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Learning from the Telegraph

On May 24 1844 Samuel Morse sent his message over a copper wire from Baltimore to Washington. The telegraph was the starting point of what could be called the first media revolution. Newspapers were afraid they’d lose subscribers to the new messenger. Why would you read a newspaper when a telegram was faster, the press reasoned.

Revolutions never go fast, and it took some time before Reuters stopped feeding the pigeons and started the wire service. Reuters became popular, but the service did not kill newspapers. On the contrary, newspapers became the most important clients of the news wires and they increased their subscriber numbers.

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Today the internet is pushing hard on newspaper revenues. The new digital media revolution has forced newspapers into multi-platform publishing; print is enhanced with online editions, on websites, blogs and mobile-phone platforms.

The internet is threatening to take away subscribers from the print editions. The question is how to turn the internet into one of the newspapers’ most important clients. The discussions in boardrooms of media companies focus on new business models. Paying for news, handing out e-readers, advertising online – all these possibilities are discussed, and there is no final answer.

The New York Times recently launched an idea for a paywall for regular visitors. It resembles the model used by the Financial Times – a few articles are free for visitors, but those who want articles on a regular basis need to pay for full access. Only regular newshounds, and not occasional visitors, have to open their wallets.

It’s an interesting approach, but what is generally omitted is the role of the public: citizen reporters or “We-Media”, the expression introduced by Dan Gilmore. The classical distinction between journalists and the public is disappearing. The role of the journalist is transformed from that of the messenger to the moderator of the public’s input.

Enhancing the role of the public in journalism is not without problems, but it will make the public aware that creating news takes work, and costs money. And if the public has a role in the production of newspapers, introducing new business models will become more acceptable.

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