Media in the Modern Era
HISTORY. Newspapers are our oldest mass medium. It wasn’t until the telegraph, however, made the transmission of news independent of geographic distances that newspapers became a modern mass medium. Newspapers reigned sovereign for the next 100 years. It gained a monopoly on information, it gained political power, and it created enormous fortunes for owners.
Radio broke the grip of the newspapers during the 1920s. Three decades later, television grew out of the big radio companies. Newspaper, radio and television became the media of the modern era. This era has ended; we live in a new time. The time serpent is molting. We don’t yet know what the new skin will look like. We don’t recognize it; we can’t distinguish it. We’re even less able to discern its pattern.
Berlingske Tidende, telegraphy, train traffic, telephone, telefax, development block, Erik Dahmén, daily newspaper circulation, The Times, The Guardian, Metro, Wikipedia, BBC, Herbert Hoover, SBS, MTG, Spotify, Pandora, NPR, FCC, NBC, CBS, ABC, Karmansbo, Tony Judt, Hans L Zetterberg, The time serpent (Tidens orm)
In 1857, one year after the Crimean War ended, an international financial crisis occurred, starting in the USA. The banks had then, as now, been altogether too generous in granting loans. A Danish trading house that served as banker for the Danish grain trade was unable to repay its loans to pressured Hamburg banks. The executive board of the Danish National Bank, the government, and the King of Denmark, feared the risk of national bankruptcy, something the country had experienced in 1813, following the Napoleonic Wars.
But such was not to be. The young director of the new Private Bank, CF Tietgen, saved the Danish financial sector. He traveled to Hamburg by steamboat and train where he found that a million Deutsche Mark were needed immediately. Within two days, the Danish trading house was able to secure its payments and the crisis was avoided.
Three decades earlier, it would have been impossible for a Dane even to travel from one end of the country to the other without a passport. The 1857 bailout was made possible with the aid of the new railway, steamboat, telegraph and a type of banker who, at the time, had been around for only one or two years.
In 1850s Copenhagen, people lived in the midst of a rapid and unfathomable reshaping of society. People were struck with amazement when the director of Private Bank, CF Tietgen, a mere 28 years old, saved his country from economic collapse.
It was indeed a time of amazement: at the same time, city excise taxes were being abolished, the old city gates were being torn down, gas lamps were replacing oil lamps and the 400-year old Öresund’s toll (a toll for crossing Öresund Sound) was eradicated.
Everything was reported on in the newspapers, distributed now in the city and to other parts of the country. Berlingske Tidende had been operating in Copenhagen since 1749, making it one of the world’s oldest newspapers still in production. It was circulated daily by 1841 and by 1844 there were both morning and evening editions.
The expansion of the was rapid in Europe and North America. In the early 1850s, it was introduced Sweden. The telegraph was a crucial conveyor of information for rail traffic. These two systems of communication supported each other: the railroad used the telegraph to manage traffic while the telegraph took advantage of the web of rails for setting up telegraph poles.
The telegraph was unchallenged up to the introduction of the telephone in 1877. Interestingly, telegraph technology was used in the USA up until 2006. The telex machine, which allowed users to send text messages directly to each other, was introduced in Sweden as late as 1945. The teleprinter was used as late as the 1990s for conveying news telegrams, among other things. It wasn’t until the breakthrough of modern information technology that the more than 100-year old telegraph lost its role.
It’s striking how little development occurred during the telephone’s first 100 years. A qualitative step forward in the development of the telephone — that is, a functional change in the way telephones were used in society — didn’t occur until the introduction of , which was, practically speaking, in the 1970s.
One reason for the telegraph’s perseverance was that it was a good fit for the text culture prevalent in modern society. Through the news telegram, the telegraph enjoyed a special position within the entire “development block” that burgeoned around the world’s daily newspapers. The news telegram made rapid communication possible throughout the world. The text of the telegram could be contained in the printed newspaper and contribute authenticity, and thereby credibility, to the news reporting of the paper.
The telephone played, and still does, a similar role for radio — both regarding remote participation by its own workers and program involvement by listeners.
The Swedish economist Erik Dahmén coined the term “development block” — a fundamental term for understanding technological and economic development processes. It applied to the telegraph, the gasoline-powered automobile, and it eminently applies to the products, services and production processes that are underway following digitalization, in the broadest sense of the word. Dahmén himself defined the term as:
“A series of events in business, technical development (including innovations) where the various links (sections) in one or another tangible way, have a causation with each other and are dependent on each other /…/ A development block can come about without conscious manipulation aimed at creating the block in question /…/ In other cases, a more or less clear understanding of a block’s possibilities has been realized in advance and influenced business /…/ In the various types of development blocks that business can lead to, technical development (“technology” understood in its broadest meaning) plays an important and often decisive role. Their emergence is not seldom a result of solving a technical problem in one or several segments through a certain definite or technological or technical advance, perhaps as a result of additional innovations occurring. /…/ It’s at this point that one of the business-dependent interactions between technical and economic development comes into the picture to an extremely high degree.
[Dahmén, E, 1980, Hur studera industriell utveckling, i Dahmén, E & Eliasson, G (red), Industriell utveckling i Sverige. Teori och verklighet under ett sekel. Stockholm: IUI ]
In the same way that there’s a connection between the expansion of railways and the telegraph, there’s an obvious connection between the expansion of the telegraph and the modern newspaper, just as there is between the telephone and modern radio.
The Daily Newspaper
With the success of the telegraph, newspapers were able to transmit daily news information to its readers, in the same way that radio newsrooms, with the help of the telephone, were later able to offer listeners “here and now” experiences. Remote reporting was dependent on travel by sea or with horses a bit into the 1800s. In one blow, the newspaper could be updated daily. What happened late evening in London or Paris could be reported in the early morning paper distributed in Stockholm and in Luleå, in northern Sweden.
The newspaper became the modern medium. There were some forty newspapers in the USA at the end of the 1700s. By 1814, this number had increased to 346. By the mid-1800s there were 2 500 newspapers and by 1880 there were 11 314 different newspapers registered in the USA. In Great Britain, the period between 1860 and 1910 was considered the Golden Age of newspaper.
A similar Golden Age was seen in Sweden somewhat later. Increases in both the number of different newspapers as well as circulation were substantial during the later part of the 1800s and even more so during the beginning of the 1900s. There were 235 different daily newspapers in Sweden in 1919, the largest ever. The total circulation was about two million. By the mid 1900s, the number of different newspapers had decreased somewhat but the circulation had increased to about three and a half million.
At the same time, the population had increased from just less than six million to seven million.
In the USA, daily newspaper reading reached its highest, depending on how one counts, in the mid-1960s. Over 80 percent of the adult population read the daily paper in 1964, a presidential election year. By 2007, this number had decreased to just fewer than 50 percent. During this time, the population had increased. In the USA, daily newspaper reading reached its highest in absolute numbers at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s; it has diminished fairly dramatically since then.
The combined weekday circulation in Sweden has dropped from almost 4.9 million in 1980 to 3.6 million in 2009, a decrease of about 25 percent. Interestingly, newspaper reading among the population has only decreased from 84 percent in 1985 to 77 percent in 2009. However, these calculations include free newspapers. In fact, one of the biggest changes in newspaper structure in Sweden has been the massive breakthrough of free newspapers. The free newspaper Metro alone has a daily circulation of one and a half million readers.
In general, there’s a consistent pattern showing daily newspapers are losing ground, with the greatest losses seen in the most developed countries. In just three years, from 2007 to 2009, the circulation of American newspapers decreased by 30 percent. The corresponding decrease in Great Britain was 21 percent. During the last year, from May 2009 to May 2010, the British Daily Telegraph lost 16 percent of its readership; The Times lost 13 percent and The Guardian 10 percent.
Quality newspapers experienced the greatest losses but even mid-market and down-market newspapers lost readership.
Smaller circulation means decreased revenues from subscriptions. This, taken together with the fact that journalism — as with other service producers — demonstrates low growth in productivity, has been countered with increased subscription fees. In fixed value, a year’s subscription to a Swedish morning paper in the large cities has increased by 300 percent — that is, quadrupled — between 1960 and 1980.
Daily newspaper circulation is decreasing as are advertising revenues.
The newspaper is the central component of a development block that, beyond the newspaper itself, includes pulp production and newspaper sheets, newspaper printers, news agencies, advertising bureaus, advertising agents, classifieds, and newspaper distribution. It’s not until one understands how all the various components interact that one realizes the extent of their mutual dependency. If one or several of the components are changed substantially, the entire development block is changed.
Dahmén’s fundamental model describes different phases of a development block. In the initial transformative phase, the different forces of change come into play as a result of the advances in new technology. For the newspaper development block, new printing presses and the telegraph were developed during the middle of the 1800s. After the transformative phase follows a rationalization phase, when production is made as effective as possible — this phase is also characterized by stability in various respects. For newspapers, this phase has been extremely long — nearly one hundred years.
Eventually, the entire development block reaches a crisis phase following the development of new technology or production methods that undermine the competitiveness of the old development block.
It is not difficult to recognize that the newspaper is now in the process of transitioning from the second phase to the third, from rationalization to crisis. Two components of the newspaper development block have changed substantially due to the new information technology. Both printing and distribution costs approach zero when the editorial content is distributed via Internet.
Additionally, entirely new alternative advertising sites have opened up with the development of Internet. At the same time, it’s important to realize that the new development block “digital media” or “digital information” is still under formation.
Some components are in place, among them private advertising. There are market-leading sites for homes, used cars and utility goods. Other components are not in place. This applies particularly to news media’s central element: the news.
It will also be interesting to follow how the development of apps will impact the advertising market, which, nonetheless, is present on the web. A more niche-like and controlled consumption using an app will likely diminish the possibilities of attracting advertisers to broad websites.
There are surrounding areas where new dominant services are well developed. Two of the most obvious are book distribution and special editions of encyclopedias. The most interesting is Wikipedia, which isn’t merely about alternative publishing and distribution forms but about an entirely new production order.
It’s hard to imagine that either printed encyclopedias or even a dictionary edited by experts will be printed at all in the future. It may just be that online selling of printed books is soon to be seen as the last phase in the life of the traditional book. The real renewal occurring is replacement of the printed book with the e-book.
Even today we can see the relatively short lifespan of traditional books, as paperbacks have usurped the market from hardbacks and where more and more well-known authors find that their works are all too soon placed on the sale tables.
Retrospectively, it’s impressive that newspaper management around the world has, thus far, been able to withstand the strong pressure for change that’s been directed toward newspapers. Up until the last economic crisis, newspapers in many countries managed to retain their results. This has been made possible during the last two decades by decreasing the format — transitioning from broadsheet to tabloid and decreasing the total number of pages—and, occasionally, extensive reductions in the number of employees. The transition to digital newspaper production decreased both printing costs and press costs — the costs for the purely technical production of a newspaper page in terms of layout and editing.
In 2008-2009, a total of 30 000 jobs disappeared from USA’s newspapers. This number includes all newspapers, not just daily papers. About 11 000 of the positions that disappeared were journalistic.
The second half of the 1800s witnessed the breakthrough of the daily newspaper. The following half-century belonged to radio. The telegraph’s exact year of birth can hardly be determined and even less so for the newspaper. Though it took a number of years to develop radio technology, the modern broadcast radio’s year of birth can be determined more accurately.
Regular cordless radio broadcasts were begun in Argentina in 1920. A few days later, the first news program was sent by radio in Detroit.
Radio developed from the telegraph. The telegraph is closely associated with the expansion of the railway. Radio’s early development is connected to shipping. The first commercial use of radio technology was at the turn of the 20th century when radio was used between coastal stations and seafaring ships. Early radio is strongly associated with an Italian by the name of Guglielmo Marconi , a man with solid Irish ancestry — his mother was part of the Jameson Whiskey family.
BBC was founded in 1922 and the first broadcasts were sent by November of that year. In Sweden, Radiotjänst (Radio Service) began its operation in January 1925. The oldest preserved Swedish radio broadcast is from 1931 .
The immediate prehistory is complex and interesting. The newspapers’ interest in retaining their position as news conveyors was a determining factor in the formation of broadcast radio in Sweden. The same was true in Great Britain when BBC began its operation. Another determining factor was the respect for the potential political impact of the new medium. Government wanted to regulate radio. From the very beginning there was the conception that the government would take a firm enough grip on radio’s operation so that broadcast objectivity and impartiality would be secured.
Across all of Europe, license financed programs were chosen for the new radio medium. The breakthrough of radio was rapid. After only eight years of operation, more than one person in ten in Sweden bought radio licenses — a very large proportion of Swedish households. Great Britain sold the most radio licenses at this time with one in eight inhabitants paying for radio licenses. Broadcasts in Sweden amounted to 3000 hours yearly, or nine hours every 24-hour period. In Great Britain, BBC’s broadcast (London National) for 4500 hours yearly while German broadcasts from Berlin reached over 5000 hours per year.
The number of license holders increased steadily. By 1950, after 25 years of Swedish radio, 2 000 000 households paid for licenses, and ten years later, another half million licenses had been sold. By the end of 2009 there were 3 497 872 households paying for their radio and television license.
USA chose another route. Within the framework of the inevitable regulations surrounding the allocation of frequencies, early supporters of an unregulated radio market — relative to Europe — assumed dominance. A structure consisting of networks of radio stations — financed by advertising and operated as profit-maximizing companies — was created. Politically speaking, the driving force behind the American radio regulations passed by Congress in 1927 was Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, who later served as President between 1929-1933.
The commercial radios earlier victory in the USA wasn’t self-evident. Strong voices advocated for a more “European” public service orientation. From the beginning, there was a radio tradition that emanated from universities — also in the USA; there was the concept of radio as a tool in the service of popular education. In the beginning of the 1940s, when broadcasts on FM radio were initiated in America, frequencies were reserved for non-commercial radio, despite the powerful position enjoyed by commercial radio. However, it wasn’t until 1967 that Congress decided the actual provisions for a national public radio — that is, non-commercial radio similar to the public service radio that had dominated most European countries for the past half-century.
Radio quickly spread in the USA. Thirty-five percent of American households had radios in 1930, and five years later the number had doubled.
Radio is often historically seen as a medium for the spoken word. However, it’s impossible to understand radio without understanding the role of music in 1900s society.
Thus, the radio and the phonograph become media cousins. The record industry — producing music on phonograph records — was part of the basis of radio’s strong position. Radio and the phonograph were, to a significant extent, interchangeable. This was true during the 1920s, with its hand-cranked version, just as it is now with Spotify, Pandora and other Internet music services being the current “hand-cranked phonograph”.
Popular music as the lingua franca of the global society, especially for young people, merits it’s own dissertation. Young people from all over the world listen to the same music, regardless of native language and culture. Even within a homogenous culture, music can become a language that divides generations. Almost all radio stations throughout the world use music to determine segments for their shows.
Music plays a decisive role in radio’s positioning within the media landscape, and it will continue to do so. Sweden is in this respect an illustrative example. Commercial radio is entirely built around the selection of music played.
From an editorial point of view, commercial music radio might be seen as a troublesome competitor to editorial radio, both regarding talk radio as well as radio with a more comprehensive and high quality selection of music.
As a matter of fact, the broad and popular music offered probably fills an important role in maintaining radio listening as such, and, therefore, also teaching new generations to listen to the radio.
In contrast, the development of the new Internet music services may negatively influence radio listening, especially regarding the establishment of habitual radio listening. In Sweden it’s about Spotify, but Spotify competes internationally with a large number of other legal music services. Recently, the founders of Skype introduced the service Radio in USA. Additionally, extensive illegal listening occurs.
Both expectations and concerns are elicited by Google’s announcement that it will be launching a music service.
It’s easy to perceive the USA as the classic television society. But in so doing one overlooks the powerful position that radio has enjoyed ever since its early days. Even now, during a normal week, 239 million Americans listen to radio, or 93 percent of the population over age 12. And radio listening is increasing. While public service in the European sense of the term does not exist in the USA, National Public Radio (NPR)—the non-commercial radio in USA — captures 34 million listeners every week. NPR’s morning version (Morning Edition) of the news magazine reaches 20 million listeners.
The three big American television networks’ morning programs each reach about five million viewers which when combined is still less than NPR’s Morning Edition.
The development in Great Britain confirms the American picture. Radio listening reached record high levels during the first half of 2010. A total of 46.5 million, or 90.6 percent of the population over age 12, listened weekly to radio. Of these, 35 million, or 68 percent, listened to one of BBC’s different channels.
In Sweden, radio listening is similar to that found in the USA and Great Britain. More than 90 percent of the inhabitants between the ages of 12 and 79 listen to radio every week.
Television’s breakthrough and history belongs to our time. In 1941, after a couple of decades of technological development, the American governmental authorities at the FCC issued the standards for television. From the two big American radio networks NBC and CBS, emerged the three dominant television networks, with ABC as an offshoot from NBC.
British BBC had begun airing television to a very limited extent prior to World War II but the trial broadcasts were discontinued with the outbreak of the war and reassumed directly after it ended.
Television’s development occurred fairly naturally within the structures that were already available for radio. As a rule, radio companies were responsible for the introduction of television. Due to television’s tremendous impact, it soon dominated the old radio companies.
Changes in the USA were, to some degree, less extensive than in Europe. Public service companies had dominated the European radio industry entirely.
With the introduction of television, the decisive structural question was posed: Should commercial television be allowed to develop parallel to public service television? One by one, the countries of Europe were faced with one of the modern media society’s genuinely decisive crossroads. In Great Britain, the first television commercial was aired in 1955. The first commercial television channels in Germany were started as recently as in 1984, and in France in 1986.
The perspective we’ve sketched — from the middle of the 1800s, with the telegraph and the emerging media society’s breakthrough to 2010 with a 150-year old media structure challenged by an entirely new communication technology — frames the modern era. Certainly, “mediafication” is an important part of modernity. At the same time we haven’t addressed completely different development factors that have had direct — and perhaps even more indirect — significance for media development.
Since 1850, the Swedish gross domestic product (GDP) has increased 20-fold. The average life expectancy has doubled from 40 to 80 years. Sweden was still an agricultural society when CF Tietgen telegraphed Hamburg and Copenhagen to save Denmark from financial collapse; nearly 90 percent of the population lived and supported themselves in the countryside.
People involved in agriculture and early industry worked all the time. Free time was an unknown phenomenon. Prosperity, urbanization and advances in public health naturally comprise much more important and far-reaching changes for individuals than the “mediafication” of society. At the same time, in many respects advances in prosperity are essential for the development of media. Who was able to read a newspaper, and when would it be read, in a worker’s home at the end of the 1800s? Who would have been able to afford a subscription?
Different facets of advances in prosperity — not the least increased purchasing power and radically shortened work hours — have made it possible for people to look for those media that technological development has yielded.
After the Modern
The modern era has been the era of nation states and strong institutions. It has been the heyday of Western Europe and North America. It has seen the birth and triumph of democracy. But it has also been the era of widespread war. Modern media’s development is interwoven in all of this.
The big, the important, but also the terrifying has “happened” for everyone through media. But that which has happened, the picture of reality, has been determined by the perspective of the socioeconomically homogenous cultures of Europe and the USA.
The British-American historian Tony Judt described the year 1989 as the last year of the postwar period. The question is if 1989 isn’t, practically speaking, the last year of the whole modern era. The dichotomy between east and west, between dictatorship and democracy, is broken down. The global economic dominance of the West is offset by the economic strength of the development of Southeast Asia.
The media structure is cracking up. Internet’s impact becomes far-reaching. The weakening of the daily newspaper is discernable. The commercialization and fragmentation of television is increasing.
None of this means that the world was changed overnight. To use an expression coined by the Swedish sociologist Hans L Zetterberg, “The time serpent has begun to molt.” All of the media institutions remain. We don’t clearly see, yet, that the colors and pattern are no longer the same, but we are living in a new era.