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


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)