Everything Old Is New Again

New media lessons from the Victorian era

For two years, I’ve been researching GWM Reynolds, a novelist-journalist-politician working in Paris (1830-36) and London (1837-69). In particular, I’ve been looking at the influence of those years in France on his English career: maybe his early Parisian affair explains why he grew into such an eclectic Victorian oddball. His contemporaries certainly couldn’t figure him out, and when they decried him as a rule-breaker they were also defining the rules of the game.

In Reynolds’ time, the mass press was a new idea, and Victorian editors were very explicit about what they thought the purpose of journalism in modern society should be. They argued about how to control their information revolution, how to maintain order and public morality when everyone suddenly had access to trashy romance novels and parliamentary activities. What happens to authority structures, they asked, when those at the bottom can read about and judge those at the top?

Their questions foreshadow the debates we are having today. As in the nineteenth century, journalism has been at the center of these debates, not only because we’ve had to modify print and broadcast practices to accommodate blogs and citizen journalists, but also because old and new media are the fora where the debate about media takes place.

At the end of the day, that’s precisely what the Victorians recommended—most of them didn’t have neat answers to the messiness of historical change, but they believed that by talking about the challenges, and letting readers engage different views, the press would be doing its job, curating and cultivating the public debate.

I’m often asked why, as a recent college grad, I’ve foregone the usual consulting gig or the Peace Corps tour for a career in a struggling field. Journalists, I believe, are most important at times like these, when the nature of public debate itself comes under question or into flux. Society—and journalism—will be transformed, and the only way to influence the outcome is to participate in the transformation.

Unlike some print journalists I have worked with at BusinessWeek and Forbes, I don’t see new technologies as the enemy, or citizen-driven media as necessarily vapid or vitriolic. Unlike some bloggers I have met, I don’t see print and broadcast journalists as irrelevant or arrogant. And unlike most media wonks, I recognize that readers and viewers are more inclined to take the best content from all media than to rely exclusively on Newsweek or Google News.

What I foresee as a business model is a convergence of old and new media, where large organizations—with brand cachet and international bureaus—buy up smaller niche blogs—with local or topical expertise—and deliver an aggregated, complete, cross-platform whole. The print product or the evening newscast will be like the introduction to an academic text: an outline of what you can find inside, containing the main thrust of the argument. Like a college student with a paper due the next morning, viewers and readers will turn online for more information on some, but not all, subjects. While all subscribers will get the same print paper, they will customize the homepage to serve as a portal to blogs that interest them.

Like many media prognosticators, I’m basing this largely on my own behavior. In the morning, we get three daily papers at home: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. I normally take the Times Arts section with me on the subway, to do the crossword. The rest I page through, taking note of stories I’m interested in on a Post-It, but leaving the hard copies at home for my parents; later in the day, I go to those stories on the Web, where I not only read them, but listen to the podcasts or watch the video features that accompany them. There are also a host of Web-only publications I visit daily, but much of my information comes from this multimedia ritual I perform with the morning papers. The first media company to institutionalize such a reading practice will have me swooning.

Signs of such a model are already in place: The Washington Post bought TechCrunch this spring, outsourcing its tech coverage to those in the know; CondeNast has done the same with ArsTechnica. The New York Times turned much of its Web site into an aggregation of niche blogs, and is slowly turning the print paper into a leaner product, giving us just a taste of what can be found in each online niche. In broadcast, we’ll soon see a parallel convergence of network TV and viral video, radio and podcasts: on their Web sites, CNN and MSNBC now provide full-length versions of the interviews that get excerpted on nightly newscasts and morning talk shows.

In five years, writers will work both for print and online and producers and anchors for both TV/radio and the web. Each journalist will have to learn which of their story ideas fits better online or offline, to be adept at both the snarky wit of the blogosphere and the objective grit of the analog world. In the longer term, the styles of blogs and newspapers or viral film and network program will converge: with the same people working in both worlds, the blogs that survive will be those that go deep on research; the papers and news shows that survive will be those that can convey personality.

That stylistic transformation is likely to occupy the bulk of my career. As a writer who already produces work for both print publications and blogs, I am ideally suited to write about that transformation. Three years ago, I was promoted from intern to freelance copyeditor in a publishing house when the editors discovered that I was conversant with e-books and could evaluate various emerging platforms on the firm’s behalf, so they wouldn’t have to do so themselves. I’d already decided it was journalism, not publishing, I wanted to pursue long-term, but the gratification I found in decoding new media for the uninitiated stuck.

When I leave Columbia’s M.A. program, I’m hoping to spend some time covering the media as an industry, not only because I find the new technologies compelling, but because I believe changes in media today map onto changes in business, politics and society. With technological change as my lens, I’ll be working towards the goals of the Victorians, using an eye on media as a window on the world.


In July, we invited laid-off and bought-out journalists to reflect on their experience in the form of a letter to colleagues. Now we are issuing a similar invitation to the young people who’ve come into the profession in the last five years or so, and the young journalism students who soon will. We invite them to air their concerns and hopes about journalism, too. The central questions: What do you see in this business that makes you still want to pursue it? How do you imagine people will get quality news five years down the road? How will you try to fit in? Send your submissions to editors@cjr.org. We’ll publish these periodically under the headline “Starting Thoughts,” and we’ll archive everything we publish here.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Maha R. Atal has written on technology, media, design, energy, environment, and development for BusinessWeek, Forbes, the Providence Journal, and National Geographic's The Glimpse. She holds a bachelor's degree in history and comparative literature from Brown University.