Review by KEN KORCZAK
He died more than 500 years ago, but I can’t tell you how much I have been thinking about JOHANN GUTENBERG in recent years. That’s because I started my career as a newspaper reporter, meaning I was a print journalist, emphasis on print – and then the Internet happened – and KER-BLAM! – my universe changed.
After leaving newspapers I became a freelancer and I have been writing books, mostly as a ghostwriter, for the past 25 years – that means paper-and-ink books for lots of clients, and – KER-BLAM AGAIN! – the Internet shifted the earth beneath my feet.
That’s why this short (very short) Kindle Single by JEFF JARVIS is such a timely read, especially for guys like me. Although Jarvis is by far not the first to compare Gutenberg’s press to the Internet revolution of today, it cuts to the bone for those who are struggling to make the adjustment from the “Old World” of paper-and-ink to the “New World’ of electronic publishing.
Think about all those scribes centuries ago who were creating books one at a time by hand, painstakingly lettering in every word. Suddenly the mechanical printing press comes along and it’s, “See ya later, man. You no longer have a job!” Just like that.
Tens of thousands of newspaper folks have heard the same line in just the past few years thanks to that new kind of “press” – the Internet. Just as Gutenberg’s innovation wiped out publishing as it had been known for centuries, the internet is convulsing the industry today. (Not to mention what has happened to the United States Post Office).
It’s painful, but change is inevitable. When Gutenberg’s financier, Johann Fust, took his first load of printed Bible’s to sell in Paris, he was run out of town by local booksellers and the scribe guilds because they said no man could possibly have that many books without the “help of the devil himself.” But the scribes probably also realized that their profession was doomed thanks to Gutenberg’s and Fust’s fancy new invention.
By the same token, newspaper professionals today are decrying the “unfair competition” from online news providers, many of them who are giving away news for free – and not only that – they are largely swiping it from the traditional media in the first place. Consider Huffington Post, for example. It is what is called an aggregate news disseminator, meaning it is scanning all media everywhere, pulling a quote and providing a link back to the originator of the news. This is great for HuffPo because they don’t have to pay any reporters or writers to do all the hard work. It gets its web site stuffed with everyone else’s news for free, yet they profit by selling advertising, keeping the cash for a product that basically somebody else created for them. HuffPo claims they are doing those whom they “borrow” from a favor because they are driving traffic back to their sites.
Sites like HuffPo also have armies of slave labor – what they call “citizen journalists” who are eager to work for free in exchange for “exposure” – even if that exposure probably will never translate into any cash for the writer, now or ever.
But, you know what? That’s change. In change there is both opportunity and danger, pain and growth. There will also be winners and losers – and probably a lot more losers at first, and for some time to come.
Just like the printing revolution of the mid-1400s, there is no going back. The invention of the printing press is among the most significant events in all of human history, perhaps second only to the invention of writing itself, and the invention of agriculture. Yes, it was that significant. And today, the emergence of the Internet is on par with that! Believe it. The switch from a print dominated media to an Internet (and broadcast) media is equally as paradigm shattering as was the printing press.
Jarvis has also compared Johann Gutenberg to guys like Steve Jobs of Apple, Elon Musk of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX, and others. The comparison is apt and striking, both in broad scope and in the details of how Gutenberg conducted his business. He wasn’t just an inventor — he was an entrepreneur — and more so of the latter than the former.
I could go on — but, well, I’ve already digressed enough for what is supposed to be a simple review. This short (about 6,000 words and 20-minute read) is probably worth the 99 cents. It serves as a jumping off point for discussion of an issue that is endlessly complex and but frightfully meaningful for all of us today.
Ken Korczak is the author of: THE MAN IN THE NOTHING CHAMBER