The Engines of Our Ingenuity podcast has a great, short episode narrated by Catherine Patterson titled, “INVENTING THE NEWSPAPER.” Students in school today may take the terms “current events” and “news” for granted, but these types of real-time and near real-time information sources were invented and became popular, relatively speaking, only yesterday. Here in the United States, “current events” became possible in the mid 1800s with the advent of the telegraph. Samuel Morse was one of the inventors who facilitated this communications revolution. The Pony Express was a short-lived phenomenon in mail service in the United States (April 1860 to October 1861) because of the telegraph. Communication at the speed of light (even if it was slowed by the human use of morse code) was far preferable to sending letters on horseback across North America. In our current age of iPods, Google searches and cellular phones, it’s probably easy to lose sight of how recently our information and communications landscape has been transformed.

This “Inventing the Newspaper” podcast has a full-text transcription available online in addition to the linked m3u file, which is streamed audio. (It plays in iTunes for me.) Recent episodes of the podcast are available from an NPR podcast channel with an RSS feed of the latest 10 items.

The podcast’s webpage includes a link to The British Library’s page a “Concise History of the British Newspaper in the Seventeenth Century,” which includes timelines and interesting scanned images.

Knowledge is Power

Knowledge IS power, and news IS relatively new. If accessing and consuming (rather passively) news and information published by others is a recent phenomenon on the timeline of human history, consider how novel the ability to PUBLISH and DIRECTLY SHARE ideas and information via the Internet is from a historical perspective?! Tools like Blogger and WordPress are revolutionary since they let anyone with access to the web publish text and media on the global stage. Tools like Gabcast and Gcast let anyone publish directly to the web from their cell phone. The impact and importance of these communication technologies, now placed in “the hands of the common people” (not simply the powerful elites who control media and publishing) is only starting to be felt today, in my perception.

Consider the following quotation from this podcast, addressing conditions in England in the early 1600s:

In England, popular weekly corantos brought profits to news-mongers, or news-sellers. Corantos traveled by carrier, post, and trade routes to eager readers throughout the country. They reported only foreign events, for the crown tried to keep a tight grip on domestic news. Yet they thrived.

The new media genie has just recently gotten out of the bottle. Like the English government of the early 1600s, political leaders in other contexts may want to “keep a tight grip” on news events. Can they? To an extent, but the advent of new publishing venues is weakening that ability to control and restrict the free flow of information more than ever. Groups like Free Press (nod to Clay Burell) are activists promoting “diverse and independent media ownership” in the United States and elsewhere. The struggle to exercise the right to press freedom, and freely publish ideas beyond the control of governing authorities and elites, has a long and important history. As you discuss digital technologies and communication possibilities with your students in the year to come, take some time to study the history and value of a free and independent media. The WikiPedia article for “Freedom of the Press” is a great place to start.

We are likely to hear more voices clamoring for censorship of WikiPedia and other information sources in the year to come, as Dr. Scott McLeod discussed in his Novemeber post “Just Say No to Wikipedia” on his blog “Dangerously Irrelevant.” Yet as this “Inventing the Newspaper” podcast reveals, our need to identify bias in information and be saavy/media literate consumers of ideas has been important for centuries. Again writing about conditions in the early 1600s in England as newspapers begin to gain a foothold, Catherine Patterson explains:

The outbreak of civil war between king and Parliament in 1642 transformed the news business in England. Censorship controls lapsed and domestic news became widely reported. Partisan news-books, with names like The Daily Intelligencer, proliferated. They supported rival sides and they slanted the news in their own direction. Publication became more frequent.

Rather than “hide” or “protect” our students AND our teachers from the vast oceans of information now proliferating throughout our digital infoverse, it is essential we all learn and teach each other how to effectively swim and navigate the currents and tides of these new waters. I discussed this from a south Pacific beach in November of 2006 in the video podcast, “Reflections from Hawaii on our Information Landscape.” While there certainly ARE compelling reasons to use “virtual sea walls” to protect students as they learn to swim and deal with tide currents, ultimately we ALL need to learn to effectively swim in our digital information landscape– not just in a protected swimming pool, but also out on the “open water.” Being a non-swimmer should really NOT be an option.

Welcome to the dynamic information landscape of the twenty-first century. Where are we headed next? Where do we want to go today? Our abilities to speak out and be heard have never been greater in history.

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