A history of the future of news

If we look at media history through a different lens,
the past three centuries can help us predict the century to come.

We’ll start with four fundamental points about the future of news:

  1. We’re in a profoundly different age of human communication.
  2. In the long run, science fiction writers are better at predicting the future than the experts.
  3. Every American generation grows up with a different form of media on the rise.
  4. Young people always play key roles in inventing new forms of news media.

A definition: When I mention “news” or “media” that is meant to include, most importantly, its use for quality journalism. Journalism excellence is desperately needed, now and in the future.

From visual to digital

There have been only a few major ages of human communication: The visual age, the age of language and the age of mass media. And now, the digital age. That’s it. In all of human history, just four great phases of communication.

Evolution of Human Communication, new categories
Age Human capacity Date (c.) Concept of time
Visual Curiosity 1-2 m BC Natural
Language Orality 100,000 BC Cyclical
Mass media Literacy 1450 AD Linear
Digital Fluency 1991 AD Multi
Source: Various

In the beginning, more than a million years ago, before language, protohumans wandered the earth. We don’t know when the first news story occurred. But we can guess the news report went something like this: “Aaaaaaaa!” You can recreate the first news report by standing up, pointing a finger at whatever is about to eat your family and repeating the headline: “Aaaaaaaa!”

Roughly 100,000 years ago, something new happened. Language. A breakthrough. Once we could talk, we figured out how to write. (In my view, talking and writing should be seen as two sub-eras within the larger age of language.) Whether spoken or depicted in symbols, language allowed us to say much more than ever before.

A little more than 500 years ago, the age of mass media arrived. It started with movable metal type in Europe and spread with the rise of popular printed books. Newspapers, radio and TV — forms of mass media that came after — had the same one-way, assembly line quality. Journalist, story, medium, audience. Today we call those forms legacy media.

Just 20 years ago, the World Wide Web arrived. Almost immediately after British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee let loose his HyperText Markup Language and its cousins in 1991, we knew something had happened. The electrons of news now make up a global network, moving in all directions at once. We could communicate one-on-one, one-to-some, one-to-many and, amazingly, the reverse. The result has been a kind of organic ecosystem made up of five billion humans with cell phones who can tell you instantly if news is breaking and research just about anything.


If you draw a picture of the shape of the history of news, it’s a familiar one. More than a million years of visual news and then, suddenly, language and everything else. The historic trend produces a “hockey stick” graph, mirroring the exponential adoption curve we might see when looking at the growth of digital media.

We sometimes talk of the ages of communication as distinct periods of history, but it’s important to remember they overlap. As we know, on the web the visual, language and all mass media forms converge. But as you likely haven’t heard, media forms joined cyberspace in pretty much the same sequence as they were developed in physical space. First, symbols. Then text, illustrations, photographs, audio and video. We taught computers to shape media in the same order in which we ourselves originally created it.

Did traditional media people see it coming? Hardly any of them. Twenty-five years ago, the then-named American Society of Newspaper Editors had a panel on the future of newspapers. Introducing it was the legendary Christian Science Monitor editor Kay Fanning. She urged the group to stay realistic by avoiding “science fiction.” Only the Wall Street Journal’s distinguished panelist spoke in earnest about computers. A couple of years later, Fanning would resign over cutbacks at the Monitor. Within a generation, in 2009, the Monitor would become the first national newspaper to switch from print to digital. Shortly after that, ASNE dropped the word newspaper from its name, becoming the American Society of News Editors. Clearly, the panel on the future of newspapers could not see clearly into the future.

Some seemed to have a glimpse of things to come. The Knight-Ridder company spent millions developing editorial ideas for a tablet decades before the iPad. What it couldn’t see was the technology that would make the tablet a popular consumer product and how and when that tech would come to market. Why not? Because humans just aren’t very good at predicting the future.


Here’s a drawing from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World on Dec. 31, 1899. It predicts life 100 years later, in 1999. At first, it seems right: There are giant buildings, ships and airships. But look closer. The buildings are stone. The boats are steamships. The aircrafts are dirigibles. No glass towers. No jet planes. No nuclear subs. Since giant stone buildings, steamships and blimps are not routine features of modern life, we’d have to say they got it wrong.

What happened? New York’s would-be futurists simply supersized the stone and steam of the world they knew; they saw time marching ahead, linear and logical. Time, however, is more like the graphic on this page, a swirl of current events, a cyclone of new ideas spinning into view, unleashing tremendous, world-changing forces. Our computer models can track hurricanes but not — at least not yet — this cyclone of everything.

That leads to my second major point. Freed from cause and effect, science fiction writers dream their way to futures ahead of the rest of us. A century before it happened, Jules Verne wrote that a rocket would leave Florida, go to the moon, come back and splash down in the ocean. “Clarke Orbits” exist because sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke conjured the idea of geostationary satellites in a 1945 magazine article. He invented the most commercially viable communications scheme of the 20th century, Clarke would later observe, for a freelance writer’s fee of $35. Twenty years before the Web, Clarke did it again, predicting how we would get all our everyday information from computer terminals in our homes.

How about Skype, which you could have seen on the 1960s television cartoon, The Jetsons? Or the hand-held communicators from the TV series Star Trek? (The fellow who actually invented the cellular phone said Star Trek gave him the idea.) And there’s the iPad, first appearing in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Imagination, we see, predicts the distant future more accurately than extrapolation. When predicting the future, it’s important to think crazy. Not out-of-the-box crazy, but off-the-planet crazy.

Generational Shifts in Media

Trying to follow my own advice, I found two unconventional best-selling books and then combined their messages with everything I’d learned about history when developing the story line and editing the original content at the Newseum, the museum that celebrates news and the First Amendment. The books are The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, describing human cycles of history and The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil, predicting humans will transcend biology in one upward, exponential thrust.

This exercise revealed my third major point. Every American generation has grown up with a different form of media in ascendance. We talk today about how everything’s changing, how young people seem to be in a different media world. Actually, that’s not at all unusual.

Strauss and Howe list 12 generations of Americans that have come of age since the days of the American Revolution. Let’s consider the earliest one, the Republican Generation. Born as English colonists, between 1742 and 1766, the youngest were mere children when the American Revolution arrived. In those early days, the media form on the rise was the pamphlet. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was a runaway best seller. There were colonial newspapers. But the pamphlet was the popular form. An estimated 120,000 copies of “Common Sense” were printed.

It wasn’t until the next generation that the weekly papers exploded, thanks to a new contentious country, a First Amendment, and the low postal rates that Benjamin Franklin established, the latter representing the first and longest-lasting U.S. government subsidy for news.

A generation later, yet another new form of media rose up: Populist daily newspapers, not just for the elite, but for everyone: the penny press, it was called. After that came immediate news for all those papers from the Associated Press, courtesy of the telegraph.

In each case, there are myriad reasons for the emergence of new forms of media. Still, there is a clear pattern: New generation. New media form rising. Constant change.

Each American generation comes of age as a different news medium is rising
Generation Age midpoint Rising media Cycle
Republican 1775 Pamphlets American Revolution
Compromise 1800 Partisan Weekly Newspapers (Helped by U.S. Mail, Postal Service)
Transcendental 1830 Populist Daily Newspapers (The Penny Press) Transcendental Awakening
Gilded 1851 The Associated Press (The telegraph)
Source: Generations and cycles from “The Fourth Turning”; Media trends from the Newseum, web research

Imagine folks sitting around more than a century ago, one saying to the other: You know, our child never knew a world without daily newspapers. He is a newspaper native. He never knew how long we used to wait for news to come from the other side of the country. No wonder he has no patience. No attention span.

Sound familiar?

The Fourth Turning had a pattern of its own to reveal: About every 80 years — every four generations — there’s a crisis. And about every 80 years — the length of a human lifespan, there’s a great awakening. Straus and Howe trace this back to the Renaissance. They say it’s a social cycle humans have created because of the interplay of generational archetypes going all the way back to our evolution as a species dependent upon the four seasons.

More cycles in time: Awakening and crises every 80 years
Generation Age midpoint Rising media Cycle
Progressive 1868 Illustrated magazines, niche publications Civil War
Missionary 1891 Major metropolitan daily newspapers (Industrial era inventions: Light bulb, telephone, linotype, film, etc.) Third great awakening
Lost 1909 Photography in print
GI 1933 Radio newscasts, movies and newsreels Depression, World War Two
Source: Generations and cycles from “The Fourth Turning”; Media trends from the Newseum, web research

Maybe. No matter the reason, the pattern is there throughout American history. A crisis: The American Revolution, followed a little more than 80 years later by the Civil War, which was followed a little less than 80 years later by World War II. Each war is associated with its own generation — and with a different form of dominant media. During the Revolution, the pamphlet. During the Civil War, illustrated magazines. During World War II, radio.

I charted the generations and their media. And so it went, through big papers, photographs and tabloids. Each adding something. Before long you could read, see, hear and watch the news.

Each generation shapes media

The cycle persists even as information explodes
Generation Age midpoint Rising media Cycle
Silent 1951 Glossy color magazines (TV, color TV, home telephones)
Baby Boomers 1969 TV Newscasts (Satellite, cable, video tape) The 1960s awakening
Generation X 1990 World Wide Web (Digital era inventions, personal computers, the Internet, domestic mail, chat, video games, multimedia)
Millenial 2009 Mobile and social media (Cell phones, search, blogs, social media, blogosphere, smart phones, tablets, global World Wide Web, universal e-commerce, wearable media) 9/11, recession, World War 3.0
Source: Generations and cycles from “The Fourth Turning”; Media trends from the Newseum, web research

In this grid we see the Baby Boomers. They grew up when TV was young. When they came of age, so did television. By 1964, it was the most popular news medium in America. The Boomers became lifelong consumers and shapers of TV news. Remember “the revolution will be televised?”

The larger cycles of crisis and awakening appear to be holding. The 1960s “consciousness expansion” came about 80 years after the religious activism called the Third Great Awakening. The crisis continued with 9-11, the global recession and the great cyber war, World War 3.0, coming 80 years after World War Two.

Notice in these charts we do not track when a new medium is invented. We care about when most people are using it, when it comes of age, pops, becomes ubiquitous. That’s when it shapes us and we shape it. So it’s not surprising to see the role of the Gen Xers in shaping the web, and of Millennials in shaping mobile, social and even wearable media. Those will be their media forms.

Digital natives will always have a special affinity for digital media, just as Boomers do for television. For writer Marc Prensky, who in 2001 coined the phrase “digital native,” it means thinking “fundamentally differently.” But how? In the words of Harvard’s John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, it means living a global, multitasking life, much of it online, “without distinguishing between the online and the offline.” Digital natives consume information and conduct relationships differently than their elders. Their habits will shape future media, and it will shape the world.

Imagining World War 3.0

Why predict a world war, and why call it World War 3.0? Because it’s a war in cyberspace, a war that already has started. Our government has declared cyberspace an official arena of war. An estimated 100 countries have cyber armies. Every day there are an undisclosed number of cyber-attacks. If the cycle-of-crisis theory holds, World War 3.0 will expand until it rages around us, the first invisible war, a conflict with the potential to remake the world.

The Millennials will rise up as the heroes of WW 3.0. Though war is destruction at its most unnecessary, at the same time a global crisis can give birth to new unity and purpose. Society could emerge much stronger than before.

A final crisis or another chance to emerge stronger?
Generation Age midpoint Rising media Cycle
Cyber 2035 Intelligent Media (The cloud, grids, robotics, artificial intelligence)
Visionary 2057 Bio Media (Augmented reality, nanotechnology, media implants, enhanced human capacity Machine Awakening: The Singularity
Hybrid 2076 Hyper Media (Cranial downloads, thought aggregators, sentient environment)
Courageous 2098 Omni Media (Thought projection, telepathy, teleportation, telekenisis) World War 4.0: Humans vs. Environment
Source: Generations and cycles from “The Fourth Turning”; Media trends from the Newseum, web research

What’s next for news technology? Pew Research says that in the near term, news media is becoming more personal, portable and participatory. Where will that lead? How about wearable media? Why carry a phone when soon everything you need for communication can all be in your watch? Dick Tracy will be hip again.

Will the generational patterns continue, one new form of media leading to another? It seems so, even as we move into Ray Kurzweil’s exponential explosion of information technology. Why? Because people provide the fuel that drives media innovation. People want to know. They want to tell. They are billions of minds struggling to understand, billions of voices struggling to be heard.

End of the daily paper, rise of Intelligent Media

To look at the coming century, combine generational media, historical cycles and exploding technology. By 2035, we’ll be in the middle of the era of Intelligent Media. All media will be smart. You’ll carry on normal conversations with computers, in any language, ask them questions, have them do your research. News bots, news drones, robot scribes will be the norm.


In the United States, this also would be the time when we see the end of the printed, home-delivered, paid circulation daily newspaper. Print won’t die (as some are noticing). But that particular animal in the ecosystem, the home-delivered daily, will. Household penetration rates have declined in a straight line for 70 years. Extrapolate that and we’ll see the end in April, 2043.

By then, you’ll be able to experience any event anywhere on the planet as though you are there, so long as a news bot is there. The NewsBot 360 will send thousands of feeds simultaneously from all angles. You’ll be able to sit in a virtual room or wear goggles and see everything, as though you were there. You may even be able to feel and smell it. So if you wanted to see a State of the Union address, or a Super Bowl, if they still exist, you always will have a great seat.

After WW 3.0, free governments will have universal data transparency. Every piece of public information will be public from the moment it enters a government computer. You’ll be able to send a research bot out to look for city managers earning $800,000 a year for running small towns like Bell, California. Your digital sunglasses, the filters you use to find what you need, will be many times smarter than those of today. You will be able to access your information profile, the data that controls those filters, and correct it the same way you can correct your credit score today.

The words now describing legacy media will disappear — and so will a lot of those media. They’ll morph into new forms. News will not go away. There always will be people who try to manipulate information, to abuse power. There always will be people who try to straighten out information, to check abuses of power.

How do we know these things will happen? We don’t know for sure. But we see them in books like The Martian Chronicles, movies like The Terminator or Total Recall, television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation. In science fiction, robotics, bionics and artificial intelligence flourish. If you give up straight line predictions and look at the exponential pace of technological growth, they seem like a mathematical certainty.

By 2057, America will be in the midst of the era of Bio Media — implants and augmented reality for everyone. You’ll be able to tap into all the information you want about any place you go. Lots of people will appear to be talking to themselves. They’ll actually be talking in cyberspace through their media implants. If a journalist wants to know what a city thinks about something, the question is asked and answered live by millions of people. Voting won’t be bound by geography. You’ll earn votes with civic service and use them on whatever elections you want.

Humans will become more and more indistinguishable from machines. Why would people allow it? That door already is open. Why should Uncle Mike die when a brain implant will save him? Future generations will want nanotechnology to eliminate their genetic flaws, seamless bionics to have perfect replacement limbs. That’s Kurzweil’s prediction in The Singularity is Near.

Computer memory space will be virtually free. A person’s entire life experience will be saved in the cloud: what you thought and did, things you saw and heard. Sophisticated filters will help you pass your life experience along to your children, or to everyone. They’ll be able to ask your digital memory questions after you the person are dead.

By 2076, it will have happened. Machines will be self-aware. People will talk about the creators of Data in Star Trek and Sonny in I, Robot (or Robbie, in the original) the way they talk about Jules Verne today. If the pattern holds, it will have been 80 years since the 1960s. Time for another great awakening. The Singularity is a kind of point of no return. Somewhere around mid-century, Kurzweil says, it will happen: The unbelievable result of current, quite believable, exponential increases in computing power.

That’s when things really get interesting: An era of Hyper Media, machines creating more intelligent machines exponentially. The code is cracked. Human brains will accept machine downloads. Like Neo in the Matrix, you can learn kung fu, or anything else, in just seconds. Like the movie Avatar, the whole environment comes alive and you can communicate with it in basic ways.

News, then, is whatever we imagine we want to know at any given moment. Much more of it may be in images, with our software being able to find just the right ones. As soon as you think of a question, your filters find the answer from the world’s ever-fresh aggregation of data. There is a quantum leap in our ability to solve problems. (Or create them.) Defensive software will be mandatory. Who would want their head to be hacked?

The final generation of the century will see the era of Omni Media. Will we even have language once we can be the gods we always have imagined? We will know everything, do anything: We can read thoughts, project commands to objects, move them, teleport them, change them.

Just like science fiction.

But in the end, at least in this mash-up, we still are human enough to follow the pattern of crisis every 80 years. This last crisis — the fight for our own survival. World War 4.0: Humans against a non-human foe. Maybe it’s the machines, or the nanobots, or even the earth itself. But our greatest battle won’t be in fighting each other, but a battle against something else entirely.

It’s scary enough to want to be gone when it comes. And perhaps it won’t actually come for a few hundred years. If it’s sooner, some of today’s children will be here when it happens. They will watch the digital people of the future either prevail and rebuild, or see the end. No matter how it comes out, you have to admit, it’s a great story to cover.

From the 18th century to the 22nd we have traveled, and for some, the trip surely has been mind-boggling. Perhaps, if it is just crazy enough, if the fiction seems just impossible enough, it could become fact. No matter how it unfolds, the journey should be of intense interest to today’s high school and college students. Why? Because of my final point: Throughout American history, young people have played a major role in the constant reinvention of media. Each new generation drives us forward. It’s their desire to express themselves in different ways, through music, journalism or whatever you like, that forever pushes the frontiers of news.

Look at Steve Jobs. He was in his 20s when he helped develop the personal computer. At Apple he reinvented the music, telephone and portable print industries. When he died, someone tweeted: “Born to unwed parents, put up for adoption, dropped out of school and changed the world… what’s your excuse?”

Benjamin Franklin
was a teenager when he started
writing for colonial newspapers.
David Sarnoff
As a young man, David Sarnoff
pioneered live sports on the radio
with a boxing match.
Philo T. Farnsworth
was 16 when he got the idea for
television while plowing a field.
Currently there are an estimated
1,416,338,245 TVs in the world.

Have you ever seen the image floating around cyberspace of the early Microsoft team, all in their scruffy 20s? Hardly anyone invested in the early motley Microsoft crew. Other news pioneers who invented new media forms when they were young: Ben Franklin, for one. Horace Greeley. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, Lord Northcliffe (inventor of the tabloid), David Sarnoff of radio and Philo T. Farnsworth, who got the idea of TV when he was plowing a field as a teenager.

They embraced the new media technologies of their age and used them to strengthen journalism. But it’s hard to find photos or statues of these folks when they were thinking of their greatest ideas. They were just too young. No one knew they’d be famous. That won’t be a problem in the era of social media. We’ll have the pictures. All today’s students have to do is become famous.

New skills for new opportunities

This is a lot to think about. And there’s also plenty to do, especially if you are a journalism or communication major. Those things include:

  • Engaging with communities before, during and after your search for news.
  • Learning truthful storytelling in all media
  • Watching a lot more science fiction.
  • Fooling around every day with and then mastering new digital tools.
  • Inventing new tools yourself — better filters, hopefully — and new business models.
  • Rewriting codes of ethics and relearning media law for the digital age.
  • Teaching digital media fluency to everyone.
  • Finding some good sources so you can cover World War 3.0 (just in case).

I worry about journalism education. I keep thinking of the annual survey of journalism and mass communication students in America, done when social and mobile media were just taking off. More than half of the college students surveyed either weren’t sure anything was changing in media, or said nothing big was changing.

Who are these students, and who is teaching them? I trust the students at the best journalism schools are not among them, because seeing the wonder of the coming century is only the first step. The second step is to worry, because some things never seem to change. As we said in the Newseum: “Always there are those who would control news, and those who would free it; those who would use news to mislead, and those who would use it to enlighten.”

Being sure you are on the right side of both history and the future requires the kind of true humility expressed by famed physicist Isaac Newton. About his heralded discoveries, Newton said:

“I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me.”

Somewhere in the ocean of truth is the future of news. Happy sailing!

This is an updated version of a talk originally given to students and faculty at Arizona State University as part of the Hearst Visiting Professional program.

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Field notes from the digital age of journalism

by Eric Newton
ISBN# 978-0-9749702-4-0

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Searchlights and Sunglasses is an open educational resource provided by Arizona State University Cronkite School Innovation Chief Eric Newton with initial assistance from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

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