How our bits shape us: James Gleick’s “The Information” » Nieman Journalism Lab

3. Carrying the news

For instance, in the nineteenth century, commentators argued that the telegraph, rapidly expanding in both reach and popularity, would soon do away with newspapers:

Anticipated at every point by the lightning wings of the Telegraph, [newspapers] can only deal in local ‘items’ or abstract speculations. Their power to create sensations, even in election campaigns, will be greatly lessened — as the infallible Telegraph will contradict their falsehoods as fast as they can publish them.

Instead, as Gleick notes, “newspapers could not wait to put the technology to work. Editors found that any dispatch seemed more urgent and thrilling with the label ‘Communicated by Electric Telegraph.’” Several startup newspapers even took to naming themselves “the Telegraph” — it sounded fast and modern, and suggested that what newspapermen did, too, was “writing at a distance.”

The Crimean War was the first major conflict experienced nearly in real-time by an audience scattered across the globe, because of the telegraph. But first, fast reports, especially those bearing sensational stories, often had to be corrected later. News style was changing, too. Because telegraph operators charged by the word, reporters’ writing became terse, abrupt, factual, economical. Telegraph style became a signal of the writers’ modernity, to be enshrined in style guides like Strunk & White’s.

Tim Carmody interviews James Gleick about his book “The Information.” The anxieties many people feel today about the internet were seen many times — including when the telegraph came along.


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