revolutions. This is why i go for linux over windows or osx, as linux evolves while the latter two go from revolution to revolution…

  6. turn_self_off says:

    Btw. If one can make machines that print and bind a book while you wait today, why not so with newspapers?

    Have a dispenser installed somewhere that one can use to select up to the minute articles and/or sections that one want to have on print and then wait for the machine to spit out a copy. Ever so often a technician could drop by to restock it with rolls of paper and ink/powder.

    • Anonymous says:

      Have a dispenser installed somewhere that one can use to select up to the minute articles and/or sections that one want to have on print and then wait for the machine to spit out a copy.

      Seems somewhat wasteful. I stand in front of the machine while all this printing and binding goes on, then I take the custom-made newspaper, read my article(s), then toss it into a bin next to the dispensing machine.

      I say bring back the town crier. Some man or woman with strong lungs, precise enunciation, and buckled shoes. Let them cry out the news of the day. Pay them a decent wage. And for the “reader comments” section, people can just stand next to the crier, and yell their responses.

    • Deidzoeb says:

      The machine I do this on is called “The Printer at Work.”

      I don’t think the prices would make this idea feasible at present, or for a long time to come. Newspapers are already printed with some of the cheapest paper and ink and processes possible, and sold cheaply. Unless people would pay a lot more for the convenience of print-on-demand newspapers, a publisher comparing one of those machines versus delivering regular papers to newstands and paperboxes around town would find little benefit and a lot of cost to POD machines.

  7. jonw says:

    I like mutton.

  8. Eutychus says:

    The Dead Media Project website itself seems to be, err, dead…

  9. batu b says:

    I like the newspaper. It’s a more comfortable way to get a blend of city and national news. Fortunately the SJ Mercury is a somewhat decent rag, that does a bit of state and local investigations. There’s no problem if I spill my coffee on it. It’s a great household material for cleanups, projects, gardening, and compost (I’m not just being poetic like Bruce Sterling, I actually compost some newspaper).

  10. error27 says:

    All these transitions were from a more expensive media to a cheaper media. The new media was often worse. Opera doesn’t survive because people care about Olden Times, it survives because live music is honestly better than recorded music. Movie theaters survive because bigger screens are better than smaller screens. But a newspaper on an iPad is just as good as a newspaper on paper. An iPad is better even, because it can show videos as well.

    Think about who you know who doesn’t have a mobile phone, or who doesn’t have a computer. In ten years, those same people won’t have a tablet but everyone else will.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Look at all the trees we save!

    • Anonymous says:

      They don’t rape forests for paper products anymore. It is grown as a crop, like corn for harvesting. Newspaper must contain a certain amount of recycled paper(20% or more)before it is used. Not at all like the old days.

  12. stealthisbook says:

    It’s weird that the form and the content of newspapers have been conflated. Sure, the form influences the style of the product– size constraints, production schedules, etc, but newspaper-style journalism is just as viable in another form and newspaper companies can deliver their content in other ways.

    Bemoaning the loss of newspapers is like railing against the loss of the zip disk. We still have removable media, and even Iomega continues to chug along because it evolved beyond peddling its content (storage) in a obsolescent form.

    Of course, newspapers have to figure out ways to stay afloat selling journalism. I would propose that newsrooms begin to monetize their other great product– education. Students still pay good money for a university degree in journalism only to be let loose with a cursory knowledge of how to acquire and publish sale-able, newsworthy copy. The skills and knowledge of a working journalist will continue to be in demand. As the art of journalism becomes more decentralized, I can see newsrooms becoming lab schools for people that want to engage in reporting but need the pedigree, connections, and practice to be taken seriously.

  13. SeamusAndrewMurphy says:

    I tend to think that the death of newspapers has more to do with the media environment moving towards a cartel paradigm rather than what existed before; many varied news gathering and disseminating institutions. We have, what, maybe 5, maybe 6 major media corporations now? Thirty years ago, there were over fifty.

    With that consolidation has come the complete corporatism of the news media. The product they produce is bland, corporatist, and unquestioning whenever possible. It’s a pretty easy bet to predict that way leads to stagnation and a loss of public interest.

    There’s pressure from the internet, but if the major media companies offered a product that really consisted of investigative journalism, muckraking, or anything that was really in the public interest, then they would have a growing rather than a shrinking audience. Even if they move away from print, the web versions of major media companies still will offer up the same bland crap, and they will have a diminishing, not growing audience.

    I don’t think the situation is that the online alternatives offer such a better menu, as that the major newspapers downsized themselves out of offering much of a menu at all.

  14. mdh says:

    My experience is that folks over 40ish still prefer paper which tells me the printed, home-delivered newspaper has about 10 years left.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Twitter is dead as mutton.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I agree and also point to the Italian experiment called Il Fatto Quotidiano, a newspaper only in its second year and profitable from day one based subscriptions and news stand sales only. It’s USP: total autonomy and independence from all sponsors or advertisers.

    It has been an inspiration this past year with unique content both online and offline. It’s representative writers and editors, Antonio Padellaro, Marco Travaglio, Peter Gomez are an inspiration. They credit the complete incompetence of existing media channels for creating the news vacuum in which they have been able to make hay.

    But even a cursory look at their output demonstrates that there is space yet for newsprint treated with integrity, intelligence and humour.

  17. Jim says:

    Why put “(No, they’re not)” in the title? Are there really people too young to… oh dear god.

  18. jphilby says:

    Borrowings:

    Man will never be free until the last politician is strangled with a twist of the last newspaper.

    Are there no parakeets? Are there no puppies?

  19. aHarshDM says:

    Wow, how did I miss this?

    I’m employed at my local paper, the only daily publication in the county. It’s my firm belief that the local paper will never completely die. Not only do we supply local news, but we’re also a voice for the populace. For example, a larger part of my paper than I’d like to admit is people who write articles about weekly “Jamborees” they host and organize. It’s technically not news, but it makes the paper even more locally relevant. It’s almost a BBS for the community, but with the most stringent and effect Mod possible.

  20. Anonymous says:

    After reading the article and comments there appears to be a disconnect between what a newspaper is at its atomic level and its specific business model.

    The primary function of a newspaper is information distribution. Newspapers collect, evaluate, edit, and present information, both “free” and “paid” to consumers. In this respect they are no different than radio, TV, or the Town Crier, to use an example from above.

    What makes newspapers different from other media is their business model, which has been based on using the fastest and most inexpensive means of distributing large quantities of general information to consumers that was available prior to the Internet: High-speed printing presses and newsprint. The combination was (and is still relatively) cheap, easy to make and distributable almost universally.

    The reason that neither radio nor TV killed newspapers was that neither medium was able to deliver the vast amount of information at the same quality as newspapers could. What radio and TV are good at is immediacy, they can get basic information to consumers faster than newspapers can. The Internet combines both attributes, the ability to deliver large amounts of high quality information in a variety of formats and the ability to deliver it almost simultaneously with events.

    Thus the Internet threatens the business model of newspapers but not newspapers themselves.

    Newspaper have made the transition to Internet relatively easily. It is their business model that has suffered. Where previously newspapers had large distribution networks that were relatively free from competition, and had high barriers to entry, newspapers could charge extraordinary premiums for paid advertising. (A few years ago a full page colour ad in a medium-sized Canadian newspaper was as much at $35,000 for a single day!)

    The Internet has changed this dramatically in two ways. First, the Internet has eliminated the barriers to entry for anyone that wishes to set up an online newspaper. Second, competition for consumers/readers means less distribution which ultimately means that newspapers can no longer charge the same types of advertising premiums online as they once did for physical distribution. Nor can they include the same quantity of advertising online as they can with analog versions. Pay-to-read subscriptions have not solved this dilemma. Consumers want information for free or at worst a nominal charge. So newspapers take a double hit, eroding demand and distribution means smaller advertising premiums for tradition analog newspapers and smaller margins from online advertising due to increased competition.

    The death of newspapers is really the death of a business model. newspapers – those organizations involved in acquiring, editing, collating and distributing information – will be around a long while yet. They have yet to find the most profitable replacement for printing and distributing a physical product to consumers.

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