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The best books on The Future of the Media

recommended by Todd Gitlin

The Journalism Professor at Columbia University discusses the future of the media. Argues that the availability of intelligently compiled, serious information is a prerequisite for democratic life

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Why, when the topic is the future of the media, are we starting with a book called Preface to Plato?

The Greeks matter because some of them, at least, recognized that they were passing through a change in how people frame the world. In their case, it was the change from the oral to the written, and this is of course the subject of one of the Platonic dialogues, Phaedrus. In it, Socrates declares himself fully aware that human capacities can change, and that as memory is displaced or funnelled into print, a variety of changes may set in which affect not only how we know things, but also who we are as human beings. Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato shows that the Greeks were aware that there was some connection, perhaps even an all-embracing connection, among forms of communication, memory and thought. It’s quite fascinating to me that people should have this awareness of a sea change in their way of knowing, this self-consciousness about it.

We today may also very well be in a moment when we are dimly aware that our way of touching the world, or having the world touch us, is amid a transformation. I won’t say it’s in the process of dissolving or re-forming, we’re not even sure what the right verb is at this point, but something big is going on in the way people encounter the world, and the way the world encounters them.

My point is that the more you know what earlier pivotal moments felt like, maybe the better you can get your mind around what is and isn’t going on now.

Which is why your next book is The Printing Press as an Agent of Change?

Yes, for related reasons. Elizabeth Eisenstein made a very audacious claim about the relation between printing and the Reformation, as well as the Renaissance. And certainly Luther and many contemporaries were deeply aware that they were able to stir up a cognitive and ideological revolution at least in part because of how easy it was to move their stuff around. Again, I don’t find it conclusive – that there would have been no Reformation without the printing press – but certainly there’s an intimate connection. So reading this work is stimulating. It’s not capable of delivering an answer to the question of what’s going to happen in the next 100 years. But I find it stimulating to think in terms of big blocks of historical transformations, and these two books are both stimuli of some sort.

Your next choice is The Creation of the Media by Paul Starr, which you’ve chosen for rather different reasons…

This book looks at the historical precedents through a different angle, not through sensibility, what brains are doing, but through institutions. And its main point is that the state has been intimately involved in the evolution of the media from the beginning. It looks in particular at the very homely institution of the post office, which is provided for at the beginning of the American Republic. Media rely on public institutions like the post office. The post office was established precisely in order to expedite traffic in ideas and writing of all sorts. It’s a worthy reminder, and an incontrovertible reminder, that fantasies of free markets that operate on their own to produce media are just as foolish in reference to the ancestral past as they are with the respect to the presumed spontaneous combustion that produced the internet. Anybody who knows anything about the internet knows that policy, government policy specifically, was a necessary condition.

So your next selection is an article, Raymond Williams’s “Drama in a Dramatized Society”.

This is an inaugural lecture Raymond Williams gave in 1974, when he assumed a professorship in drama at Cambridge University. He’s one of the most fertile minds when it comes to media in the last century. Basically he’s saying that it’s extremely odd, and yet central, to the form of civilization that has evolved, that there’s so much drama. And what he means by drama is not simply normal plays, but everything from advertising to television serials, to the contents of newspapers and magazines. He died in 1988 before a lot of the new technology we have now appeared; he had not encountered the iPhone. But he anticipates a life in which people are immersed in narrative nonstop. I would add sound, or song, as another important component. This article is, at least to my way of thinking, the earliest statement of the point that quantity becomes quality. The quantity of a certain kind of media experience creates a different way of life, which is in fact ours. Williams directed us into the whole problem of media saturation as a phenomenon worthy of treatment in its own right.

And is that what your own book, Media Unlimited, is about? Given it’s a tough topic, I have allowed you to include your own book as one of the five…

Yes, Williams’s perception launched me on to my own book. After many years of writing about how news is composed, how entertainment is composed, who decides on them and who pays attention to them, I’d been discomfited with the academic habit of thinking everything is a text and thinking of everyone as a graduate student who has nothing to do except interpret texts. When in fact, mostly people are not so much studying texts as they are immersed in them, careening through the torrential speed and volume of the 24/7 media society. The media torrent is a phenomenon in itself. Which is not to say that it’s content neutral, that content doesn’t matter, but that there is this huge social phenomenon: namely that what people spend most of their time doing in our civilization (when they’re neither sleeping nor working) is connecting to media. And actually they’re even relating to media during much of the time they’re ostensibly working.

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I tried in the book to look at precedents but primarily I looked at the sheer proliferation of means of delivery, including sounds as an important element. So I quickstep through history, the history of saturation, the speed of communication change, and I write about navigational strategy – which everybody develops, whether they know it or not, in striving to manage the media torrent.

And what’s your conclusion?

You mean is this good for civilization? Well you can’t unplug the media torrent at will. This is our civilization, and I suppose I’m more concerned that people take seriously the immensity of this phenomenon, in which we’re immersed. We have more experience of people via electronics than we have of face-to-face contact. I don’t view this with automatic alarm, or as an occasion for fireworks. There are elements that are beneficial, there are elements that are sort of horrific. I can’t pretend to have a particular line on it, except saying, “There it is, we’d better stare at it.”

So do you discuss newspapers in the book?

I do. The crisis in advertising – in other words, in the financing of newspapers – overlays a longer-running decline. If you look at the US, time spent with newspapers has actually been declining for years, long before the internet. So in 1966, 75 per cent of Americans said they read the newspaper either every day or most days. By 1986, that figure was down to 51 per cent. Among the under-30s, 60 per cent had said yes in 1966, by 1986 that was down to 29 per cent. There have been large shifts in sensibility, that didn’t just begin with laptops. So I think we’re in some big cultural upheaval, and one feature of it is the premium on seeing things through pictures, and hearing things through sound, knowing the world in those ways. And there’s a decline in reading newspapers, a decline in reading books, and the situation has been exacerbated enormously by the siphoning of advertising away from newspapers, and also by the inability of anyone to figure out how to monetize the internet version of newspapers. Newspapers remain central to people’s diet of online-ness, but if it were indeed possible for newspapers to sustain themselves economically by figuring out how to exploit the availability of the internet, it would seem to me that someone would have figured it out by now. People have been thrashing around about this for years, asking, “Where’s the new business model for the newspaper?” And they haven’t found an answer.

In the meantime there are a proliferation of ways in which people can entertain themselves. We underestimate how much of newspaper consumption has always been undertaken for purposes of entertainment. Much of what people look for in a newspaper experience is a feeling. We may think we’re reading it for information, but what we’re actually reading it for, as I argue in my book, is to have a certain kind of sensation – a disposable emotion. And now there are so many other ways to achieve that. Newspapers are competing with every other so-called delivery system that’s out there. The old world is going fast. I don’t mean it’s going to disappear, but newspapers are obviously very unstable and weakened.

I saw an article in the New York Review of Books recently suggesting that endowments might be a solution. What’s your view on the non-profit model?

There is on-going discussion at Columbia Journalism School about such matters. I will tell you my prejudice. I don’t think that non-profits can by themselves constitute a solution to the problem. They are imperfect, more than imperfect: they are sluggish institutions. They can also be high-handed, there’s not a lot of democratic accountability. Obviously there’s a place for foundation support, but I don’t see non-profits as an adequate alternative to government subvention of some sort. The trick, as in Canada and elsewhere, is to insulate finance from control. I think the Brits have pretty convincingly demonstrated that it’s possible to do it via the BBC. Another model is Scandinavian countries, which subsidize newspapers without regard to their political positions. I don’t think anyone ought to be naive about the dangers of government support, but I do think we need to have some creative thinking about how to subsidize what is, after all, a national need. Without a substantial change in the system of newspaper finance, we’re heading into a distressing bifurcation – high-level journalism for a very restricted public while everyone else eats cupcakes, or crumbs.

So your solution for the serious news, which people aren’t interested in, is some sort of government support.

We need multiple models. Private ownership is fine as long as the proprietors are willing to live with single-digit profits. I don’t think the news media should be exclusively government-supported. But the news is a public good, like an airline system in which planes don’t fly into each other. The availability of intelligently compiled, serious information is a prerequisite for democratic life. So the question is not whether there should be public funding, but how to manage it, so that it doesn’t become Orwellian.

October 14, 2009

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Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology, as well as chair of the PhD program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 12 books, several of which concern media and culture, and a prominent commentator on the US media. He writes regularly for Dissent, The American Prospect,, and

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology, as well as chair of the PhD program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 12 books, several of which concern media and culture, and a prominent commentator on the US media. He writes regularly for Dissent, The American Prospect,, and