April 8, 2010

There was no golden age of original content

Interesting discussion at Crooked Timber about how much original reporting there is on the internet. Not much. Or maybe a lot. All depends what your prior expectations are, I suppose. There is certainly a lot of recycling of content, and probably there always was.

Now that we are lucky enough as historians to have access to lots of digitized text we can see the scale of this problem historical question more easily. A decade ago or more when I first got my hands dirty in original research, I used to think there might have been some golden age in the nineteenth century where newspapers and magazines had a high proportion of original content.

Why the nineteenth century? I suspect that publications with lots of original content are going to come in highly literate societies with printing presses, but despite that relatively limited communication to the outside world. Now, this does describe some significant parts of the world in the nineteenth century, Australia and New Zealand, parts of the American Midwest and West, and South America; the "regions of recent settlement" to quote an imprecise but known scholarly phrase.

But once you get cheaper transport, and then the telegraph, I suspect that the books and magazines of these regions are going to start reprinting material from elsewhere. And why not? The locals (recent in-migrants) wanted to know what was happening elsewhere, where they'd come from, where their friends and relatives had gone, and where they might move too. Indeed you have whole sections in nineteenth century newspapers labeled "News on the latest ship" or "News from the wires" (or something like that).

Not only that but the nineteenth century is full of books that are nothing but reprints of extracts from newspapers and magazines.

The other thing the digitization of magazines and newspapers has shown me is that it wasn't only news that was reprinted and not original (tho' it might have appeared original), it was, of course, also opinion pieces. The obvious successor to the political pamphlet was the newspaper column. Small town and city newspapers were particularly rife with this kind of reprinted stuff.

In short, reporters have long been rewriting someone else's copy and passing it off as new. I'd start with the hypothesis that this is an historical constant and not a decline in modern standards.

Posted by eroberts at April 8, 2010 8:56 PM
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