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An article about journalism in The Economist’s year-end issue is both interesting and annoying. It begins:

CHANGE is in the air. A new communications technology threatens a dramatic upheaval in America’s newspaper industry, overturning the status quo and disrupting the business model that has served the industry for years. This “great revolution”, warns one editor, will mean that some publications “must submit to destiny, and go out of existence.” . . .

Can you guess where this is heading?  Of course you can:

. . . this doom-laden prediction sounds familiar. But it was in fact made in May 1845, when the revolutionary technology of the day was not the internet — but the electric telegraph.

If you pay any attention to journalism, your spider-sense tingles whenever you read a peekaboo lead like that — one that sounds like it’s describing some well-known current event, except that it’s oddly devoid of specifics. If spider-sense doesn’t do the trick, all you have to do is read the subhead at the top of the page (“How a new communications technology disrupted America’s newspaper industry — in 1845”); and failing that, the accompanying illustration of Samuel F. B. Morse may give astute readers a clue.

The article itself is not bad, and it raises some half-thoughtful, half-facile parallels between the telegraph and the Internet. But the writer’s inability to resist the corny lead goes to show that whatever miracles God and technology may have wrought, some things in journalism never change.

P.S.  Here’s an even clumsier example from Jill Lepore in the December 7 New Yorker:

“At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without compulsory health insurance,” the Yale economist Irving Fisher said in a speech in December. December of 1916, that is. More than nine decades ago, Fisher thought . . .

Not only does Lepore step on the intended surprise before you have time to notice it, but even if she had given it time to breathe, when someone says “December” in the December issue of a magazine, making clear that they’re talking about the past, a reader’s first reaction will be “December when?”

On top of that, Irving Fisher is not exactly the most reliable source.  Most people who have heard of him at all remember him for this quote

Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau. I do not feel that there will soon, if ever, be a fifty or sixty point break below present levels . . . I expect to see the stock market a good deal higher than it is today within a few months.

That appeared in the New York Times on October 15, 1929.


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