Post SXSW (Peak Awesomeness)

March 17, 2010

I’m at Austin airport, about to leave Texas after five days at SXSW Interactive.

Yesterday, I spoke on a panel about the post-digital world. I did the books bit. It was a lot of fun, and I’m very grateful to my co-panellists Chris Heathcote, Mike Migurski of Stamen, Ben Terrett of Newspaper Club, and our moderator Molly Wright Steenson for making it happen. I’ll write more about it later, but general reactions can be found on Twitter. They seem to be good.

What really made SXSW was the people though. Really, really extraordinary people, who I felt privileged and humbled to spend time with. I don’t think I stopped smiling for five days. I’m still smiling now. A special mention must go to the London away team: Russell, Ben and Tom of the Really Interesting Group, Phil and Chris of the BRIG collective.

RIG, as Newspaper Club, made a newspaper while we were there: Things Our Friends Sent Us For Printing. It was a hell of an achievement. I had a short piece in there, which I reproduce below, mostly so I can excise (some of) the horrific typos which – entirely my fault, not NC’s – appear in the printed version.

I’m going to Mexico City for a few days before coming home. I have a list of bookstores. If anyone has any tips, please do leave them in the comments.

A Squib; on the naming of Newspapers

First came the avvisi, hand-written, single issue letters. Newsletters, sent from Venice to Rome and Rome to Venice and thence throughout Europe. A single author; a trusted source. Who often wrote two versions: the public avvisi, an open letter, and the secret avvisi, destined for the diplomatic bag or too full of slander and scandal to publish openly. Avviso means a notice, a warning, advice or an announcement.

The British took up the first of many wanderworts, gazetta, from a Venetian coin used to purchase newspapers. In 1665, the Oxford Gazette appeared, and quickly reformed into the London Gazette. The Edinburgh Gazette followed in 1699; Dublin and Belfast in 1705 and 1921.

The corantos of the seventeenth century were the first newsheets to drop the full title page, and develop the masthead, and columns. Courant (Courante, corrant, Courier, Corriere) entered the language from the Dutch, apparently, although the Opregte Haarlemsche Courant was first published in 1752 (and is now merged with Haarlems Dagblad), while The Daily Courant, the first English daily lasted from 1702 to 1735. The Hartford Courant, America’s oldest continuously published newspaper, derives from 1764, “older than the nation”. The Courante is a dance, in triple metre, dating from the same era, and literally means “running”.

The real first US newspaper, however, dates from 1690. The unambiguously-titled Public Occurrences printed one issue, and was immediately suppressed by colonial officials.

The Times (of London) is the original Times, having passed on its name to The New York, The Los Angeles, The Times of India, The Straits Times, The Times of Malta and The Irish Times. Its claim to cover time is not unjustified: it was the first newspaper to systematically cover major wars and events in foreign countries – and the first to industrialise production. Its first proprietor’s son spent sixteen months in Newgate prison for libels printed in his father’s paper, and became its second editor. The Thunderer remains the United Kingdom’s newspaper of record.

Saudi Arabia’s newspapers include al-Jazirah (The Island), al-Jeel (The Generation), al-Madina (The City), Naseej (The Web), Watan (The Homeland), Yaum (The Day); Egypt’s al-Ahram (The Pyraminds), al-Gomhuria (The Republic), al-Osboa (The League), al-Wafd (The Delegation).

I like the word ‘feuilleton’ very much – for the gossip section, or serialisation parts of a newspaper; a diminutive of the French ‘feuille’, a single leaf of a book. As flimsy as that; a scrap. The Germans still use feuilleton for their entire arts section – but then they call their newspapers Zeitung, which means, pretty much, The Times.

The Newspapers that rose to English prominence in the Victorian era – the Mail, the Telegraph, the Express, The Guardian, The People, the News of the World, The Sunday Post – all named themselves for speed; or for the technologies of their time which evoked speed; or for their perceived virtues. (‘News’ itself, novelty, being the ultimate signifier of rapidity.) They reach their logical conclusion in BLAST – Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticist magazine of 1914-15, and the equally short-lived Californian paper of revolutionary labour of 1916-17.

Capitalist newspaper names, then, are either temporal or political – and what is politics, but an attempt to freeze morality in time? The Soviet Union skipped such superstitious metaphors, and went straight for Pravda: Truth.

A special mention should be given to Stars Рindeed, Pravda was itself derived from the ̩migr̩ weekly Zvezvda, meaning Star. Today, hundreds of national and local newspapers bear that name, from Kansas City to Sheffield, from Morning to Evening, but while it appeared almost simultaneously across the globe in the early years of the nineteenth century, its origin is obscure, if not unexpected.

These things, words, before you now, have always been heralds. Heralds of phenomena: events, located in time. You can drill all the way down to the particle level, unfold words, attempt to parse space, but it’s just news; new events; novelty. That which has not been observed before. A new star.

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