Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Gutenberg to BuzzFeed, ‘theatre of information’ changes, and so do we

 Gutenberg Bible, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

     Gutenberg went bankrupt.
     Forgive me for leaping to today’s point so abruptly. But I want to get that on the table right away, for those readers who shrug after a few lines and rush off to “Pearls Before Swine.”
     That fact is important, yet overlooked. The average reader is vaguely aware that Johannes Gutenberg was a 15th-century German who printed the first book using moveable type, a Bible, now rare — 49 copies, to be exact. (So rare, there are none in Illinois: two pages at the Newberry Library; one at The Art Institute. Otherwise, the nearest copy is at Indiana University.)
     They do not know that Gutenberg started printing Bibles in March 1455 and by November had gone bankrupt and lost his printing press.
     I mention this now, in this moment, as digital media is being rattled by failure and mass firings: 1,000 employees sacked in recent weeks at BuzzFeed, AOL, HuffPost and Vice Media. Newspapers are shedding staff, as technology relentlessly undercuts the established order, and nobody can figure out how to stop the process. Flash: We can’t. The old way is over. A few living fossils might survive; I’m hoping to become the horseshoe crab of Chicago media. But generally, we’re sailing off into a new world and never going back.
     BuzzFeed, et al., are in the same business Gutenberg was in — selling words for money — and grasping his struggles might give us insight into our own.
     Gutenberg’s Bibles were expensive — 20 gulden, when a stone house in Mainz went for 80 gulden. Think $100,000 in today’s money. Printing these books took time, and getting the monasteries who bought copies to pony up took even longer. The new product worked — people wanted printed books — but money was slow in coming.
     Sound familiar? Early printers struggled to figure out how to keep their heads above water.

To continue reading, click here.


  1. Great column. This is a fleshed-out, well-researched version of a thought that's occurred to me numerous times. Giving more people access to information via print was revolutionary and strongly resisted, and the same is true of the internet.

    BTW, whenever I see a page from a Gutenberg Bible, I always wonder how anyone could actually read that thing.

  2. The thought of reading the bible cover to cover is so daunting it makes me grateful for never having the urge to attempt it. To produce the plates Gutenberg used had to be an excruciatingly laborious process. I can't imagine he made many more than the 49 volumes in existence today. How many characters did he have to produce, then manipulate in the 8 months of the project? Guess it was a labor of love. Ironic though that this beginning of the printed page involved a fictional book passed off as truth and the demise of the printed page is ushering in the era of fake news. Keep those fingernails strong, Neil, you're going to have to hold on tight. Hope it's some comfort that a lot of us are rooting for you.

  3. His first financial success was, I believe, printing of Missals, relatively small volumes the Church bought in volumes. Printing that Bible could not have been an economic undertaking.


  4. What did all the monks do after losing their jobs as copyists?


  5. I wonder if you'd seen the story "The New York Times Co. Reports $709 Million in Digital Revenue for 2018". ( They report that digital ad revenue has surpassed print ad revenue. From the article: "“Our appeal to subscribers — and to the world’s leading advertisers — depends more than anything on the quality of our journalism,” Mr. Thompson said in the statement. “That is why we have increased, rather than cut back, our investment in our newsroom and opinion departments. We want to accelerate our digital growth further, so in 2019, we will direct fresh investment into journalism, product and marketing.”

    Seems like they're doing fine!


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.