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.