Thanks to a great tip from reader, colleague, and fellow SABR member Mike Vance over the weekend, a whole idea for a modest column on the history of communication has broken open as blue and bright for us in the locally gray baseball clouds over Houston this Monday morning. Our once orange-colored Houston baseball sky has now bid us to look askance from the now slip-sliding away chances that the Astros will claim the second Wild Card spot in the upcoming AL Playoffs. With 13 games to go, the ‘Stros are now 78-71 – with three other teams ahead of them for the last spot on the dance card. The chances that the Astros will now go 11-2 to 13-0 the rest of the way, while the Blue Jays, Tigers, and Mariners all crash on the trail ahead of them, are pretty much slim to none.
Mike Vance wrote to tell me about a fellow named Julius Myers (1868-1929), who came to Texas from New York at age 14 because it was supposed to help his respiratory problems. Even in 1882, Myers could not have expected much help with easier breathing had he settled in the Houston area. He chose the further inland town of Luling for his first Texas home before moving to San Antonio in 1912 at the age of 44. Myers quickly built his public reputation as a man who rode on horseback in costume to inform the populace of current and upcoming attractions like sporting events, sales and theater attractions, and charity attractions. When too many others tried to follow Myers’ business plan, the city passed an ordinance in December 1927 against this horseback form of business “barkering”. Friends of Myers unsuccessfully petitioned the City of San Antonio to exempt the years-deep well-liked local original from the ordinance. The City refused to take any official exemption action, but, within a year, they were “looking the other way” in 1928 as Julius Myers continued his loud-spoken street information shouts on upcoming local baseball games – as long as he ditched the horse and made his pronouncements on foot. Myers didn’t have long to enjoy his tenuous unofficial status. Due to declining health from heart disease, he passed away on September 18, 1929 at the age of 61. He was survived by his wife and four children.
Although celebrated as the “last American town crier”, Myers actually was more like early times spam on horseback. As far as we can tell, Myers wasn’t carrying the news of the day to an otherwise uninformed public. That job of hard news transmission had been taken over by the newspapers in the 19th century, and by the 1920s, radio was just waking up as an even more immediate up-to-date-in-the-moment source of hard news communication. And even these changes are fairly recent in the food-chain growth of media forms in news communication.
We are always reminded of the genius comedic mind of the great Mel Brooks when it comes to the history of communication in general. In his 1961 album routine with Carl Reiner, Brooks played a surviving 2,000-year old man who is being interviewed by Reiner on how certain customs in human history got started. Playing loose-as-a-goose, of course, with the cultural misplacement of “cave men” into the picture of how people lived two thousand years ago, Mel Brooks responded to Reiner’s question (“Did you have marriages back in the old days?”) with the following paraphrased answer”
“Of course, we had marriages back in the cave family days, but – do you know why we got married back then? If you were a guy, you needed a lady to stand behind you while you were out hunting – just to make sure a dinosaur or some other wild animal couldn’t sneak up on you and have you for lunch. – You’d say, ‘Hey, Lady, will you look behind me for a lion?’ – ‘For how long,’ she’d ask. ‘Forever,’ you’d say. – That it was it. – You were married. – That’s how the first marriages got done!”
“In fact, if you didn’t have a wife to look for big hungry animals coming up behind you back then, that in itself was a condition that led to the first ‘cry for help’ songs. All of a sudden, you’d look down and see a lion nibbling on your toes, and you’d just have to break into this song as loud as you could sing it: ‘A lion – is eating – my foot off! – Won’t somebody call a cop???’ “
In a less silly, but not nearly as funny way, new communication has sort of evolved in this way:
- Person to Person, Speaking, Hollering, Etc. People traveled slowly, sharing what they knew. Sometimes people were actually made to travel as messengers, carrying important news to others. Sometimes the news even got hollered from neighbor to neighbor – and some native tribes used fire and smoke to send yes/no answers to previously defined and shared questions. Rock and tree carvings served as the first hard copy news.
- The Printing Press News Giddy-up. The 15th century invention of the printing press made it possible for more detailed and more clearly aimed news to be sent or left behind for discovery. The machine-printed word became both a vast improvement over hand written books, but a huge incentive for people to learn how to read.
- The Town Crier. As newspapers picked up steam as the cutting edge they would become by the early 19th century, the town criers began to gather steam as the principal way that the large numbers of illiterates would get their news from newsprint spoken to them on the streets from these new much higher volume printed sources. The real town criers, not the belated mobile huckster news bearers, really trickled into being in numbers from the 17th century until virtually almost all of them disappeared by the Civil War due to the vast increase in western world literacy and some relevant technological developments in the 19th century.
- The Telegraph/Morse Code/Local Newspaper Pipeline. By 1838, the use of Morse Code to transmit information by electrical wire changed everything forever. It now became possible to transmit news instantly, eventually reaching the goal of printing stories in local newspapers thousands of miles away the next day. Prior to the telegraph, and after, much news was still being sent by rail in pre-set type for local newspaper use in compatible printing presses.
- Telephone, Radio, Automobiles and Airflight. The electronic spoken word traveling in real time – and the invention of personal travel of humans at far greater speeds – both accelerate the immediacy of how soon news will reach the people – but also how soon other coverage will reach the place of breaking news. Prior to the coming of the telegraph t0 the area of South Texas, 50 miles north of Corpus Christi, my namesake grandfather used this railroad-transported “patent news” to print national and world affairs in The Beeville Bee on his 1886 George Washington Hand Press.
- Television and Radio Together. Television made it not only possible to see the current news by 1940s, but it was also now possible for network providers to more easily shape public opinion by what they showed and did not show. Television also took radio out of the entertainment side of broadcasting and skewed radio’s growth toward their own versions of public opinion shaping by accident or design.
- The Digital Age Technology Bomb. The Internet and all of its social media variants are now doing to daily newspapers, and even to radio-TV news programs, what the wired newspapers and the rise of literacy once did to the town criers. The printed version of news stays the same all day, as the large print publishers also scramble to produce a real time dynamic presentation of the news at their own Internet websites. TV and Radio aren’t safe as they are. Both will have to adapt to how the far more current news accessible Internet works to get the news out fast to have any hope of being taken seriously in real time as a news source on a commercial usage basis. From what we see, and for the general reasons presented here, the millennial generation does not read subscription newspapers – nor are they willing to pay for information that is now available instantly somewhere else on the Web for free.
In a nutshell, the history of news communication is the story of change itself.