Nothing new in black & white

A lovely review of the Folger Shakespeare Library show on the birth of newspapers by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post has some gems:

If you learn about the world primarily from newspapers, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition documenting the birth of journalism in the Renaissance will be a wistful affair. It’s like looking at baby pictures of a distinguished old relative who is now on life support. Look how vibrant, how youthful, how full of vinegar the old man was. Once upon a time, before the plummeting circulation, the shrinking ad revenue and the highly leveraged corporate owners.

But if you get your news primarily from the Internet, there’s nothing sad here at all. New media is new media, whether it’s scurrilous pamphlets distributed by hand, or partisan Web sites that spread their happy mischief through the wireless ether. The forms, the tone, the types of personalities who gravitated to journalism when it was new seem fantastically familiar in our own anarchic and newly democratized age of the World Wide Web.

Kennicott susses out these themes through the ages:

When John Taylor, a bargeman and alehouse keeper turned journalist, published an edition of his Mercurius Aquaticus in 1643, he included a complete reprint of a rival paper, the Mercurius Britanicus — followed by a point-by-point smackdown of its contents. This was “fisking,” 17th-century-style: a form of argument beloved by bloggers who cut-and-paste something that offends them and then interlard it with commentary.

The extra margin space included in a 1699 issue of Dawks’s Newsletter was meant to allow readers to write notes and commentary before passing the paper on to someone else. Web site designers may think that posting reader comments, which all too often devolve from sincerity to silliness to bigotry and ad hominem attacks, is a brave new invention of the interactive world. But interactivity is ancient. It’s at least as old as graffiti, and often just as useful.

There’s also a slick swipe at cable news, but I won’t ruin the punchline.

: I was going to buy a copy of the exhibit book until I saw that they charge $10 for shipping. Damned print.

  • http://sellingprint.blogspot.com Michael J

    Some think that real innovation of Print was the newsLetter. Books have been mainstream since very earl on. But newspapers was only practical with Print.

  • Walter Abbott

    The WaPo story was indeed interesting. History does repeat itself. One of the books on my to read list is The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, by Elizabeth Eisenstein. The reviews on Amazon say it is the definitive study on the subject.

  • Benjamin Lukoff

    The exhibit book is published by my local University of Washington Press, I see! They also sell it directly for $5 shipping. http://www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/KYLBRE.html

    Amazon.com has it, too, shipped free: http://www.amazon.com/Breaking-News-Renaissance-Journalism-Newspaper/dp/0295988738.