From Platform to Participant

The first thing resembling a newspaper was probably a Roman Acta Diurnameaning “daily acts.” None remain, but they were believed to be distributed as stone or metal carvings. Not the most mobile of formats.

Sixteen hundred years later we have Dutch corantos, “simply unedited compilations of reports… written by the postmasters of the major European cities.” Dirty aggregators, essentially.

The earliest surviving copy of a coranto leads with the headline “The New Tydings Out of Italie Are Not yet Come.” Evidently, the art of clickbait took some time to evolve.

The first daily followed a hundred years or so later. It ran native advertising, written by the editor.

“If I can meet with a sober man that has a counter-tenor voice, I can help him to a place worth thirty pound the year or more.”

Like the early web, early newspapers had some hurdles to overcome. In the UK, government regulation (censorship) made running a newspaper basically impossible until the 17th century. Even then, the majority of the general public couldn’t read. Words were still a pretty disruptive format.

Imagine knowing nothing except what you had been verbally told, by people who themselves knew nothing besides what they had been told. The world was the largest ever game of Chinese Whispers. Newspapers dramatically expanded the number of things it was easy to reliably know about.

Really, they were information platforms, made possible by cheap printing, rising literacy and an emerging middle class. They were a product and a set of features — daily cadence, so many words, so many woodcuts — leveraged by an ecosystem of writers, readers and advertisers.

That innovation created many fortunes. Newspapers were often wonderfully profitable. Right up until the internet era, 20%+ profit margins were routine.

In this way, the newspapers of old had more in common with Facebook, iOS or Android than with a modern publisher. They were the operating system, defining distribution, format and monetisation.

Today, that control is out of the hands of most news companies. Someone else sets the house rules now. News inhabits information brokerages created by other people.

It’s funny. We’re advised to learn the lessons of digital, and to forget newspapers. Except that the lessons of digital are, in the main, the same as the lessons of newspapers.

Things that are hard to know are valuable, and a monopoly on how users discover them will make you rich.

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