Dead Man Talking


Hello? eBay?

Thomas Edison was an entrepreneur.

When he invented the phonograph in 1877 he also incorporated the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. The idea was to sell phonographs – something which had never existed before. To create demand and push sales along, Edison listed fifty possible uses for the phonograph: dictation in business, books for the blind, a kind of primitive telephone answering machine and, of course, the ever popular ‘machine to record the last words of the dying’.

Notably not on the list was the idea of recording and playing music.

Inventions come along first – the application for them tends to follow much later. Often that application is vastly different from that which even the inventor first envisioned.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, he could have gone down to the basement and printed The New York Times. The technology was all there. What was missing was what to do with the technology. That would take another 350 years.

The net is such an invention.

The creators of the web never envisioned email or eBay. That would come later.

Now, as newspapers and magazines migrate to the web, there is no model for them to follow. Journalism has never been done on the web before.

Initially, we tend to take old models and jam them into new technologies. When a newspaper like The New York Times moves to an online edition, the first iterations are bound to look like, well, a newspaper, but on line. The fact that the web is three-dimensional, interactive, and capable of handling video, sound, graphics and hperlinks, as well as dialogue with the ‘readers’ is seldom taken into consideration in first iteration applications. No one knows what its supposed to look like or how its supposed to work.

But the web, of course, can do far more than just be a place to put up black and white text. The challenge before us is to create a new kind of journalism – one that has never existed before. How can we tell our stories using text and video and graphics and music and hyperlinks and interactivity and building communities. This is a whole new pallate for journalists, one which has never been explored before.

As print publications move online, (which they will), they will naturally be tempted to begin to incorporate video in their reporting. Not to do so, in fact, will be seen as a bit remiss. Yet there will be a natural tendency for these publications to try and create ‘tv’ online. This would be a mistake.

It would be understandable, because we always take old models and try and jam them into new technologies. It takes time to understand all a new technology can do.

Web video is not about television. And web journalism is not about text alone. It is about something new and exciting – waiting to be born. We are in a very exciting moment – the creation of a new medium, a new way of speaking to one another. One that, like the phonograph, has never existed before.

Both television and conventional newspapers will begin by jamming what they do now online. This will be inevitable, and it is also a waste of a fantastic resource. Papers are just starting to ‘get it’; television news is very far behind.

Those who believe that the web is simply a place to post conventional TV news stories or TV shows cannot be blamed too much. They are simply the heirs to an old and venerable tradition in the world of invention: recording the last words of the dying.


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