One of the luckier things in my life is that I am friends with Bill James. You probably know Bill as the brilliant writer who brought countless new ideas to the game of baseball; Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world a couple of years back. But the truth is, Bill is simply a thinker. Baseball happens to be his great professional love, but he has many other loves. He is working on a true crime book, which should be amazing. He and I have had talks about everything under the sun, everything from politics to religion to race relations to golf, and it never ceases to amaze me how his mind works, how he goes from A to B to C to D, never skipping a step.
I planned to ask him to write a little something about newspapers, but then a reader pointed out that he had already written something on his Website. Bill graciously allowed me to reprint those few paragraphs here, with the caveat that I point out it was written off the cuff, and the details were not intensely researched or double checked. I would add that the point for something like this goes beyond the basic details ... Bill thinks this is the natural progression of newspapers, and we just happen to be caught in the turbulent times.
I hope to get him to expand on this after a while. But for now ...
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Well ... I hate to be the rational doomsayer, but ... in the modern world it is unnecessary to cut down trees to spread ideas. We can spread ideas perfectly well without paper. We're in this difficult transitional period where it is unclear how the writers, reporters, researchers and editors are all going to be paid for their efforts in the post- newsprint world. But to me, it's just a transitional problem; in 25 years we'll be in a better place because we went through this transition.
Writing the crime book ... the modern newspapers started about 1836. There were newspapers for a hundred years before that, but they were relatively expensive. In 1836 somebody "invented" the steam-driven printing press ... not sure tying together a steam engine and a printing press can really be considered an invention. But anyway, paper was cheap, so putting together a little engine and a little printing press enabled anybody with a small investment to start his own newspaper. Every significant city by 1845 had dozens of little newspapers, which were much closer to Blogs than to modern newspapers.
One of the first things they did was start writing crime stories, exploiting crimes for money. Then there was 100+ years of newspapers getting bigger and bigger and more organized and more expensive to produce. What were basically one-man shows, and then the better ones hired assistants and then business managers, they added sports sections, cartoons, advertising salesmen and then advertising departments. They invented wire services (about 1890), and then there were syndicated columnists and syndicated features. The newspapers drove each other out of business for 100 years.
You and I entered the scene at a certain point, where each city had one or two big newspapers which had hundreds and hundreds of features, and they had these things when we were 10 years old and learning to read and they had them when we were 25 years old and 35 years old, so we tended to think of that as the natural and permanent order of the universe -- but it wasn't; it was just a moment in time; the newspapers were very different in 1935 and very different in 1935 from 1910 and hugely different in 1910 from 1885.
Eventually the newspapers -- as a natural outcome of processes that began in 1836 -- became SO big and so expensive that they were dinosaurs, unable to compete with smaller and lighter information providers.
We're back to 1836 now, in a sense; everybody who wants to has his own "newspaper", and it's tough to know who is good and who is reliable and who isn't, but the same processes are still running. The blogs will get bigger; the good ones are hiring a second helper and a third and fourth, and we'll spend a century or more sorting things out and re-creating the market. It's hard, but it's not a bad thing. It's a good thing.