Book Review: A Short History of Disruptive Journalism Technologies, 1960-1990
February 24, 2020
In February 2020, the New York Times published a story about Carl Butz and his efforts to keep California’s oldest, continually-published weekly newspaper—the [Downieville, CA] Mountain Messenger—in operation. Although the story centered on Butz, the underlying context was clear: in cities and towns across the country, our preference for obtaining news from online or cable news sources, is killing the print newspaper business.
And it isn’t just small newspapers like the Mountain Messenger that are suffering: on February 13, McClatchy Co. (publisher of the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star, the Sacramento Bee, the Philadelphia Inquirer and others) filed for bankruptcy.
While the Internet has had deep repercussions for the newspaper industry, this isn’t the whole story. As journalism professor Will Mari describes in his A Short History of Disruptive Journalism Technologies (2019), computing has been transforming the newspaper business since the mid-twentieth century. Mari’s slim volume covers the “pre-internet technological disruptions of and within journalism.” He focuses on journalism practice and the work of “news workers”—a category that includes reporters, editors, designers, production workers (typesetters, press operators), etc.—as computing was gradually incorporated into the creation, production and distribution of news.
Starting in the late 1950s, the American Newspaper Publishers Association established a partnership with MIT to bring computing to key business functions like payroll and record-keeping, making the newspaper industry one of the early adopters of computer technology. Within a few years, newswire services introduced video display terminals to distribute stories and by the mid-1970s the use of optical character recognition (OCR) scanning became common. The editors of some large papers adopted computer-based layout applications, which helped circumvent the power of typesetter’s unions. These efforts were part of the gradual transformation of journalism in the years before computers found their way onto the desks of individual reporters. In the newsroom, individual reporters confronted the need to incorporate word processing software into the way they did their work.
Taken together, Mari makes a strong case that the history of print journalism is one of constant deskilling and reskilling as news workers wrestled with the implications of new technologies decades before the development of a useable Internet. It’s a fascinating story, and one worth keeping in mind for those interested in technological change.
Mari, who conducted some of his research at the museum in 2018, will be speaking at Living Computers: Museum + Labs on February 29, 2020 at 3pm. A limited number of copies of Mari’s book will be on sale in Living Computers’ Tech Store.