New book by Jeff Jarvis uses lessons from media’s print history to frame the digital future

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Five-hundred-and-fifty years is quite a sweep of history for what we can call the media industry since moveable type transformed access to information, a revolution that reverberates into the predictions for the future of media in the latest book by journalist, author, and lecturer Jeff Jarvis.

In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, The Age of Print and Its Lessons for the Age of the Internet, Jarvis looks at what the era of print can tell us about the new era we inhabit and face of digital abundance and rapid transformation, potentially accelerating with the arrival of generative AI to add to the tools and challenges facing media.

“We cannot know whether the net will become as fundamental a fulcrum in history as the printing press proved to be, though I imagine it could be,” Jarvis writes in chapter one. “For the flow of change we are experiencing is just beginning; it will not end in years or decades or perhaps even generations or centuries.”

Of course, publishers battered by a decline in advertising and indifferent attitudes to their products from users who have a galaxy of content to choose from may feel they don’t have the time to wait. For them, Jarvis also has news: The era of mass media is over. Get used to it.

A critical contention in the future-looking elements of the book is that power has shifted irrevocably from mass media publishers with capital-intensive printing plants and a one-to-many attitude. To stay relevant and in business, they have to listen and engage more directly with audiences and individuals and show more respect to their needs and thoughts, Jarvis argues.

“Publishers try to protect the capital structure that they’ve had, the ownership they’ve had, the special status they’ve had,” Jarvis told me in an interview. “This is the last gasp of old media, traffic for traffic’s sake, scale for scale’s sake. All that came out of the advertising business model and I think that changes now.”

Jarvis holds the Leonard Tow Chair in Journalism Innovation and directs the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who wrote a book called “What Would Google Do?” and has been a notable critic of media companies using copyright and political pressure to defend themselves against big technology platforms, Jarvis is harsh about big media’s attempts to defend its power and one-time monopoly over the creation and dissemination of information.

“All of this gnashing of teeth and wailing and thumping of chest from newspaper publishers about how Google is stealing their value when the very essence of news has always been about building on somebody else’s work. Whether it's a source you call or the clip you refer to or your rewrite or the wire service you rewrite, we’ve always done that,” he told me.

Publishers and journalists need to rethink the value proposition they are pitching to their audiences and think about the service they are offering, he says: “We’ve got to again, focus on the actual value rather than on the outmoded concepts and commodified concept of content.”

That means developing audio, events, and rethinking the public service mission of journalism and of business models based more on collaboration and cooperation such as pursued by The Texas Tribune or The Marshall Project, where specialist content is shared with other publishers — the act of distribution becoming the value exchange.

What he calls the death of mass media or a focus on the “mass” — “the need to consider new tribes, new rewards, and currencies.”

“The mass is the child and creation of media, a descendent of Gutenberg, the ultimate extension of treating the public as object — as audience — rather than participant,” he writes in a later chapter titled Death to the Mass. First, industrialisation of printing created a mass-scale media business and that was even more accelerated with the creation of broadcast media.

“With broadcast, the mass became all-encompassing. Mass is the defining business model of pre-internet capitalism: making as many identical widgets to sell to as many identical people as possible. Content becomes a commodity to attract the attention of the audience, who themselves are sold as a commodity. In the mass, everything and everyone is commodified,” Jarvis writes in a chapter, which in a sense is the essence of the book — mass media is over.

Jarvis, who has been criticised in the past for his optimism about creating platforms for many and all voices, likes to argue that we are in a golden age of information freedom and access.

“The beautiful thing is we have and we can hear more voices than we ever could before, voices who were excluded from old mainstream white male mass media,” he told me. “And that’s wonderful for the world. That is the cacophony of democracy.”

That, he argues, puts a greater responsibility on the individual to filter and to understand the quality and origin of the information one chooses to consume.

“I think we have to return to a time when we take individual responsibility for the credibility of what we read,” he told me. “We delegated that responsibility to institutions that came along of editing and publishing a newspaper.”

The term Gutenberg Parenthesis means the entire period bracketed between the moment Johannes Gutenberg perfected moveable type and mass-published bibles to unlock the Reformation and now. It is a delight for lovers of print and typography, and publishing.

Visually, the book is rich in unusual typefaces with deeper meanings. Jarvis also recounts one of my favourite stories from the history of typography of the craftsman who tossed his entire stock of the beautiful Doves typeface into the River Thames rather than have it used by another.

He explores the history of copyright and the way publishers used it to defend their power.

It is passionate about the value of print, the importance of books and periodicals, and of publishers over the centuries. You can almost smell the print rooms on every page. But it is also a sobering read for anyone thinking about the future of print and the future of publishing given the lessons of change and upheaval over the past 550 years.

Amazingly, Jarvis has already started work on another book that I suspect may annoy his old media colleagues even more.

“It's a criticism of the media’s moral panic about the Internet,” he told me. “It’s in great measure a repetition of the moral panic about radio and about television and about other new competitors, and how the old institutions tried to cash in their political capital earned through journalism, to gain protectionism.”

About Peter Bale

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