19th Century Newspaper Editors Imagine Newspapers of the Future

A while back, I wrote a blog post that discussed how people in the past predicted the future, and I promised a sequel. Here it is, with another sequel to follow.

Back in 1895, several prominent newspaper editors were asked to speculate on what newspapers would look like in the 20th Century. Some of their predictions were quite uncanny, and some were, well, a bit off the mark.

Who would have thought that by the end of the 20th Century, traditional newspapers would be disappearing and moving to electronic versions of themselves? When I began my career in journalism with the Chicago Tribune, the weekday circulation of the paper was about 800,000 and the Sunday paper was about 1.3 million.

The “old” Chicago Tribune Newsroom: gone, but not forgotten

Today, the Tribune is but a shadow of its former self, and it has even abandoned its iconic Tribune Tower home on Michigan Avenue, where it had been since about 1925. The Tribune’s once enormous, bustling newsroom is gone–downsized from hundreds of editors, reporters, photographers, graphic designers, copyboys (and girls), and others to what, by comparison, is a mere handful of people.

For me, the continued downsizing and death of America’s once-traditional and prototypical newspapers is like losing a family member. It’s sad but also inevitable, given new digital technologies, the advent of social media platforms, and the patterns of modern-day life where news is delivered electronically to and read on hand-held devices such as cell phones and i-pads. It’s a brave new world that none of those journalists in 1895 could have envisioned. Or did they?

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Felix Agnus, Editor of the Baltimore American:  “Today I saw a new invention that distributes written messages to its customers, the matter clearly printed on convenient sheets. The inventor tells me he can afford to place these at a very moderate cost in offices or in homes. All it needs is a long roll of paper. It does the rest. Now, what is to prevent the people of the next century from having their news continuously? As soon as an event occurs, it is broadcast over the wires and is immediately printed by the automatic machine. How will a newspaper published once a day compete with a scheme such as that?”

 Sounds a lot like something we used to call a telex machine. They never made it into homes, at least not on a large scale, but they were in just about every newsroom in the world.

  • Then there was this prediction from A.G. Boynton, editor of the Detroit Free Press: Keeping…with the limits of the possible, this much is safe to forecast….there will be great and marked progress in independence—that the newspaper of the twentieth century will not be tied, as the newspaper of the nineteenth century is far too often, to a party, a sect or a creed.”

Sadly, Mr. Boynton’s vision of today’s newspaper has proven to be more aspiration than reality. News today is too often skewed by reporters, editors, producers, and publishers to fit their own political agendas or worldviews. I should acknowledge, however, that for a while in the 20th Century the concept of trying to achieve some form of objectivity and fairness in reporting was rigidly adhered to in the best newspapers. At least it was at the newspapers I worked at.

Mr. Boynton’s predictions and others appeared in an article that appeared in the Tacoma Daily News March 30, 1895.

We can enjoy this 120-year-old article because of Readex, a company that for seven decades has specialized in providing access to primary source research materials such as early American Newspapers. Here is a link to the Readex blog: http://www.readex.com/blog   and a link to the actual article: http://www.readex.com/sites/default/files/Notable%20Forecasts%20Tacoma%20Daily%20News%2003.30.1895.pdf

Many of these editors had already personally witnessed amazing advancements in newspaper publishing, the Readex article pointed out.  They had seen newspapers progress from the old Washington hand press to enormous printing presses capable of producing tens of thousands of newspapers in just a few hours; from the Pony Express and stagecoach to the telephone and telegraph; from hand-setting type to typesetting linotype machines and the halftone photo reproduction process.

And while some of the predictions may seem a little quaint, given The Internet and today’s 24-hour news cycles, I am amazed at how prescient these editors were.

Here is James Elverson, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

  •  “The chief characteristic of the twentieth-century newspaper must necessarily be correlated with the twentieth-century scientific inventions….If the flying machine is perfected, every first-class reporter will have one. If the airship is a success, they will distribute tons of newspapers daily. If telegraphy becomes an exact science, the inmost heart of man will be revealed daily to the public. If Esoteric Buddhism gathers the world to its bosom and Mahatmas drops messages about the present, past, and future through newspaper roofs from the desert of Gobi, then every first-class newspaper will have its staff of Mahatmas to preach ethics to its readers. Pneumatic tubes may distance trains; photo scopes may reproduce pictures 10,000 miles away, and possibly the kinescope may be so adapted that every reader may have one in his house in which to view the scenes of which he reads in his favorite newspaper, the photographic strips, therefore, being issued as supplements. Possibly we shall not use type anymore, but by some complex arrangement, issue rolls that shall run through phonographs. Then, as the twentieth-century man sits down to breakfast, he can have the news read to him while he sees every event in the kinescope, and at the same time, he can swallow his morning meal.”

Sounds a lot like watching CNN or FOX while eating your oatmeal. And don’t forget, this was BEFORE the invention of the radio or television.

 Percy S. Heath, the editor of the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, may have foreseen the ubiquitous “Op-Ed” page of today’s newspaper:

“A forum, where the people may go with ideas and grievances, and appeal to public opinion. This, to my mind, will be the feature and the characteristic of the future newspaper. I believe the forceful utterances of the press will come directly from the people; that the intelligent reader is becoming every day a man or woman of opinion, of fixed ideas, and that sentiment will be expressed more and more freely through the press by those not directly connected with it. There will be less arbitrary editorial expression. The ‘fourth page’ will contain that thought of the reader which up to this time the editor has sought to forestall or anticipate.”

Charles W. Knapp, the editor of the St. Louis Republic, seems here to presage the way many of us customize the news we get from our online newspapers.

  • To fulfill its mission perfectly, (the newspaper) will be issued not once or twice but half a dozen times every day. Perhaps also the great fin de siècle newspaper of the twentieth century will be published in several different editions varying radically in the character of their contents so as to meet the varying wants of different classes of subscribers and at the same time obviate the undue enlargement of its size. It is bound to be more comprehensive in the exhaustive completeness of its information than the newspaper of today, but it will not be necessary for every reader to take the whole daily encyclopedia. Those who wish will have the opportunity to designate specific classes of news to be sent to them, and in some degree, every subscriber will have the privilege of ordering his newspaper made to fit his own individual and particular wants.”

.George A. Robertson, editor of the Cleveland World, sees newspapers using several “new” inventions to collect and disseminate news faster. He also sees the use of more photography.  However, his vision falls a little short when it comes to his altruistic view of the 20th Century newspaper.

  • “Already within sight are numerous remarkable inventions that will be made use of to improve the newspaper of the future. A machine is already patented and in limited use that sends messages by wire ten times as fast as the present telegraphic code, and these messages are automatically written out as they arrive. This will be employed by the coming newspaper to improve its news facilities. A machine for transforming pictures by wire will be fully perfected within the near future, and there will be such a cheapening of engraving processes that newspapers will be much more fully and beautifully illustrated than at present. Telegraphic accounts of happenings in all parts of the world will be accompanied, as received, with engravings ready to be dropped into the forms….Sensationalism is on the wane, and the time will come early in the next century when the newspaper that lies will be considered as despicable as the man who does the same thing now. The twentieth-century newspaper will not be entirely composed of the record of the ‘evil that men do,’ but some of the good things will also be mentioned.”

Finally, here is Frank A. Richardson, editor of the Baltimore Sun. While I applaud his optimism concerning the human condition and his laudable vision of scrupulous and truthful editors, there are far too few of these trustworthy souls toiling in today’s newsrooms.

  • “As mankind, with the march of time, becomes more noble and elevated, the newspaper, which is at once the leader and the follower of public sentiment, must share in this. Therefore I should say the newspaper of the twentieth century must be conducted on a higher plane. Its great aim must be to instruct and purify rather than merely amuse for an idle hour and increase its circulation by pandering to the baser instincts of humanity. There are a few striking instances among the leading newspapers of this day where the desire for gain is not made the paramount consideration. In the twentieth century, this will become more and more apparent, for incentives to the contrary course which exist now will disappear. The newspaper of the next century will be guided by the hand of strictest truth and honor, for policy, if not conscience, will make it so.”

Perhaps the most troubling part of this story is the fact that of the 13 newspapers polled in this 1895 exercise, only four are still being published today. That none of the editors could foresee the demise of their own newspapers is not surprising to me.

The 1890s was an optimistic decade in American history, with a young nation just beginning to flex its political and economic muscles on the world stage.

Given the gloomy, often deplorable world we live in today with its poverty and wars waged by zealous fanatics; its pervasive drug use; the decline of the traditional family; the inexorable secularization of society, and with it, the relentless obliteration of morality, integrity, and civility; I wonder how today’s 21st Century editors would foretell the world of the 22d Century.

With much less optimism, I would wager.


About Ronald E. Yates

Ronald E. Yates is an award-winning author of historical fiction and action/adventure novels, including the popular and highly-acclaimed Finding Billy Battles trilogy. Read More About Ron Here

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