How to make history

Posted 05.26.11

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | One of today's urban legends is that newspapers are dying. If you are holding one right now, does it feel dead?

True, we do use other media for some news, deliverable via non-traditional means. But much of this is projection; the millions of kids texting on cell phones looks impressive -- until we see what they're texting. These are substitutes for telephones, not media.

Alternate media are credited with mobilizing on the streets of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya -- and attempts in Thailand and Iran. Pundits claim new media elected Obama (and fundraised for his campaign) -- in opposition to the old top-down, corporate-messaged media controlled by the velvet gloves of our economic and political elites.

The recent federal election was Canada's answer to the claims of a liberating social media: a subtle but tight control of mainstream media was not overcome by so-called social media. ("So-called" because all media, by definition, is "social".)

It is unlikely new technology will destroy old media -- any more than DVDs destroyed movies or television. It adds more variety to our media menu, and that's a good thing.

The question of content is a big one.

In the old days, newspapers, plus radio and TV, had the reporters and editors who gathered and created the content for media. This is one reason why old media is more expensive: reporting is labour-intensive. If old media fades away, where will content for all the new media come from?

Content will come from sources that are not impartial, which have definite messages to put out: think-tanks, pollsters, and spin-doctors. The number of press releases we receive at this newspaper is depressing -- especially if this became the main source of content.

Reporters and editors are also the source of our history. Newspapers are used by all historians. This is where they uncover what actually happened, day by day, in specific towns or cities, on specific dates, and relative to specific events. Where will historians of the future go to mine the data they need?

Historians comb old magazines and newspapers carefully for big events, and also for social trends and sociological research. It is not only front-page news which social scientists study -- classifieds are a gold mine, as are letters to the editor and local columns. These are the raw materials of our daily lives -- the concerns, ambitions, assumptions, and morality of our times. <-> If newspapers and magazines were to die, where would social scientists find their raw material? Most electronic media will be inaccessible, as technology continually makes itself obsolete. A warehouse of Beta and cassette tapes, floppy disks, and iTune play lists won't reveal many secrets one hundred years from now. How accessible will today's billion websites be in two hundred years? We are creating a New Dark Ages.

So write a letter, use the classifieds, and go down in history. What you are holding in your hands is a rare commodity, besides being useful for starting the furnace.

Copyright © 2011 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/05.11