Ever get the feeling the newspaper-Web war was fought before?

Ever get the feeling the newspaper-Web war was fought before?

Ever get the feeling the newspaper-Web war was fought before?

Media criticism.
Aug. 3 2009 8:05 PM

The Newspaper-Web War

Ever get the feeling this battle was fought before?

A girl listening to the radio during the Great Depression. Click image to expand.
A girl listening to the radio during the Great Depression

The newspaper industry and its allies have many grievances against the Web. They say the Web is parasitic, that it copies newspaper content and steals its advertising. They claim that Web creators will never provide the deep reporting that democracy needs and that newspapers provided before the Web arrived and ruined the media neighborhood. They want to tame the Web by rejigging copyright law. And they protest that the Web has undermined quality journalism by teaching readers to expect news for free.

Whatever the merits of these complaints, it's not the first time established media have accused new media of bringing on Armageddon. In her deeply researched 1995 book, Media at War: Radio's Challenge to the Newspapers, 1924-1939, scholar Gwenyth L. Jackaway charts a similar set of complaints leveled by newspapers against the upstart medium of radio in the 1920s and 1930s.

The then-and-now media parallels don't line up perfectly, but a review of the war between newspapers and radio provides something just this side of enlightenment and helps frame the underlying issues in the current fight for advertising dollars. Along the way, Jackaway establishes that the newspaper industry was as shameless in the 1930s as it is today and hints at how this modern conflict may resolve itself.

Like today's Web, radio harmed newspapers commercially by disrupting the institutional identity they had carved out, Jackaway writes. The upstart media forced journalists and readers to ask, "[W]ho is a journalist? What is news? How should the news be delivered? What are the rules regarding the form and content of an acceptable news message?" Radio also fractured the existing institutional structure that partnered newspapers and wire services to deliver national and regional news. Radio could easily bypass newspapers and funnel news directly from the wire services to audiences. And, last, radio battered the institutional function of newspapers with live broadcasts of everything from sporting events to political conventions, allowing listeners to hear the news as it happened instead of reading about it 24 hours later.

Although not completely analogous to today's tussle between the newspapers and the Web, the media battle in the 1920s and 1930s echoes its points of contention. Back then, anti-radio newspapers (newspapers that didn't own radio stations) were furious over the unauthorized use of newspaper and wire service copy, just as today's Associated Press and newspaper publishers are raging over what they regard as the theft of their copy and headlines by Web sites and search engines like Google.

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Newspapers had every right to carve out just and enforceable intellectual-property rights for their copy, but their crusade against radio often lapsed into full-scale disparagement of the new media. Some print journalists and industry leaders claimed that radio content was inaccurate, skimpy, sensationalist, and trivial and that its practitioners were amateurs. When radio news was accurate, they asserted, it was either a bunch of headlines from a newspaper or a story directly pilfered from one. Does any of this sound familiar?

The print critique of radio, at its shrillest, invoked what Jackaway calls "sacred rhetoric," the first resort of old media when threatened by new. She writes:

Radio journalists, they warned, posed a threat to the journalistic ideals of objectivity, the social ideals of public service, the capitalist ideals of property rights, and the political ideals of democracy.

Baltimore Sun reporter-turned-Hollywood writer David Simon and other Web-disparaging journalists rely on similar "sacred rhetoric" today, warning that without daily newspapers to serve as our watchdogs, cops and city councils and state legislatures and the White House will run wild and democracy will fall.

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Jackaway points to other examples of old media corralling emerging media with either law, regulation, or muscle. When radio journalists applied for admission to the congressional press galleries in the 1930s, print reporters blocked them. Not until correspondent Fulton Lewis Jr. demanded the establishment  of a radio gallery in 1939 did broadcasters have equal access to Congress. In recent decades, the music industry hobbled digital audiotape technology with legislation that blocked consumers from using it to make digital copies of recordings. When the Baby Bells sought regulatory approval to publish "electronic yellow pages," the newspapers beat them back by warning Congress that the telephone companies would engage in "monopolistic thought-control," Jackaway writes. Broadcast TV and cable TV have relied on sacred rhetoric in their sparring, as have cable and the telcos when they've faced off.

Jackaway thinks these skirmishes for dominance are cultural as well as financial. She warns that media wars aren't fought just to protect economic positions but to maintain the established patterns of communication and the "deeper social structure they reflect."

How did the great newspaper-radio war finally resolve itself? In a nutshell, radio established its own wire services, including its thriving national wire, Transradio Press, in 1934. The war was over by 1935, George E. Lott Jr. writes in "The Press-Radio War of the 1930s" (Journal of Broadcasting, Summer 1970), with the newspapers essentially giving up. A period of "armed peace" ensued.

A couple of major differences between the newspaper-radio war and the newspaper-Web war: 1) Newspapers are far more invested in the Web alternative than they ever were in radio, and 2) most newspapers regard the Web as a newspaper replacement—if not tomorrow or next week, surely in the next decade. In a way, despite all the sacred rhetoric, it's well past 1935 for the Web.

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Were newspapers ultimately right about radio? Did it destroy journalism, democracy, and the American way? If you harass me with e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com, I'll harrass you with my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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