History Suffers from the Media Revolution 1
El Penski, July 2009

Most newspapers are downscaling, releasing experienced reporters, filing for bankruptcy, or going out of business. In the biggest newspaper insolvency in history, Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy in December, 2008. While technology is improving access to information and storage of historical documents, the media revolution is having a great negative impact on the recording of history. Newspapers were the first and fastest media to document historical events for most of the last two centuries. The newspaper crisis is lowering reporting standards and ending the coverage of important types of local and national historical events. In addition, investigative reporting, which is essential to enlightening voters, appears to be on its last legs.

The key role of accuracy in reporting on history was demonstrated in 1917 by H.L. Menken with his famous “bathtub history hoax.” In spite of many published corrections, that hoax is still being taken seriously by professional writers of scholarly reference books. Newspapers were and are most frequently the first draft of history, and in most cases, the only draft or the last draft of history.

While newspaper managers saw the internet and cable growing for over a decade, the managers choose the wrong countermeasures. Instead of investing their resources in modernizing newspapers by supporting research to deliver information to match individual customer’s needs by means such as mail delivered inexpensive searchable CDs, newspapers opted for a formula for disaster. They selected reckless leveraging, wasting customer money with volumes of unfocussed advertising, litigation, bizarre copyright protection, hacking down more trees, raising prices, unsightly littering of lawns and mailboxes, and drastically reducing the number of experienced reporters.

Rupert Murdock, probably the current, most successful, media tycoon, has recently predicted that newspapers will be replaced by portable digital screens that updates every hour, somewhat like Amazon.com’s expensive Kindle, a digital wireless 6 inch e-book reader. Whether the public will support this new technology format and whether the quality, depth, and focusing of reporting will improve sufficiently is doubtful. While big commercial enterprises are having difficulty adapting to the internet, the internet is a government subsidized, moving target that continues to grow in utility and usage – solving many problems and creating new problems. Its growth pace is too fast for bureaucrats to manage or regulate. Personally, I am becoming addicted to big screens, shopping online, and advertising that focuses directly on my current needs.

News sources are slowly switching from professional journalists to volunteer reporters communicating now over social networks. In June 2009, when conventional media coverage of the election protests from Iran were blocked, millions of 140 character tweets2 from the streets of Iran were sent to the world.3 Google thought they were under attack. Most news sources were inflexible and ignored them, but a few journalists recognized them as the only news sources on the ground and a historic gold mine of information.

While revolutions and change often quickly shatter institutions and businesses, they are slow to replace all aspects of what they fracture. In conclusion, the media revolution is throwing powerful destructive punches at the “discipline of history”. Thus, the work of historical societies and volunteers are thus becoming a great deal more important.


1 History Suffers from the Media Revolution is Copyright © 2009 by El Penski.
2 A tweet is a posted message on Twitter, which is an electronic system for social networking in real time.
3 Cary, M.K., Iran Spotlights the Media Revolution, U.S. News Weekly, www.usnews.com/subscribe, page 13, June 26, 2009.


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