24 Little Hours


Editor Alan Rusbridger addresses the Guardian newsroom to toast the Pulitzer win, 2014. Photograph by Katy Stoddard via Flickr (cc).

From London Review of Books:

Back in 1997, when liberal capitalism bestrode the Atlantic and history had been abolished, morning came with a newspaper. The paper you got depended not just on your taste, but on where you lived: if you were a coastal American, you might get a vast informational department store like the New York Times, the Washington Post or the LA Times, but the great cities in between had their equivalents, from the Chicago Tribune to the Arizona Republic. If you were British, you might buy one of this country’s bitterly competitive national counterparts, such as the Telegraph, Times or Guardian. Or you might prefer a raucous purveyor of scandal and moral bile like Britain’s Daily Mail or the Sun or the New York Post. These were big titles, but most cities and towns had a daily paper of some kind, with a mix of local and national and international news, comfortably financed by cover price and advertising. During the day, on the way to work, in the workplace, in the canteen, there would be news on the radio, or continued picking over the carcass of the paper. In the evening, there would be the TV news, from NBC, ABC, CBS, the BBC or ITN, which you’d watch once, at a regular hour (even as late as 1997, CNN and Sky News were quite niche; Fox News had just started up, and the BBC’s 24-hour news channel launched that autumn). After the network news, there would be the local TV bulletin. Some evenings, there were news specials, longer shows like CBS’s 60 Minutes, ITV’s World in Action or the BBC’s Panorama. At the weekend, you might settle in to read one of America’s news magazines, Time or Newsweek, or one of the Sunday papers: Britain’s Observer or Mail on Sunday or the immense Sunday edition of the New York Times (its biggest ever number, on 14 September 1987, had 1612 pages and weighed 12 pounds). Undergirding the whole news media ecoverse were two dominant news agencies (the wires, in newsroom argot): the Associated Press and Reuters, which together with the Press Association in the UK made it possible for editors to expand their coverage beyond the limits imposed by their own staff and budgets and, invisibly to the news audience, exerted a powerful agenda-setting effect.

There was no shortage of people in the business who understood that things were about to change. But it was hard to predict what the change would look like, let alone how destructive the process would be to the old order. This was an era when the Guardian toyed with the idea of buying each of its readers a printer to print the newspaper for themselves at home. The internet was well established by 1997, but usage hadn’t taken off. Some newspapers had basic websites, but few visited them. The dominant mode of accessing the internet was the slow and inconvenient dial-up method; few home users had broadband connections. Pictures loaded line by line. It could take minutes. Even if there had been a YouTube, home computers wouldn’t have had the bandwidth to stream the clips on it. There was no Facebook or Twitter, there were no smartphones to hunch over. The managerial class looked at early websites and tried to put them into existing categories: this one was a bit like an encyclopedia, that one was a bit like a library, this one was basically a mail order catalogue, and that one, well, it was just a newspaper, wasn’t it, only on a screen, and instead of turning pages, you chose from a menu. But 1997 was a critical year for the undermining of complacency. Two PhD students at Stanford registered the domain Steve Jobs, returning to Apple, made Jony Ive his chief designer and set out on the path that ten years later would lead to the iPhone. The main wireless protocol – the system that later acquired the ‘Wi-Fi’ trademark – was launched.

“The Club and the Mob”, James Meek, London Review of Books