The growth of radio in 1920s America had many presaging the death of newsprint.
“What, for example, could be staler than tomorrow morning’s newspaper account of a prize-fight or political convention”, lamented one commentator in 1928.
But others were hopeful. In a column for America’s Century magazine in January 1929, media analyst Silas Bent argued that papers would survive, though they were likely to split into two genres – the tabloid to “thrill the mentally deficient” and the highbrow publication “still capable of illuminating the world”.
Bent’s prediction in Century (which itself would fold in 1930), disinterred by Matt Novak at his tremendous Paleofuture site, which explores visions of the future from the past, was of a lofty press that “will devote themselves to substantial information, and they will learn how to make it intellectually exciting”.
Did Bent get it right, wonders Novak.
It’s difficult to speculate how Bent would pick apart our current media landscape. Did some great divergence between high and low journalism actually occur? Do those who lament the Buzzfeed-ification of news (listicles, quizzes, cute animal photos) need to take a step back to see the forest for the deadtrees?
Because just as outlets like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post and yes, Gizmodo, mix the trivially interesting with serious reporting, so too did the vast majority of publications in Bent’s time. The great divergence of high and low journalism has come together again, if it ever actually diverged at all.