Darwinian Journalism

An evolving medium

In the Autumn of 1836, The Beagle, a British ship on a 4-year voyage around the world dropped anchor in the Galapagos Islands, off Ecuador.  The ship would stay for a month.

Aboard was a young naturalist, Charles Darwin.

What Darwin found on The Galapagos would forever change the world.  And it began with finches.

Darwin noted that the finches of The Galapagos seemed to change from island to island. Some had longer beaks, some had curved beaks.  The changes reflected the plant and insect species on the island that the finches fed upon.  The finches seemed to have adapted, changed themselves, to survive, as the environment changed.

Initially, Darwin thought he had simply discovered varieties within the same species. It was not until The Beagle returned to England and Darwin sent his finches to John Gould, a taxidermist for the Zoological Society, that the import of his discovery became known to him.  Gould told Darwin that they were not varieties of the same species, they were entirely different species.  The import of the discovery was such that it was printed as front page news in The Times of London.

Darwin would go on to publish, first a 30-page manuscript in 1842, and ultimately his book, The Origin of Species, but not until 1858.

Now, what does this have to do with media and journalism?

Journalism, like the finches, is, I think, a living thing.

Prior to Darwin, the world had been viewed as steady-state. That is, that which was had always been. The world was immutable.

After Darwin, we would come to see the world as a constant struggle for survival, a never-ending story of life and death, of evolution and extinction.

The finches adapted to their new environments, they evolved into new species to do so.

Newspapers today are also faced with a new environment. The world that nurtured them, that gave birth to them, has changed.  The web, new technologies, shifting demographics.

In a Darwinian sense, if the news business is to survive, it must, like the finches, evolve. It must in fact, become an entirely new species.

One that is physically reflective of the environment in which it feeds – like the finches.

This is not a matter of paying lip service to a few ideas to see if they work out, but retaining the old design. The finches that failed to adapt are not here to defend themselves.  Like any species that does not adapt, they became extinct.

So too for any media or news business that does not evolve to the new realities around them.

You do not get to have both. You do not get to try a curved beak while keeping the old one, ‘just in case’., or because it has worked so well in the past.

Darwin’s world was cruel and unforgiving.

Just like the news business.

2 responses to “Darwinian Journalism

  1. HMS Beagle and Darwin were in the Galapagos in autumn 1835.

    Darwin didn’t publish in 1842 – he made a private pencil note of his theory, which he expanded but again kept private in 1844. His joint paper was read to the Linnean Society in 1858, announcing the theory but the book The Origin of Species was not published until late 1859.

    I think (and some scientists I know agree) that Darwin was having his ‘heretical’ thoughts around the coast of South America long before the Galapagos. The first time he committed them to paper was in a one-liner in his ornithological notes of July 1835. I know allof this stuff because we’re rebuilding HMS Beagle during Darwin’s bicentenary in 2009.

  2. Bravos, Michael. Adapt or die. We are ending the year with the same old same old. A massive failure of imagination exacerbated by the foolish pursuit of better practice. We need to stop trying to get better, playing around with the numerator, and start getting different, changing the denominator. It’s a leadership problem. Pure and simple. Thanks, as always, for your thought provoking pov.

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