Last week’s AdAge announcement of Hachette Filipacchi’s decision to put their enthusiast titles, e.g. Cycle World, on the block sent another round of chills down the spines of print purveyors. That spicy tidbit was followed by AdAge’s own go-to guy Bob Garfield’s rant on the nuclear meltdown of print in one form or another.
The speed with which print journalism is being rendered obsolete is as baffling as it is breathtaking. Because I remember when Nat Geo used to credit film type – Ektachrome, Kodachrome, etc. – next to their images, my interest in print’s place and what’s coming next is more than passing.
Writing (first as glyphs) – the verb – was the first technological breakthrough in communications, eventually followed by literacy. This would be the status quo for millennia, until the next super nova event: moveable type. That, in an elegant pairing with Gutenberg’s newly developed printing press in the 15th century, heralded media’s Big Bang.
In order to be considered mass, communication would have to wait several more centuries for matching distribution to deliver the product. Relief woodcuts and copper and steel engravings provided line only illustration until the dual advent of photography and the halftone screen process in the mid 1800s. That techno advancement, coupled with Mergenthaler’s linotype machine, fueled the inclusion of illustrated daily journalism in one form or another into the fabric of daily life.
In the 20th century, radio, motion pictures and television quickly emerged as electronic competition to print, but for the most part they existed as auxiliary, not dominant, factors. For several decades the public was kept informed by a.m. and p.m. dailies in most major markets. News and culture weekly magazines like Time, Newsweek, Life and Look further fed the public’s appetite for content for much of the mid-20th century.
The introduction of photocomposition fed offset printing in the late ’60s set the stage for widespread publishing participation. The main features of these two new methods were the speed of composition and the economy of reproduction, leading to an exponential explosion of titles; mainly magazine format monthlies that sliced and diced audience counts into more and more slivers.
As we’re now seeing, that powerful print timeline – beginning with Gutenberg and Aldus and dominating thought throughout six centuries – is quickly nearing the end of its lifespan. Digital reproduction and distribution is replacing ink on paper as the most efficient, timely, cost effective and versatile method of reaching the masses with content and design. (Veracity will have to wait.)
Part of my time at the University of Florida was spent at the College of Journalism and Communications, and part of that time was taken up in a course titled Law of Mass Communications. Perhaps today’s publishing troubles are nothing more than a reflection of the now so quaint label of periodicals used to describe the regularly scheduled appearance of pubs en mass.
It’s increasingly clear that mass will be replaced by niche as the on-demand, instantaneous digital media revolution continues to unwind the traditions of the past century and a half, replacing a filtered and predictable publishing model with a neural network of digital ganglia feeding an appetite without patience.