The 1920s Tabloid Reporter Who Predicted TV Could Kill Newspapers

The 1920s Tabloid Reporter Who Predicted TV Could Kill Newspapers

“What for example could be staler than to-morrow morning’s newspaper account of a prize-fight or political convention one has already received over the radio?” wrote one commentator in 1928. Radio was overtaking print as the news medium of the day and some people insisted that newspapers were going to disappear completely. And with that, “serious” reporting would go the way of the dodo. Sound familiar?

Enter Silas Bent — a man who in the 1920s was here to tell you that newspapers weren’t going anywhere. Sure, the newspaper of 20 years hence (that distant decade known as the 1940s) was going to be different. But the newspaper itself was not going to go extinct.

Bent insisted that journalism would simply split into two camps: the sensationalised tabloid designed to “thrill the mentally deficient”, and the serious journalistic endeavour, “still capable of illuminating the world”.

Common ink-stained thief turned prophet

Silas Bent was a tabloid newspaper reporter before he turned to media criticism. He admitted to fabricating stories, breaking into houses to steal photos, and intercepting private telegrams to gain information. But by the mid-1920s, Bent wore all of those nasty tricks as a badge of honour, and wrote books and magazine articles about the dirty business of news.

Bent also did his fair share of prophesying, and when it came to the future of newspaper reporting, he wasn’t quite as pessimistic as many of his colleagues.

Much of Bent’s article in the January 1929 issue of Century magazine feels like it could be cut-and-pasted into an article about today’s media landscape. He uses phrases like “a state of transition” to describe the newspaper industry in his article “The Future Newspaper: Radio Remodeling the Press.”

I’ve pulled a few highlights from his piece below. Bent acknowledged that the world was changing, and that newspapers would have to change with it. But he kept a level head about what this meant for him and his ink-stained ilk. A changing industry did not necessarily mean a dying one.

Every publisher with his head in the sand

Bent, as all good futurists do, first looked to the past to explain how American media had arrived at a point where everyone thought the death of newsprint was imminent:

Ten years ago [circa 1919] newspaper publishers and editors ridiculed radio with broad grins. It was a plaything, quite outside the purview of an industry then coming rapidly into its own as a Big Business. That this short-sighted attitude persisted, even after the dissemination of news by broadcasting began, was surprising.

Bent wrote about the death of the “extra” edition, which was killed by radio — just as the evening edition newspaper would eventually be killed by the evening TV news a half century later:

The first effect of broadcasting news by radio was the practical extermination of the pestiferous newspaper “extra.” No one in New York who has been awakened from sound slumber by the hoarse cries of newsboys and has paid ten cents to one of the pirates only to find a bulletin about another murder in Harlem, will regret this development. Even the publisher didn’t regret it. His extra editions had never been paying enterprises, because he got nothing extra for the advertisements in them — three fourths of his revenue came from the sale of space; the sale of news as a commodity hardly paid for the white paper he used. Thus, though a regular edition may now sometimes be labelled “extra,” and may actually be put to press a few minutes ahead of time, the extra as we used to know it has gone by the board.

What does newspaper do better than radio?

The newspaper then, if it couldn’t break news, would become an instrument for the dissection and dissemination of opinion. Bent explains that reading the score of a baseball game becomes a “twice-told tale” in the newspapers. But even if you’d heard a politician’s speech unfiltered over the radio, one might want to read what an opinion columnist has to say about it.

Bent even quotes Karl Bickel from the United Press service who explained that radio “is forcing the newspapers to publish more intelligent and interpretive reports than ever before.”

Again, we see this idea that newspapers no longer had a monopoly on breaking news, but instead could fulfil a vital civic function by taking the time to dissect and give proper context to a story. “If it isn’t doing that as yet in all cases, it will,” Bent wrote.

Printing your newspaper at home?

The next step in the evolution of newspaper distribution would be at-home printing, Bent insisted. He wasn’t entirely wrong. The 1930s and 40s would see extensive trials of machines that could print your morning newspaper via radiowaves, though they obviously didn’t become mainstream.

It is possible to transmit pictures by air; it is possible to operate by radio an automatic printing machine. There is no reason to suppose that we may not in time have compact machines in our homes, driven by invisible waves, which will print and illustrate the tidings of the world in readiness for our breakfast-tables. Every man’s newspaper could thus be manufactured in a corner of the dining room, and the frightfully expensive and clumsy system of distribution now utilized by the press would disappear.

The newspaper publishers would resist even this technological advance, Bent insisted, but much like radio, they would eventually see that they’d have to play nice with the changing media landscape. Embracing change and adapting was the only way to survive, Bent warned publishers.

Could TV kill the linotype star?

What then was Bent most concerned about? What might actually kill the newspapers of tomorrow? The answer was TV — a technology that was still very much in its infancy back in 1929.

“A more recent, and quite as disturbing a development, is the transmission of coloured pictures and talking movies by air,” Bent wrote in 1929.

Television tech had already been demonstrated publicly just a few short years earlier, but it wouldn’t become a mainstream success until after World War II. The possibilities for delivering news, however, were staggering. And Bent saw it coming.

Fancy what this means: Sitting in your home you may witness distant events, observe the natural colours of the surroundings, and hear simultaneously the accompanying sounds. All the imperial pageantry and exotic colour of a Sultan’s nuptials, dancing-girls and warriors, wild horsemen and chanting priests, might have their being in our very presence, so that we could all but touch them. Even if colour-printing be perfected, what can the daily press offer in competition with such a lure, or what pale promise make? Who, having heard a President deliver his message to Congress, having observed his gestures, the movement of his lips as he speaks, and the brilliant hues of the flags around him, will ever wish to read about it in a newspaper?

Bent wasn’t the only media futurist of his era worried about the coming age of TV. As another writer for Century magazine put it the year previous: “Combine radio and television into a gigantic device for recording and reproducing world news the moment it happens — and even the picturized tabloid is doomed as a pallid, antiquarian method of keeping abreast of the times.”

Even the most salacious, fictitious, titillating stories could not save the newspaper as it existed in the 1920s, Bent and his fellow newspapermen insisted. Because when TV arrives, who would dare waste their time with a newspaper?

The news world split in two

Where does that leave us? Bent proclaimed that journalism of the future would be split into two camps: One side covering the sensationalized and the trivial, while the other explored more serious reporting.

As for the former, it will deal in “downright fakery, fiction, picture serials, comics and eroticism.” The newspapers run by Hearst, Bent explained, “are likely to become a part of the journalism of triviality and entertainment.”

Their photographers will scour the earth to make snap-shots of the bizarre and the shocking and the freakish. Their reporters, such as they have, will carry wireless transmitting devices, and will talk off their reports into their offices. But they will not be much concerned with news. Their chief function will be to entertain and thrill the mentally deficient. They will be called newspapers, but they will be that only to the extent of one half of one per cent.

What of the other half of journalism? Bent insisted that it would still be “capable of illuminating the world…” Many newspapers may die in the process, but we’ll be left with great reporting done by “serious” journalists.

The main newspapers, although they will not be so numerous as to-day, will be much more worth while. They will have found it useless to compete with the shockers in sensational news; they will have found it wasteful to compete with the radio in sports and spectacular events. Therefore they will devote themselves to substantial information, and they will learn how to make it intellectually exciting. They will learn, as George Fort Milton says, to make the unimportant uninteresting and the important absorbing. As yet they are wholly deficient in this technique.

Bent, though no graduate of a journalism school himself, probably considered himself in the latter camp, despite his seedy past. He had re-invented himself as a media critic; a man who could shed some light on the underbelly of journalism’s history, and point toward its redemption in the tomorrow times.

Futurist Bent hedges his bets

But tomorrow was no doubt uncertain. And Bent hedged by speaking through a surrogate — the seventh son of the seventh son gazing into a crystal ball — by the end of the article.

“In that day, not so far distant, fact stories will have disappeared pretty completely,” Bent wrote, assuming the role of a fictional prophet. “What we shall have will be a compact statement and an interpretation of the facts, presented, probably under a signature, with fidelity and assurance.”

Bent argued through this fictional soothsayer that the average reader will be much smarter if this split between high and low journalism occurs. Nothing less than the future of the great American experiment depended upon it.

“And the effect on society, on politics and political institutions, on aggregations of capital and on organised propaganda, will be amazing until we come to take it for granted,” Bent wrote. “Such a press as I have been describing must come into being if the democratic experiment is to prove successful.”

It’s difficult to speculate how Bent would pick apart our current media landscape. Did some great divergence between high and low journalism actually occur? Do those who lament the Buzzfeed-ification of news (listicles, quizzes, cute animal photos) need to take a step back to see the forest for the dead trees?

Because just as outlets like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post and yes, Gizmodo, mix the trivially interesting with serious reporting, so too did the vast majority of publications in Bent’s time. The great divergence of high and low journalism has come together again, if it ever actually diverged at all.

Now feel free to enjoy these photos of dogs listening to the radio.

Pictures: A man watches over the printing of the day’s newspaper at the Daily Express press building, Fleet Street, London in 1935 via Getty; Scan of the cover of the January 1929 issue of Century magazine