Saturday, February 16, 2013

What is the newspaper’s role today?

In 1952’s “Technology and Political Change,” Marshall McLuhan describes the role of the newspaper in society from his perspective. He takes the newspaper from being a simple record of daily happenings to seeing the newspaper as fulfilling an “existential” mode, “metaphysically.” As someone who used to work in the newspaper industry before it was seriously struggling, I can appreciate his insightful words about the impact of the newspaper at his time (except for maybe the “gossipy” part): “Its impact is that of the very process of actualization. The entire world becomes, in this way, a laboratory in which everybody can watch the stages of an experiment. Everybody becomes a spectator of the biggest show on earth – namely, the entire human family in its most gossipy intimacy.”

In this piece, McLuhan both commends the newspaper for being a “space-binder” yet critiques it for its inflexible connection to a “date-line.” He says the newspaper “created a one-day world,” “embraced the whole planet,” and is able to juxtapose simultaneously in its columns “events from the next block with events from China and Peru”; however, it is “handicapped” by not being able to cover “not only many spaces, but many times, or history, simultaneously.” He wonders why the press is willing “to be as surrealist as possible in its handling of geography and space, while sticking rigidly to the convention of a date-line.”

Now, the newspaper is being forced into a 24-hour news cycle in order to compete with other media, and newspaper websites are therefore blurring the lines of those “date-lines.” The day a particular story was posted online doesn’t so much matter to readers on a hunt to find information; their end goal of finding the relevant article will simply correspond with a timeline they expect. Also, with newspapers not staffing reporters or editors overnight, they are essentially still sticking to their date-lines and allowing major online news sites to have the first crack at breaking news at off-hours.

I really enjoyed McLuhan’s description of the newspaper as a “laboratory in which everybody can watch the stages of an experiment” each day, and I think McLuhan would be sad to see that today the newspaper does not have as much of an impact. The Internet has essentially replaced the newspaper in that role, as people can watch and read as events unfold before their eyes. So, I ask the question: what role does the newspaper play in today’s society if it’s no longer the one medium that can serve as a “space-binder”? Many people argue that the newspaper is no longer necessary and will eventually cease to exist. Part of me hopes that is not the case, but even I don’t subscribe to any newspapers – not even the one I used to work for. For me, I think the newspaper should always exist, even if it’s just to have a hard copy record of the day’s major events. I honestly believe that obituaries are the most important part of the newspaper’s offerings to the public and that they should be printed daily.

McLuhan also discusses the major problem with communication that we have today: “all the networks of human communication are becoming so jammed that very few messages are reaching their destinations.” We hear this all of the time now – that our attention span is shorter, and there are so many advertisements coming at us that rarely any of them manage to catch our attention. If only McLuhan could see us now – I don’t think he would know what to do!


  1. I also laughed when I read his problem about the networks of human communication becoming so jammed! I even looked back to the beginning of the article to see what year it was wrote - 1952! He would be floured at the invention of twitter and the space and time that has been eliminated by the instantaneous reaction of this communication. I agree that there should always be a printed newspaper. Even when the elder generation passes and the kids who are growing up with ipads today are the CEO's of our country, I don't think everyone will be able to afford a smart phone. Unless free internet came to Lincoln as we talked as week, they would still need to purchase the device to obtain the information. The same can be questioned about the post office, textbooks, magazines, etc. and if they'll go electronic versions only forever?

  2. Thank you for your interesting post. I agree with Jenn and hope that newspapers never go the way of the dodo. I used to deliver newspapers as a kid...into puddles and onto rooftops mostly, but I took a lot of satisfaction in bringing the neighborhood its news. What I enjoy about newspapers more than the 24 hour news channels is that I am able to take in the information myself rather than through the filter of a news personality.

    By the way, I think both "Gossipy Intimacy" and "Space-Binder" would be great band names ;)

  3. I worry about the impact of losing the newspaper. In spite of the concerns about objective reporting, gate-keeping,etc, I still believe trained journalists are more trustworthy than many of the bloggers and internet "news" websites.