Gutenberg or Zuckerberg?

Notes from the Western Periphery

PRINTING REVOLUTION Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press.

How should we stay informed?


John Bradley

One of the very positive messages that emerged from the recent 7th Annual Local Ireland Media Awards (in which The Mayo News took the award for Best Supplement) was that regional and local newspapers have not yet suffered the kinds of decline that characterise US and UK local media. It was heartening to learn that most of the newspapers that our parent’s generation read are read and enjoyed by us.
But all is not well with the newspaper business, as it faces the daunting challenges posed by digital media. As we commune obsessively with social media on our mobile phones, there is a nagging fear that we may be the last generation to access news and information in a curated newspaper format. Such an outcome would not be good for communities or society as a whole.

Consequences
The revolution in information dissemination that swept over the world in the last 25 years had huge consequences for how our societies function and behave. It promised much in terms of easy access to information of all kinds. However, many of the negative consequences are only now becoming apparent.
One has to turn back to the year 1450 to observe a comparable revolution. When Johannes Gutenberg implemented the movable-type printing press in Europe, the dissemination of information broke free of the slow, tedious manual transcription of the previous era. The rulers of that time (kings, queens, emperors) understood the power that control of the printing press offered and consequently policed the production of books and newspapers with highly restrictive laws and regulations. If you even hinted that the Emperor had no clothes, or that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice-versa, the Emperor’s or the Pope’s heavy gang would pay you a visit.
The digital information revolution differed from the printing press revolution in two key ways.
First, having produced the information, the cost of its dissemination is now reduced essentially to zero. Our computers and phones take on the role of virtual printing presses, and the readers carry the cost.
Second, the old-fashioned notion that the traditional producers of information (scientists, philosophers, policymakers, newspaper editors, even bishops) could be assumed to be better informed than the general public, has been replaced by the notion that every opinion is equally valid, deserves to be aired, and facts are whatever you are having yourself.
However, it has become increasingly clear that the earlier explicit restrictions on the freedom of the press (censorship) have been replaced by an insidious manipulation of digital information distribution that promotes control, anger and disharmony in order to maximise the time that people stay connected and can be exploited by advertising and worse. When a social media service is ‘free’, invariably you are the service that is being sold although you are seldom aware of it.
A classic example of manipulation is illustrated by the case of a Californian teacher who observed that the take-up of vaccination for children in junior schools in her district was falling rapidly. She used digital media to research possible causes and was shocked to see that the various search engines and their algorithms quickly re-directed her almost exclusively to the virulent literature on vaccine denial.
Which brings me back to the future role of newspapers.

Evolve to survive
Just as bookshops have had to evolve when faced with competition from the likes of Amazon, so too do newspapers need to evolve.
The bookshops that continue to thrive are those that expand their activities and become focal points for events and discussions about books and readings by authors. This is particularly important in the case of encouraging children to engage with books and to open their minds to the world of literature.
The easy access to out-of-copyright books provided free by the eponymous Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) plays a supportive role in aiding access to long out of print books. Kindles also have a role. But when was the last time you dropped by for a coffee, a reading or a chat about books at Amazon?
National and local newspapers face a more complex set of challenges than bookshops. For breaking news, the nationals rely on the knowledge and authority of their key journalists and can issue online updates between daily publications. Building on this model and keeping subscription prices modest in order to increase circulation, the UK Guardian is thriving.
The Irish regionals are published weekly, and although they cover breaking news, their real strengths lie in their deep and balanced coverage of local and community issues. A well-designed local paper is a crucial factor in binding a community together and giving voice to issues that tend to be ignored in national media and national politics. Their crucial challenge will be to build the digital side in a way that complements the printed side.
Remember that the Californian teacher used digital media to find out what was happening with children and vaccines, and Project Gutenberg is bringing more people into contact with the world’s greatest books than ever before. It is not enough for regional newspapers to adapt to this phenomenon; they have to chase and embrace it.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.