Newsrooms should prefer light over darkness

The first electric light bulb illuminated the first room in 1809. It wasn’t until 1879 that Thomas Edison improved on the design, producing a light bulb that would burn for 40 hours (a year later, 1,200 hours).

But inventing the light bulb was only half the problem. You could place a million light bulbs in a million homes, and they would all be as useful as a phonograph with no records.

Edison also had to invent a way to distribute electricity. That took time to roll out and perfect, but the vast superiority of electric light bulbs over candles and gas lamps must have seemed obvious to any objective observer during those nascent days of virtual light.

Can you imagine a professor of waxology in 1890 saying, “It is your duty as a candle maker and a citizen to read the newspaper only by candle light — emphasis on wicks, not filaments”?

That’s essentially what Roy Peter Clark is saying: Embrace the darkness over the light; look to the past, not the future.

The problem for news web sites isn’t lack of revenue opportunities. It is lack of audience. We are not yet producing news sites that engage audiences in sustainable, repeatable, habit-forming ways.

And I fear we’re not going to get there in time if print journalists keep clinging to nostalgia for The Front Page rather than concentrating their remarkable intelligence and creativity on producing better news web sites.

6 thoughts on “Newsrooms should prefer light over darkness

  1. I love reading the printed newspaper every morning. I also love The Front Page (especially the 1974 version with Matthau and Lemon).

    That said, I now update my blogs from my iPod Touch or laptop and follow sports and news on my Treo.

    Living in the Past is an album by Jethro Tull, not a way to save our noble industry.

  2. The way you put this reminds me of an anecdote I heard and posted awhile ago in my blog: Think of the ice harvesters, but be a refrigerator. I’ll just copy and paste the quote taken from a graduation speech here:

    Challenge the known and embrace the unknown.

    One of the biggest mistakes you can make in life is to accept the known and resist the unknown. You should, in fact, do exactly the opposite: challenge the known and embrace the unknown.

    Let me tell you a short story about ice. In the late 1800s there was a thriving ice industry in the Northeast. Companies would cut blocks of ice from frozen lakes and ponds and sell them around the world. The largest single shipment was 200 tons that was shipped to India. 100 tons got there unmelted, but this was enough to make a profit.

    These ice harvesters, however, were put out of business by companies that invented mechanical ice makers. It was no longer necessary to cut and ship ice because companies could make it in any city during any season.

    These ice makers, however, were put out of business by refrigerator companies. If it was convenient to make ice at a manufacturing plant, imagine how much better it was to make ice and create cold storage in everyone’s home.

    You would think that the ice harvesters would see the advantages of ice making and adopt this technology. However, all they could think about was the known: better saws, better storage, better transportation.

    Then you would think that the ice makers would see the advantages of refrigerators and adopt this technology. The truth is that the ice harvesters couldn’t embrace the unknown and jump their curve to the next curve.

    Challenge the known and embrace the unknown, or you’ll be like the ice harvester and ice makers.

    Adaption is not optional.

  3. Nice analogy, Meranda.

    Not really important, but last fall my wife and I drove up to Sodus Bay, which we discovered used to be a big ice-harvest location.

    History is littered with dead industries that failed to adapt.

  4. “His Girl Friday” was much better, even though it used the same script as “The Front Page.” Much like redesigning the way we deliver news. Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, much more interesting, like adding layers of video and audio to words.

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