Fletcher Harper was a journalism pioneer. Along with his brothers, Harper founded Harper’s Weekly in 1857. Instead of printing page after page of text, Harper jazzed things up with lots of drawings and cartoons. After photography showed up, he added pictures.
The weekly newspaper was a giant hit. It was wildly popular during the Civil War and in the years following the war it featured the work of legendary cartoonist Thomas Nast.
I ran across a copy of the Sept. 21, 1901 issue of Harper’s the other day. The cover features Lady Liberty mourning for slain president William McKinley. Inside is everything you could ever want to know about McKinley, new president Theodore Roosevelt, their families and all kinds of other stuff, including ads for Beeman’s Gum (“all others are imitations”) and the Corsique system for bust and form development offered by the Madame Taxis Toilet Co. of Chicago.
Yes, Harper’s Weekly was an American institution — until it went out of business in 1916.
Harper’s story is uncomfortably familiar to publishing companies today. At one time, newspapers were king of the information hill. Radio came along and chipped away at that a little bit. Television came along and chipped away at that a lot more. Cable television came along and made things even worse. But they were nothing compared to … the Internet.
The Internet is such a big deal we even capitalize it. It offers instant information (even if large quantities of it are questionable). Even more importantly when it comes to survival of other life forms, the Internet sucks up advertising dollars like a blue whale swallowing tons of plankton for breakfast.
Back in 1987, newspaper readership hit an all-time high in this country at around 62 million paid subscribers. The Internet showed up not long after and 30 years later paid newspaper subscriptions dropped to just less than 31 million. (You know how I know this? Yep, I looked it up online.)
Many newspapers, some you probably knew personally, have followed Harper’s Weekly to that big newsroom in the sky.
Newspapers have tried to adapt, and most, including this one, offer an online product that is up-to-date and informative. Unfortunately, most newspapers don’t make much money with their online editions.
Eventually the paper versions of newspapers will all be gone. That will be good news for the trees of the world and really not so bad for the newspapers that manage to survive. There’s nothing magic about paper.
The problem is, a lot of news organizations won’t survive.
People used to say “you can’t believe everything you read in the paper.” Now we all laugh when we say “I read it on the Internet.” It’s a little frightening to think that most people get the news from a source that makes newspapers look like veritable pillars of reliability.
Here’s what makes me uncomfortable — at least with most newspapers there is an effort to edit stories, check facts and at least land somewhere in the general vicinity of accuracy. The Internet has become a giant no-holds-barred wrestling match with many of the paying customers believing the show is real. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone tell me about something they read on Facebook and the old editor warning light in my head starts flashing. I can’t help myself. I have to look it up and then explain how what they just read was either not true or a distortion of the facts. They always seem amazed that someone would put something like that up on the Internet knowing it wasn’t true. After all, the Internet is capitalized!
Well, there’s always hope. I’m an optimist and I think that when the presses stop rolling, there still will be a way to get important local information from people who believe in careful reporting and editing. But it looks like it is going to be painful getting there.
David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.