Way back when Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439, he did more than just work out a more efficient way of getting words onto paper than hiring a room full of monks armed with ink pots and quills.
The real genius behind Gutenberg's invention was not that it led to the birth of journalism, display advertising and the newspaper, printing and publishing industries in general – although all these things are a very, very cool. But rather, the magic of the printing press was that it revolutionized the spreading of the message, any message.
Back in the Middle Ages, people most probably talked about the same issues we discuss today – sharing news about politics, crime, business, the black plague, intervillage sport and gossip. Some things never change – even when you give or take six hundred years or so.
But Gutenberg turned message delivery on its head, getting the same news to more people in one go than had previously been thought possible. He was the technology genius of his time – the Dark Ages version of Bill Gates, Sergei Brin, Larry Page and Steve Jobs, and those guys that invented the internet. His invention changed the context of everything that came afterwards.
Thinking about Gutenberg as a technology guru rather than a print master puts a whole different spin on our history and whether we have lived up to his legacy.
For the past 550 years, newspapers have largely focused on improving the printing press, allowing us to print larger papers with more pages, more quickly and cheaply, getting them further afield. We've spent millions of hours agonizing about page layouts, designs and the words and images contained within them. Some companies diversified into radio, television, and film, but our expertise has been in the stories we've told and the messages we've spread. Our thank you to the man whose invention created the first written context has been an abundance of content.
We have honored Gutenberg not through the spirit of his entrepreneurship, but refined and reformed his original vision and the ideas it sought to spread. We have followed his lead, but can we truly say we have been technology leaders ourselves?
We have not. We have been refiners. We have been followers.
Let's be brutally honest. Over the past 20 years of technological developments, it is the companies that have changed the context of the message and how it is delivered, that are today reaping the enormous financial benefits.
Personal computing? Apple and Microsoft totally changed the paradigm of how we type information, design it, show it to one another, display it, collate it, even the language we use around it. The internet has connected us. Google has revolutionized how we search and find information with searches that take seconds, or at worst, minutes where once they took days, weeks, months. And social networking connects us to our friends and all this information in one access-anywhere platform. (Yes, I know there are cynics out there that say Facebook and others don't have a positive bottom-line yet, but tell me any other time where so many millions of people have gathered behind one idea and the money has not followed?)
Unless we choose to sell our ideas – which as journalists we firmly and rightly refuse to do – there is no money to be made in content. The new business models in newspapers/news media delivery have got to work out a way to get people to pay for context. Or even better still, multiple ways.
For newspaper companies to have a truly successful future, we need to be investing in the next waves of context technology, imagining and daring to invest in the next Google, the next Microsoft, the thing that comes after Facebook.
Just as we invest in talented senior writers and leave them to their own devices to follow the stories that bring down governments, lead news bulletins for weeks and change the fabric of our societies, we need to be hiring the best and brightest programmers and engineers, giving them permission to dream and aspire. Or alternatively investing and partnering with companies that do.
Newspapers that can only see the future in content condemn us to our own Dark Ages.
And Gutenberg deserves better than that.