Selected excerpts from a Globe newspaper published in Toronto on February 10, 1864

A friend of a friend found an old newspaper inside the wall of a house he was renovating — not an uncommon thing to find, since many people used them for insulation. But this one is really old: it’s a copy of The Globe (a newspaper published in Toronto) from February, 1864. That’s three years before Canada even officially became a country. It was very stiff and damaged by what appeared to be water, but I was still able to make out most of the text on the front page at least.

wpid-IMG_20140111_172946.jpg

One interesting thing is that there are ads all over the front page — for things like steamship travel, houses for rent, and new technology like the steam engine and “self-adjusting spring skates,” whatever those are. One steamship company was offering passage from New York to London: a first-class cabin cost $80, a second-class cabin was $50 and steerage was just $30.

Interestingly enough, most of the items on the front page aren’t what we would consider news stories but are letters from abroad, written in a personal style and frequently with little news at all — one reprinted from the London Telegraph is probably over 1,000 words and mentions that Montreal has a population of more than 75,000 and is therefore “the most populous city in British North America.” It also mentions (no doubt playing to the home-town crowd) that “the assertion that the British provinces are anxious to join the Union is baseless and absurd.”

There’s also a notice to the public of “an imposter, wearing the dress of a Roman Catholic priest… he is a drunken vagabond — an Irishman.” And another notice mentions the wonderful new technology of “coal oil” lanterns, describing how people were endangering their eyesight by reading or darning by the light of the fire or a shared candle, and how with this new technology, “each house can have for the same expense a light exceeding half a dozen candles.”

IMG_20140111_185052-cropped

When it comes to ads, in addition to the steamship advertisements, there are ads for spectacles, boots and shoes, live hogs and furniture — but the largest ad stretches the length of the page vertically and is for “Dr. Hoofland’s German Bitters,” which the ad says is “not a rum drink but a highly concentrated vegetable extract” that will “effectively and most certainly cure all diseases rising from a disordered liver, stomach or kidneys.” It then lists the symptoms of these diseases as:

“Constipation, Inward Piles, Fulness or Blood to the Head, Disgust for Food, Sour Eructations, Sinking or Fluttering at the Pit of the Stomach, Swimming of the Head, Hurried and Difficult Breathing, Fluttering at the Heart, Dots or Webs before the Sight, Deficiency of Perspiration, Sudden Flushe of Heat and Constant Imaginings of Evil”

The ad also goes on at some length about how other bitters are “compounded of cheap whiskey or common rum,” and that this class of bitters “has caused and will continue to cause hundreds to die the death of the Drunkard.” And it recommends that Dr. Hoofland’s be used specifically for “delicate children… suffering from marasmus, wasting away, with scarcely any flesh on their bones.” One bottle, the ad says, and “they will be cured in a very short time.”

There’s also a large ad about an estate auction to be held at a law office on King Street “in pursuance of a Decree by the Court of Chancery of Upper Canada, at twelve of the clock noon.” The lots to be sold include one at the corner of Queen Street and William Street with “a Blacksmith’s Shop and a small frame Dwelling House” which are being leased for “24 pounds per annum.”

Has the WaPo chosen paper over web?

The recent cuts at the Washington Post — as reported by Politico and Washington’s City Paper — have once again brought to the surface a culture clash that has been going on in mainstream newsrooms for most of the last decade, and one that shows no sign of ending any time soon. If anything, the economic upheaval and advertising-revenue tsunami that has hit the media industry over the past year or so has amplified it. It’s the clash between print-heads and Web-heads, or “real” journalists (as some choose to call them) and the “web-first” crowd, and the fear expressed by some — including former WaPo online staffer Derek Willis and former online executive editor Jim Brady — is that the printies are gaining the upper hand.

You can see the fault lines of this snaking through the comments on the City Paper piece, where one commenter talks about how the website “was doing nothing more than posting the print articles, and hosting some online chats,” while the “much-despised MSM reporters and editors were crammed together into an old, crappy space while actually doing the business of obtaining information and writing it.” Another talks about how “All this bla bla bla about presentation, aggregation and innovation will be all that’s left once there are no more reporters churning out actual stories.”

Toward the end of the exchange, former WaPo online staffer Robert MacMillan (@bobbymacReuters) says: “I worked there and did reporting just like it’s done at any other news outlet. Saying otherwise reveals gross ignorance and demeans what I and the good people there have been doing for years” (MacMillan reported on the layoffs here). And in his post at True/Slant, former WaPo online executive editor Brady says “It’s the attitude of Stone Age commenters like these that still pervades far too many print newsrooms. Instead of attempting to adapt to what is clearly a digital future, they complain about the world collapsing around them, yet demean anyone who tries to do anything differently. And they wonder why so many people have stopped listening to them.”

This kind of us-vs-them animosity has likely been exacerbated at the Washington Post by the fact that until recently, the online operation was a completely separate entity from the paper, with its own management and executive and building — across the river from the newspaper itself. Many people both inside and outside the Post saw this structure as a positive thing, because it allowed each to focus on their core business. Others, however, saw it as prolonging the inevitable — the time when the two would have to function as one, which is exactly what the Washington Post is trying to engineer right now. And some, like Steve Yelvington, are afraid that this will wind up with the “printies” on top.

It may have been amplified at the Post by the company’s physical and corporate structure (and there has been speculation that Web staff were let go because otherwise they would have had to be unionized), but you can bet this same battle is going on at virtually every major newspaper in North America. Why? Because they are caught between two worlds. The reality is that the print side continues to provide the bulk of the revenue (although it is falling), and it also consumes the majority of resources — which means there are a lot of senior management involved, and to be blunt, many of them have empires to protect. Others have simply been slow to grasp the magnitude of the changes going on around them. And on the other side is the Web, which is growing quickly but is still a far smaller — and less profitable — operation.

How best to join these two things together? The fear about the Washington Post is that creative online and multimedia journalists have been cut loose in favour of newspaper loyalists who may have little or no clue about what working online really involves. Is it possible for print journalists to understand and adapt to the Web? Of course it is. I’d like to think that I and other former print journalists are proof of that. But you can’t just dump all the responsibilities of understanding digital media on someone who has spent their life making the newspaper work. That is a recipe for disaster.

The NYT API: Newspaper as platform

There’s been a lot of chatter about the newspaper industry in recent weeks — about whether newspaper companies should find something like iTunes, or use micropayments as a way to charge people for the news, or sue Google, or all of the above — and how journalism is at risk because newspapers are dying. But there’s been very little discussion about something that has the potential to fundamentally change the way that newspapers function (or at least one newspaper in particular), and that is the release of the New York Times’ open API for news stories. The Times has talked about this project since last year sometime, and it has finally happened; as developer Derek Gottfrid describes on the Open blog, programmers and developers can now easily access 2.8 million news articles going back to 1981 (although they are only free back to 1987) and sort them based on 28 different tags, keywords and fields.

It’s possible that this kind of thing escapes the notice of traditional journalists because it involves programming, and terms like API (which stands for “application programming interface”), and is therefore not really journalism-related or even media-related, and can be understood only by nerds and geeks. But if there’s one thing that people like Adrian Holovaty (lead developer of Django and founder of Everyblock) have shown us, it is that broadly speaking, content — including the news — is just data, and if it is properly parsed and indexed it can become something quite incredible: a kind of proto-journalism, that can be formed and shaped in dozens or even hundreds of different ways.

(read the rest of this post at GigaOm)

If the NYT is broken, can it be fixed?

Seth Godin, marketing guru extraordinaire, has an interesting post about how the New York Times has missed the boat and is fighting the wrong war (to mix a couple of metaphors). In it, he puts his finger on one of the biggest factors that make it hard for newspapers in general — the one I work for included — to make the transition from paper to digital. It’s not a technical issue, or at least not solely a technical issue, but more of a conceptual shift. There are no limits any more, or at least not the usual ones that have worked for the past century or so, and that’s a difficult thing to grasp.

Continue reading

Google is the new microfiche archive

Didn’t have time to blog this earlier today, for reasons that are too depressing to go into, but I still think Google’s announcement about an expanded newspaper archive search is one of the few things that have come out of TechCrunch50 and DEMO ’08 that I can genuinely get excited about. Most of the other news seems to involve companies whose vowel-deprived names (and in some cases business models) were either snatched out of the latest Web 2.0 hat — or in some cases copied directly from some other revenue-deprived startup.

Sure, Google’s archive search — which involves aggregating scans of old newspapers from around the country and the world (including a shout out to the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, the oldest newspaper in North America) — may be another revenue-free offering from the Web giant, as Silicon Alley Insider notes. But I guess I’m a sucker for Google’s motto about making all of the world’s information freely available. Or maybe I just have not-so-fond memories of scanning through reams of old microfiche slides from yellowing file folders in the newspaper library when I started in the news business. I would have given anything for a one-stop search that could find keywords in those files.

Continue reading