The Telegraph, Newspapers, and 19th-Century Disruption

May 08, 2012

May 2012 Issue

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As we watch newspapers continue to struggle with the digital transformation, it's worth looking at another time in history when newspapers grappled with a disruptive technology. That's right, the introduction of the internet was not the first time newspapers were rocked by revolutionary upheaval. In the middle of the 19th century, as the telegraph started to take hold, newspapers initially saw it as a threat before coming to a realization: It could actually transform the industry. Sound familiar?

I just finished reading a fascinating book called The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers by Tom Standage. Standage points out many parallels between the internet and the telegraph and the impact they had on everything from politics to business and commerce and, yes, newspaper publishing.

Eventually telegraph lines spanned the entire globe, making the world a smaller place, and it transformed the news-gathering business, which, up to that point, confined itself mostly to hyperlocal coverage. Newspapers that did run national or foreign news did so days or even weeks after the events happened. According to Standage papers actually held stories, rather than print them, because they wanted to ensure they had enough material to fill the news hole the following week.

The telegraph changed all that because, suddenly, editors could have correspondents, situated around the world, transmit news back to the newsroom in minutes instead of days or weeks.

At first, most newspaper owners failed to see the advantage of this disruptive technology; they were actually threatened by it. After all, why would you even need a newspaper when the news could travel between telegraph operators? As Standage writes, however, this perception was wrong because, while telegraphs allowed the news to move faster, it didn't have the distribution networks that papers had.

Standage wrote, "And although it did indeed dramatically alter the balance of power between providers and publishers of information, the newspaper proprietors soon realized, far from putting them out of business, it afforded them great opportunities."

Soon, newspapers began operating more in the fashion we have become accustomed to today, fighting to break stories, using the telegraph as a way to gather news almost as it happened. Newspapers quickly learned that the guys running the telegraphs, while good at handling the technology, made lousy reporters.
Standage also described how the telegraph contributed to the rise of newspaper syndicates such as the one that would become The Associated Press. Once most newspaper editors understood the power of the technology, they soon deployed reporters, often to the same spots, to compete for stories and send telegraphs back home. There was little advantage in using resources in this fashion, so the organizations teamed up and created news syndicates.

Newspaper editors began to see that in order to differentiate their product from the competitors', they had to add value in the form of analysis. The parallels between what Standage describes in his book and what is happening today is startling.

Unlike the internet, though, the telegraph never developed into a competitive news delivery platform in the way the internet has. And while the reaction to the change was surprisingly similar, the ability to react to it was not.

Newspapers were able to eventually use the telegraph to advance the notion of print publishing and make their properties more valuable. The internet, on the other hand, caused a major distortion to the newspaper business model, as advertising moved online and the cost of publishing and the barrier to entry was changed in a fundamental way.

While there were similar consequences to the advent of these extraordinary technologies, newspapers have faced a steeper set of challenges during the digital transformation, exacerbated by waiting too long to react to the change and not initially taking it seriously enough. Newspapers are still paying the price for that delay, as each one struggles to find a way to stay relevant and profitable in an altered marketplace-something they never had to face in the age of the telegraph.