In many ways all of our discussions about newspapers comes down to paper. While a big part of the problem is the paper that money is printed on, much of it revolves around whether the future of newspapers is in wood pulp and ink. Like Jeff Jarvis said earlier, if the newspapers are going to survive, they need to start separating their means of production from what they produce — news.
Back in the 1920s, paper was a problem for another reason. Newspapers were being targeted by government sanctions to become smaller, to restrict their size and circulation to accommodate a general shortage in newsprint paper. This argument was waged on two fronts, the first in which the newspapers argued that as instruments of public discourse they were being unfairly targeted while others were being left alone,
If, during the recent or present shortage of shipping, the Government had issued an order or admonition to exporters that they must reduce their shipments of goods in order to ‘conserve shipping’ and because of the further reason that unrestricted outflow of goods from a port like New York might deprive ports like Baltimore or Savannah of sorely needed ocean freight facilities, we should have a pretty fair analogue to the proposal that the Government meet the shortage of newsprint paper by restricting the size and the circulation of newspapers.
Second and more interesting still, when considering whether to reduce the number of advertisements in the paper in order to conserve paper, the reporter made the following point,
Advertising is news; if it does not convey information, it has not be intelligently prepared. Advertising is the first and chief help to business; it has become so by custom and experience. It is the very life of competition. It promotes the sale and exchange of commodities, it helps and builds up trade, it enlarges the sales and increases the prosperity of the merchants, it adds to the national wealth.
While it is, more or less, the only response that a business that bases its livelihood on advertising can give, it does call into question what the purpose of advertising is and whether, as he says, it is a vehicle for news. I would say it is a vehicle for culture. If you watch an advertisement, you can tell a lot about the culture that created it. When you break down the psychology of sales, you get an intuition for how the people who are being sold to think, how they must feel and what is necessary for them to react.
I don’t think that’s where he was going, I think that he is referring to advertising as a form of communication similar to the news article that he’s writing but who knows?
Either way, is he right and if he is, what responsibility do advertisers have to the public?
For a brief look at the history of advertising, take a look at the clip.