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

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Johannes Gutenberg invented the use of moveable type in a printing press. It was a huge success for society. For Gutenberg, not so much. He was bankrupt within months. | Sun-Times files

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.

“Success depended on the successful resolution of a range of practical questions,” writes Andrew Pettegree, in his highly readable “The Book in the Renaissance.” “Firstly, what should they print; that is, which texts, in how many copies, and for which readers? How then should they bring them to their readers? Finally, how would they obtain payment?”

To make ends meet, printers would pause from books to print handbills and pamphlets, sold on the street — the listicles of the day — and these reveal a whirlwind of communications much like our own, “a torrent of public debate, pursued in placards, pasquils, verses, gossip, tracts, treatises and sermons,” according to Pettegree, who described the resultant chaos as “the theatre of information.”

“Often funny, sometimes gross … crucially this public discourse had passed out of the control of the powers that earlier in the century had willingly used print to promote their own authority,” he writes. “It was a development pregnant with consequences for the future.”

In 1455, that future included Martin Luther, the Reformation, and overthrow of monarchy, all stemming from the advent of printing. We are in the midst of a similar revolution, and we don’t know where it’s taking us. When books were handwritten, they were rare, and congregations had to sit and listen to what the guy with the book said. After books became more common, more people could read them, and stand up and take part in their own faiths. It was freeing.

The internet, in sweeping away traditional information gatekeepers, is democratizing, though the result might not be. Every voice is heard, loving and hateful, rigorous and deluded. Every crank can find every other crank, form a team and promote their version of events.

We might see the result as chaos, right now, but so did the Renaissance popes. Someday, the demands of factual reporting and reality-based policy-making might seem as rigid as Latin high mass. As Facebook tries to snuff out countless brushfires of fake news sites, I can’t help but think of 16th century Catholic authorities, taking anonymous banned texts from printer to printer, trying to identify the culprit by the typeface.

If it seems like I’m equating the Reformation with fake news, I’m not, exactly. Rather, that technological change is inexorable, and new ways, once unleashed, cannot be put back in the bottle. Eventually book publishers found a way to make money, chugging along successfully for several centuries. So will those in the news business, though the news will certainly change, along with the people reading it.

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