Until the early 19th century there was no technology for disseminating news to large numbers of people in a short space of time. It travelled as people chatted in marketplaces and taverns or exchanged letters with their friends. This phenomenon can be traced back to Roman times, when members of the elite kept each other informed with a torrent of letters, transcriptions of speeches and copies of the acta diurna, the official gazette that was posted in the forum each day. News travelled along social networks because there was no other conduit.
The invention of the printing press meant that many copies of a document could be produced more quickly than before, but distribution still relied on personal connections. In early 1518 Martin Luther’s writings spread around Germany in two weeks as they were carried from one town to the next. As Luther and his supporters argued with his opponents over the following decade, more than 6m religious pamphlets were sold in Germany. “News ballads”, which spread news in the form of popular songs, covered the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, among many other events.
In January 1776 Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense”, which rallied the colonists against the British crown, was printed in a run of 1,000 copies. One of them reached George Washington, who was so impressed that he made American officers read extracts of Paine’s work to their men. By July 1776 around 250,000 people, nearly half the free population of the colonies, had been exposed to Paine’s ideas. Newspapers at the time had small, local circulations and were a mix of opinionated editorials, contributions from readers and items from other papers; there were no dedicated reporters. All these early media conveyed news, gossip, opinion and ideas within particular social circles or communities, with little distinction between producers and consumers of information. They were social media.
The invention of the steam press in the early 19th century, and the emergence of mass-market newspapers such as the New York Sun, therefore marked a profound shift. The new technologies of mass dissemination could reach large numbers of people with unprecedented speed and efficiency, but put control of the flow of information into the hands of a select few. For the first time, vertical distribution of news, from a specialist elite to a general audience, had a decisive advantage over horizontal distribution among citizens. This trend accelerated with the advent of radio and television in the 20th century. New businesses grew up around these mass-media technologies. In modern media organisations news is gathered by specialists and disseminated to a mass audience along with advertising, which helps to pay for the whole operation.
In the past decade the internet has disrupted this model and enabled the social aspect of media to reassert itself. In many ways news is going back to its pre-industrial form, but supercharged by the internet. Camera-phones and social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter may seem entirely new, but they echo the ways in which people used to collect, share and exchange information in the past. “Social media is nothing new, it’s just more widespread now,” says Craig Newmark. He likens John Locke, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin to modern bloggers. “By 2020 the media and political landscapes will be very different, because people who are accustomed to power will be complemented by social networks in different forms.” Julian Assange has said that WikiLeaks operates in the tradition of the radical pamphleteers of the English civil war who tried to “cast all the Mysteries and Secrets of Government” before the public.
News is also becoming more diverse as publishing tools become widely available, barriers to entry fall and new models become possible, as demonstrated by the astonishing rise of the Huffington Post, WikiLeaks and other newcomers in the past few years, not to mention millions of blogs. At the same time news is becoming more opinionated, polarised and partisan, as it used to be in the knockabout days of pamphleteering.
Not surprisingly, the conventional news organisations that grew up in the past 170 years are having a lot of trouble adjusting. The mass-media era now looks like a relatively brief and anomalous period that is coming to an end. But it was long enough for several generations of journalists to grow up within it, so the laws of the mass media came to be seen as the laws of media in general, says Jay Rosen. “And when you’ve built your whole career on that, it isn’t easy to say, ‘well, actually, that was just a phase’. That’s why a lot of us think that it’s only going to be generational change that’s going to solve this problem.” A new generation that has grown up with digital tools is already devising extraordinary new things to do with them, rather than simply using them to preserve the old models. Some existing media organisations will survive the transition; many will not.
The biggest shift is that journalism is no longer the exclusive preserve of journalists. Ordinary people are playing a more active role in the news system, along with a host of technology firms, news start-ups and not-for-profit groups. Social media are certainly not a fad, and their impact is only just beginning to be felt. “It’s everywhere—and it’s going to be even more everywhere,” says Arianna Huffington. Successful media organisations will be the ones that accept this new reality. They need to reorient themselves towards serving readers rather than advertisers, embrace social features and collaboration, get off political and moral high horses and stop trying to erect barriers around journalism to protect their position. The digital future of news has much in common with its chaotic, ink-stained past.