Harold Innis' Excavation of Modernity: The Newspaper Industry, Communications, and the Decline of Public Life

William J. Buxton (Concordia University)

Abstract: In most discussions of Harold Innis' work on communications, his contributions have been treated as those of a general media theorist. His analyses of particular media are commonly viewed simply as instances of his broader account of how space- and time-binding media serve to bias societies and civilizations. This paper argues that Innis' generalizations about media derived, in fact, from his examination of how a particular cluster of media -- namely, printing and publishing, with particular reference to newspapers -- was linked to the onset of modernity. These concerns were evident in his magisterial unpublished manuscript, History of Communication. Drawing on its periodization and overarching themes, this paper examines Innis' account of the newspaper industry as it developed between the American Revolution and the mid-point of the twentieth century. The historical trajectory that Innis traces, it is argued, reveals the specific concerns about printing and modernity that underpinned his general reflections about time- and space-binding communications.

Résumé: Dans la plupart des débats autour de l'oeuvre d'Harold Innis sur les communications, on traite de ses travaux comme s'ils étaient les éléments constituants d'une théorie générale des médias. Aussi, ses analyses de certains médias particuliers sont communément vues comme les applications d'une réflexion générale dont le but est d'expliquer comment le rapport différencié des médias, au temps et à l'espace, influence le développement des sociétés et des civilisations. Dans cet article, il est soutenu qu'en fait, les généralisations d'Innis résultent plutôt de sa volonté d'étudier comment un ensemble particulier de médias, notamment l'imprimé et la publication (avec une attention toute spéciale pour la presse écrite), ont participé à l'avènement de la modernité. Ses préoccupations pour le sujet ressortent de façon évidente dans son imposante monographie inédite History of Communication. Prenant appui sur la chronologie et le caractère inextricable des thèmes de cet ouvrage, l'article examine le point de vue adopté par Innis pour traiter de l'industrie de la presse et de son développement entre la révolution américaine et la moitié du 20e siècle. Il est défendu que la trame historique dépeinte par Innis met bien en lumière le fait que ses préoccupations, eu égard à l'imprimé et à la modernité, sont à la base de sa réflexion générale sur le rapport au temps et à l'espace des différentes formes de communication.

Innis and communications theory

Despite the massive amount that has been written about Harold Innis' contributions to communications, little detailed attention has been given to his analyses of particular media. When his views on specific communication technologies (such as paper or papyrus) are discussed, they are almost invariably mentioned only in relation to his broader conception of how media in general exert a bias on society by virtue of their inherent properties.2 This has led to a tendency to view Innis' examination of particular phenomena (such as the breakup of empires) as simply an instantiation of his account of the general dynamic at work involving space- and time-binding media. And when efforts are made to draw on Innis' thought to examine the nature and impact of a particular aspect of communications, they usually involve the use of his theory as a point of departure rather than as a detailed guide to carrying out research.3

This treatment of Innis as primarily a general media theorist undoubtedly is rooted in his recognition as a foundational thinker in communications. This means that his work has been read with a view to generating clearly articulated claims and propositions. But such efforts have proven to be difficult given the widely acknowledged impenetrability of his texts, the awkwardness of his style, and the lack of linearity in his arguments. Since his body of work in communications does not easily yield obvious insights, those who have sought to explain his thought have largely confined themselves to his best-known publications in the area, namely, Empire and Communications (Innis, 1950) and The Bias of Communication (Innis, 1964), using key sections from these works as the basis for generating claims about the meaning of Innis' work.4 When material from other texts is invoked, it is primarily to illustrate broader themes that have been adumbrated. Such an approach, I would argue, has led to a bias in Innisian scholarship that is rooted in the form, content, and organization of Innis' two major treatises on communication. The Bias of Communication is a collection of various essays that are presented neither in the order they were originally written nor in the chronological order of their subject matter. More often than not, commentators tend to concentrate on the portmanteau essay in the collection, "Minerva's Owl," while ignoring the other pieces. Given that this work largely focuses on developments prior to industrialization, this has meant that Innis has been interpreted as someone who worked out his analysis of communications in relation to ancient and pre-modern societies, and then applied these to the more contemporary period. This pattern has been replicated in discussions of Innis based on Empire and Communications. While this work offers a chronological treatment of the development of media from ancient times to modernity, it is only in the final chapter that Innis addresses post-industrial developments. Hence, there has been a tendency not only to interpret Innis on the basis of a few selective utterances from his major texts, but to treat his discussion of modernity as merely an extension of the framework that he established on the basis of his research on ancient and pre-modern societies. In view of the difficulties involved in making Innis' thought intelligible, it is not at all surprising that formulaic statements have come to dominate our understanding of his contributions to communication studies.

While this approach to Innis has a certain heuristic value, it has also served to obscure and distort our understanding of his writings. It suggests that Innis viewed particular media primarily as embodiments of time- or space-binding communications technology, that different historical epochs evinced the same general patterns, and that the media operated in the same manner regardless of their contexts. Arguably, this way of interpreting Innis is at the basis of the claims that he espoused a form of technological determinism (Marvin, 1983). To be sure, if one draws conclusions simply on the basis of his well-known summary statements, then this way of interpreting Innis has some plausibility. But if one examines in detail his writings on a particular set of media, a different way of understanding Innis' thought suggests itself.5

In this paper, I will examine Innis' views on one particular complex of media, the newspaper industry, particularly as it developed between the American Revolution and the mid-point of the twentieth century. This will be based on a close reading of the various works that he penned on the subject, attempting, as far as possible, to capture his line of argument and mode of reasoning. It will be guided by themes that he addressed in his massive unpublished manuscript History of Communication.6 Its title notwithstanding, the manuscript is not about the history of communication, tout court; it deals with the history of printing and publishing from around the second century (with the coming of paper) to the twentieth century. However, the bulk of the work focuses on the relationship between printing, monopolies of knowledge, and public life from the Gutenberg era through to the modern period. Given that the manuscript consists largely of detailed reading notes, it is decidedly lacking in interpretive commentary. But one can still glean from it a clear sense of the concerns that underpinned Innis' interest in communications, namely, to understand the role of printing, publishing, and newspapers in the development of modernity. As such, it provides a much more insightful guide to Innis' work than does either The Bias of Communication or Empire and Communications.7

While I will not draw directly on History of Communication in the essay, I will use its periodization and overarching themes as the basis for my examination. Innis' interest in the specifics of the American model of newspapers, I argue, was inherently related to his moral concerns about the decline of public life in Western civilization. In particular, he sought to understand the degree to which Canada, Britain, and other countries had been deformed by the spread of the newspaper industry as it had emerged in the United States. If this kind of historical retrieval were to illuminate the present, it needed to examine how the newspaper complex was related to printing as a whole, how it was connected to a range of other historical factors, and how it operated in relation to particular national settings. Given his moral and political concerns, effective engagement in the present required a clear and precise idea of how patterns and tendencies in public life had historically taken form.

The penetrative powers of the press

It is commonly claimed that Innis' interest in newspapers represented nothing more than a variation of his original staples thesis. Donald Creighton (1957), for instance, draws a straight line between Innis' early studies of pulp and paper and his later work on journalism and newspapers:

immediately beyond the manufacture of pulp and paper lay the strange and different world of journalism and the newspaper; and obviously the main stages in its modern industrial development, so far as the English-speaking world was concerned, had taken place not in Canada, but in Great Britain and the United States. (p. 112)

Along similar lines, Melody (1981) notes that on the basis of his earlier work on the "exploitation of staple resources in outlying areas" Innis came to conclude that "the extension of the power of empires depended on effective systems of communication" (p. 4). This in turn led him to give greater attention to "mechanical communication, beginning with printing, publishing, and the implication of mass communication" (p. 5).

While such accounts are suggestive, they largely assume that the driving force behind Innis' work was exclusively that of detached analysis. Accordingly, the connection between Innis' early and late work is assumed to be a concern with how staples, by virtue of their material properties, served to bind and bias empires. Analyses of this kind ignore an important -- and largely neglected -- body of Innis' work from the 1930s and 1940s, namely, that which concerns the relationship between the production of knowledge and political life, particularly in relation to the social sciences and universities (see, for instance, Innis, 1935, 1943). Underpinning Innis' interest in this complex of issues was the broader issue of how developing monopolies of knowledge had served to stifle debate and discussion about public affairs. Innis' later work on newspapers was not simply derivative from his prior studies of staples; it was bound up with his concern with intelligence and public opinion as they related to shared cultures. In this sense, the dissemination of accurate "news" about the world was vital to the effective development of social intelligence and public opinion in that it allowed citizens to formulate well-reasoned positions on current events. If this were the case, those responsible for making and implementing policy would be more likely to operate in a more sensible and responsible manner.8 In effect, Innis' exploration of the history of newspapers in relation to public opinion could best be viewed as an effort to scrutinize the past in order to more effectively engage with the present.9

Christian (1980) goes some way towards recognizing this feature of Innis' thought in his discussion of the material in The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis: "For Innis the most problematic element of the modern world was mechanization and the associated battery of beliefs and practices that mechanization called forth. If he were to point to one salient cause of the character of modern civilization, it would be the printing press" (p. xiii). Innis, however, makes a clear and careful distinction between printing as a whole and newspapers. Approvingly quoting Stanley Morison, he notes that "the fundamental economic character of printing is seen at its fullest in the history of newspaper" (Morison, 1932, p. 5, cited in Innis, 1946c, p. 2). He argues, in effect, that while the newspaper industry had its origins in printing, it came to develop its own distinct character largely through its relentless commercialization. This means, in turn, that it came to have a much more deleterious impact upon civilization than did printing: "the steadying influence of the book as a product of sustained intellectual effort was destroyed by new developments in periodicals and newspapers.... The Western community was atomized by the pulverizing effects of the application of machine industry to communication" (Innis, 1995, p. 370). In the same way that printing undermined the "the monopoly of monasticism" (Innis, 1950, p. 176), destroyed "the edifice and ... social institutions" (Innis, 1946a, p. 91), and signalled an end to "the age of cathedrals" (Innis, 1950, p. 176), the newspaper was destined to annihilate the book. Innis dates the beginnings of this annihilation to the process set in motion by the American War of Independence.

In Innis' view, the American Revolution signalled a decisive turning point in world history. As he cryptically remarked in The Idea File, at the root of growing tension between the colonies and the mother country were much different conceptions of print culture and newspapers:

American Revolution -- clash between freedom of press in colonies and restriction in England...weakness of class in colonies opened way to press. American Revolution changed attitude to public to point of loud insistence on freedom of press....Press appealed to people and regarded by aristocracy with contempt -- in itself it undermined authority of aristocracy and destroyed rigidity of class structure. (Christian, 1980, p. 7)

Innis argues that the whole basis for the emergence of the United States originated in the efforts of the mother country to impose its publishing restrictions on its colonies, whose newspapers were tied in with printing interests working in tandem with the legislators and the post office. Particularly crucial in this regard was the restrictive Stamp Act of 1765 which provoked a backlash leading to the revolution. As he remarks on the differences between Great Britain and its American colonies,

The American press was unhampered in its typography and format by the traditions of book printing of Great Britain and the Continent. The advertiser was more effective in breaking down the conservatism of journalism, and the printer's control was less conspicuous than that of the journalists. (Innis, 1946c, pp. 10-11)

In Innis' view, the newspaper was to be "regarded primarily as an American institution." Closely tied to "trade and advertising," it broke down "European concepts of government":

While it emerged under the influence of English newspapers it broke through the shackles of government restrictions which prevailed in England until 1860. As it developed in the United States from a background of trade it became a powerful instrument in providing the background of the revolution which in a sense represented a struggle between government and newspapers or government and public opinion. (Innis, 1945, pp. 129-130)

Particularly crucial for the growth of the press in the United States was its "guarantee of freedom under the Bill of Rights" (Innis, 1964, p. 156). Such a guarantee, Innis stresses, "accentuated the printed tradition, destroyed freedom of speech and broke the relations with the oral tradition of Europe" (1952b, p. 127). In effect, he claimed, "Freedom of the press ... has become the great bulwark of monopolies of time. The results of the American Revolution hang heavily over the world's destiny. It should be clear that improvements in communication tend to divide mankind" (Innis, 1952c, p. 108). What Innis suggests is that the American Revolution unleashed an age of profound technological transformation through the development of newspapers as linked to the primacy of the written word and print culture. The freedom of the press was tied in with mass democracy, but the monopoly of knowledge which it ushered in ultimately served to undermine the democratic impulse represented by the American Revolution. Changes occurred not simply because of the inherent properties of newspapers and their capacities to bind space. Rather, Innis emphasized that newspapers formed part of a constellation of new media which interacted to create particular effects: "the invention of the teletypewriter or automatic printer, the teletypesetter, telephotography or wire photo, the electric flash lamp, and increased speed and the use of numerous colours on the presses supported the change" (1946c, p. 29). Overall, then,

the newspaper has been a pioneer in the development of speed in communication and transportation. Extension of railroads and telegraphs brought more rapid transmission of news and wider and faster circulation of newspapers; and newspapers, in turn, demanded further extension of railroads and telegraph lines. Cables, postal systems, express systems, aviation lines and radio have been fostered and utilized by newspapers. (Innis, 1946c, p. 32)

The relationship between the newspaper and the telegraph, was, in Innis' view, particularly significant in that "the telegraph weakened the system of political control through the post office and the newspaper exchange. The monopoly over news was destroyed and the regional daily press escaped from the dominance of the political and metropolitan press" (Innis, 1964, p. 169). This meant that "instability weakened the position of a central authority after 1840" (p. 170).10

The newspapers and the other new means of communication were also bound up with changes in commerce and marketing. Innis noted that "newspapers had served as pioneers in the field of low prices and rapid turnover, and as they were followed by periodicals, so they were followed by other types of goods" (Innis, 1946c, p. 25). Indeed, "the use of small coins" that accompanied the growth of the penny press "facilitated the sale of low-priced goods to larger numbers of consumers in the small income class" (p. 25). Innis argues that it was by virtue of its rapidity in collecting, producing, and distributing information that newspapers became the motor for economic change:

Speed in the collection, production and dissemination of information has been the essence of newspaper development. Widening of markets, the effectiveness of competition, lowering of costs of production, the spread of the price system, the evolution of a sensitive monetary structure and the development of equilibrium economics have followed the development of the newspaper. (1946c, p. 32)

Perhaps the central shift that Innis detects was the decline of news in newspapers and the growth of advertising. He notes that news originally had emerged as part of the common law system in Britain: "The advantages of the common law system," he stresses, "are ... seen in the emphasis of a common law society on news" (Innis, 1952a, p. 56). Initially, news was significant as a "device for breaking down hierarchies" in that it "spreads information quickly and undermines aristocracy" (Christian, 1980, p. 57). "News," Innis emphasizes, "essentially concerns happenings in the past and serves as information as to happenings in future. Improved communication hastens information and facilitates action after information [has been] recorded" (Christian, 1980, p. 120). He argues that news was directly linked to action in that it involves the "Constant search of [the] past for guidance of action in [the] future" (p. 120). This made for the "possibility of steadying news with increased emphasis on [the] immediate through interpretation, editorial policy, and the like" (p. 120).

However, with the advent of advertising, news went into a long and slow decline. Innis notes that

a commercial society in a newspaper civilization is profoundly influenced by the type of news which makes for wider circulation of newspapers....Advertising, particularly department store advertising, primarily demands circulation. Circulation becomes largely dependent on the instability of news and instability becomes dangerous. Lack of continuity in news is the inevitable result of dependence on advertisements for the sale of goods. (1952b, p. 123)

This meant that "the character of news, features, and editorial opinions" (Innis, 1952c, p. 103) changed and that journalism itself underwent a transformation:

Under the pressure of publishers and advertisers the journalist has been compelled to seek the striking rather than the fitting phrase, to emphasize crises rather than developmental trends....Success in the industrialized newspaper depends on constant repetition, inconspicuous infiltration, increasing appeal to the subconscious mind, and the employment of acts of attrition in moulding public opinion. (Innis, 1952c, p. 82)

In response to the demand of advertisers for high circulation, not only did the price of newspapers decline but their content was defined by the need to attract the largest number of purchasers: "The newspaper was made responsive to the market. The business office occupied a dominant position. News became a commodity and was sold in competition like any other commodity" (Innis, 1952c, p. 82). The ultimate consequence of this distortion of the news by advertisers, Innis maintains, was an emphasis upon discontinuity, particularly after 1900. This development, in turn, made for the "success of moving pictures," the psychological results of which were rooted in "methods of discontinuity" (p. 86). Innis was unsparing in his condemnation of how the American press had "distorting effects of industrialism and advertising on culture" (1952a, p. 14). "In few countries," he claimed, "could the press illustrate such venality and subservience to its own interests as in the United States" (Innis, 1949, p. 265).

Innis argues that these trends in the press began to spread from the United States to Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was evident that, in Innis' view, the transatlantic community (Europe and North America) had come to constitute a form of civilization. As he remarked in an enigmatic note in The Idea File, "Contrast Wissler's concept of spread outward to fringe from centre with trend in communications with spread fringe to centre, i.e. in spread of newspaper technique from west to east. Pulitzer, Ochs, Hearst, monopoly of communication at centre reverses trends emphasized by Wissler" (Christian, 1980, p. 68). Challenging Wissler's (1923) influential contention that major cultural trends diffused from the centre to the periphery, Innis contended that, in the case of press technology, the trend in the nineteenth century was quite the opposite. The major innovations in the development of the newspaper took place in the United States (still considered to be a marginal area) and spread from there to Europe, which still dominated the world through its colonial empires.11 Innis placed particular emphasis on how newspaper culture in Britain was transformed through what he termed the development of the "new journalism," which represented the adaptation of institutions and practices from the American newspaper industry.12

The new journalism emphasized a vast range of interests at the expense of politics and with the rise of public opinion agencies, lost the power to expose abuses, particularly abuses from which it gains. As a result of its interrelation with news, features, and editorial opinion, advertising became monopolistic in relation to a monopolistic press and imposed its influence on political, social and economic life. The consequent maladjustments were evident in the boom of the twenties and the depression and were to an important extent a result of expansion of the press. (Innis, 1952c, p. 103)

One of the most striking indications of this trend, as Innis pointed out, was the change that took place in The London Times in the latter part of the nineteenth century, after it lost its monopoly position as a leader of public opinion. Following its acquisition by Lord Northcliffe in 1908, it was drastically reorganized and had its price lowered, thereby bringing it into line with modern journalism (Innis, 1946c). It adapted the sensationalist approach to reportage favoured by the American press, abandoning any pretense to contribute to the making of informed and reflective public opinion. The demise of The London Times was just part of an overall trend in Britain in which newspapers became obsessed with advertising and circulation to the detriment of encouraging an "intelligent interest in public affairs, and [an] effective opposition to foreign policy" (Innis, 1952c, p. 100). That newspapers in Britain no longer maintained a critical distance from the affairs of state was made transparent with "the creation of a newspaper peerage" which revealed "the prestige of the new journalism" (Innis, 1950, p. 206). Because of "the domination of the book" Britain was able to resist the "ruthless shattering of language, the invention of new idioms, and the sharpening of words" which had taken place in the United States (Innis, 1952c, p. 94). However, "the similarity of language favoured a rapid borrowing of technological developments" (p. 94).

Innis emphasizes, however, that the patterns he detected in Britain did not hold true for the rest of Europe where "the impact of Anglo-American journalism on Continental journalism was delayed as a result of differences in language and the stronger position of the book" (Innis, 1952c, p. 100). Advertisers had not made major inroads into French newspapers, and Bismarck's model for the press continued to hold sway in Germany. While the American press had little influence on Germany, the same was not true for advertising:

Young Germans were placed with American newspaper chains and advertising and publishing agencies to learn the art of making and slanting news. American treatises on advertising and publicity were imported and translated. American graduate students were attracted to Germany by scholarships and experiments in municipal government. (Innis 1952a, p. 17)

As Innis points out, "the influence of advertising in the United States spread to Europe, notably to Germany, before the First World War" (1952b, p. 123). Indeed, "The weakness of newspapers in Germany probably accentuated [the] power of propagandist organizations" (Christian, 1980, p. 156). It was the profound differences in orientation attendant upon the book /propaganda culture in Germany and the newspaper culture of Anglo-Saxon societies that ultimately led to conflict:

European civilization was still dominated by the book, and war between Germany and Anglo-Saxon countries could be described as a clash between the book and the newspaper....Germany was unable to appreciate the power of the newspaper in Anglo-Saxon countries, and collapse was in fact a result of increasing difficulties of understanding incidental to differences in development of the newspaper in the two regions. By the newspaper, democracy had completely expelled the book from the normal life of the people. (Innis, 1952c, p. 101)

This "distinct and possibly unbridgeable gap between Anglo-Saxon and other European communities," Innis argued, was rooted in the "character of its commercial civilization in the Anglo-Saxon community, especially in North America," where trade has been linked to opinion (1946a, p. 122). Innis also pointed out how the American newspaper industry came to distort the political, cultural, and economic development of Canada. But rather than focus on the impact of the American press upon Canadian journalism and newspapers, Innis largely examined how Canada was affected by the changes occurring south of the border through its ever increasing integration into the American empire. Initially, Canada became implicated in the development of American newspapers through its newsprint, pulp and paper, and hydro-electric industries. This was rooted in the large American newspapers' struggle to control their sources of newsprint, thereby ensuring a constant supply at a favourable price. The ability of newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune to integrate themselves vertically through the control of wood pulp and newsprint was "chiefly responsible for [the] expansion of newspapers and [the] reading habit" (Christian, 1980, pp. 176-177). Above all, the large American newspapers organized themselves in opposition to the threat of an increase in paper prices that was signalled by the amalgamation in 1898 of 19 newsprint companies into the International Paper Company (Innis, 1946a). However, "with the enormous advantage of control over publicity, they exercised sufficient political pressure to secure the reduction and abolition of tariffs on mechanical pulp and newsprint from Canada" (Innis, 1952c, p. 80). This made for a boom in the development of the production of the pulp and paper industry in Canada, which developed in tandem with the exploitation of hydro-electric sources.13 While there may have been some short-term economic gains through the export of newsprint and pulp to the United States, the expansion of the American newspaper and periodical business also made for an increase in advertising, which was exported back into Canada with disastrous consequences:

Our problems have become difficult as a result of our geographic background, and because of our immediate concern with the success of an industry which, in its success, makes for greater instability of public opinion in the United States and in Canada. The pressure of the production of newsprint from the Precambrian formation, and the more intense development of advertising, implies an exaggerated emphasis on the price system and a more unstable public opinion precluding a clear appreciation of our problems and in turn sustained consideration of them. (Innis, 1946b, p. x)

In effect, the border between Canada and the United States proved to provide little resistance to the "unrestricted operation of commercial forces and an impact of technology on communication" that was unleashed by "the guarantee of freedom of the press under the Bill of Rights in the United States and its encouragement by postal regulations" (Innis, 1952a, p. 15). The pulpwood that had originally been harvested on crown lands returned to Canada as "the finished product in the form of advertisements and reading material ... with a lack of restraint from the federal government which reflects American influence in an adherence to the principle of freedom of the press and its encouragement of monopoly" (p. 15). The implications of this relationship for Canadian cultural identity, as Innis pointed out towards the end of his life, were extremely perilous:14

We are indeed fighting for our lives. The pernicious influence of American advertising reflected especially in the periodical press and the powerful persistent impact of commercialism have been evident in all the ramifications of Canadian life....Continentalism assisted in the achievement of autonomy and has consequently become more dangerous. We can survive by taking persistent action at strategic points against American imperialism in all its attractive guises. (Innis, 1952a, pp. 19-20)

The twentieth century and its discontents

Innis not only traced in some detail how the newspaper and printing industry emerged and developed, with varying effects, in Great Britain, continental Europe, the United States, and Canada, he also provided a composite picture of what this historical trajectory implied for Western civilization as a whole. While he did not clearly specify what he meant to include in the "West," he seemed to use this as a shorthand term for the general and world-historical implications of the developments that he detected within specific national settings. He gave particular attention to distinguishing between the lines of general patterns of development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Innis argued that the changes could not simply be traced to the spread of the market economy and the price system. Rather, as he suggested, the spread of the price system was rooted in changes in communications:

Effectiveness of the price system will depend on a realization of its limitations....The compilation and dissemination of information as to prices has been dependent on the effectiveness of communication in the newspaper, the radio, and other media. It operates more intensively in areas where information can be quickly disseminated -- in urban rather than rural areas. (Innis, 1946b, p. ix)

Indeed, Innis suggested that the increased speed in communication was at the root of economic calamity:

marked changes in the speed of communication have far-reaching effects on monopolies over time because of their impact on the most sensitive elements of the economic system....The disequilibrium created by the character of technological change in communication strikes at the heart of the economic system and has profound implications for the study of business disturbance. (Innis, 1952c, p. 108)

While Innis did not attribute the changes to capitalism in general, he did suggest that developments in the newspaper and printing industries were crucial to the trends that he observed. He suggested that in the nineteenth century a precarious balance in world rivalries had been maintained by virtue of the policies of major newspaper owners: "The nineteenth century was a period of transition from rationalism to irrationalism, and its literature reflects the character of the change" (Innis, 1946b, p. 35); "And so we entered the open seas of democracy in the twentieth century with nothing to worship but the totalitarianism of the modern state. A century of peace gave way to a century of war" (p. 55). However, with the acquisition by Lord Northcliffe of The London Times and with the American press rallying behind Theodore Roosevelt and his big stick policy, the equilibrium was disturbed:

This vast new instrument concerned with reaching large numbers of readers rendered obsolete the machinery for maintaining peace which had characterized the nineteenth century....[T]he great evil of democracy [sacrificing the past and the future to what is supposed to be the interest of the present] was accentuated by the reign of the newspaper and its obsession with the immediate. (Innis, 1995, p. 308)

These trends in the development of newspapers formed "at least a part of the background of the collapse of Western civilization which begins with the present century. The comparative peace of the nineteenth century is followed by a period in which we have been unable to find a solution to the problem of law and order, and have resorted to force rather than ballots" (Innis, 1995, p. 307). This trend towards the use of force was accompanied by increasing instability of public opinion, which "loses its anchorage because of the obsession of the press with the immediate" (Innis, 1946c, p. 4). This had profound social implications for, "with the power of the press to penetrate to lower strata of literacy, bitterness soaks through every strata of society" (pp. 4-5). These tendencies served to solidify the power of political regimes: "Instability of public opinion brings the paradox of long life for administrations because of the fear which obsesses democracy and the ability to capitalize on fears. Bureaucracies must exploit instability in order to show how essential they are" (Innis, 1946b, p. 61).

The thrust of Innis' line of argument, then, was to call attention to how the development of newspapers and periodicals were affecting public life, thereby calling into question commonly held views about the nature of contemporary democracy. He claimed that the notions of "freedom of the press" and "freedom of speech" were largely meaningless. Both of these have become possible

largely because they have permitted the production of words on an unprecedented scale and have made them powerless. Oral and printed words have been harnessed to the enormous demands of modern industrialism and in advertising have been made to find new markets for goods. Each new invention which enhances their power in that direction weakens their power in other directions. (Innis, 1946b, p. vii)

Correspondingly, the supposed technological advances in communications only served to exacerbate the trend towards less public involvement in public affairs:

Technological advance in communication implies a narrowing of the range from which material is distributed and a widening of the range of reception, so that large numbers receive, but are unable to make any direct response. Those on the receiving end of material from a mechanized central system are precluded from participation in healthy, vigourous, and vital discussion. Instability of public opinion which follows the introduction of new inventions in communication designed to reach large numbers of people is exploited by those in control of inventions....(Innis, 1952c, p. 102)

Innis argued that this debasement of words, coupled with a decline in public discussion, led to a growing predominance of images in communication, most notably in illustrated tabloids and billboard advertising: "The possibility of tapping lower levels of income and larger numbers of advertisers and recognition of the loosening of rules and habits during the war favoured the establishment of the tabloids. Pictures spoke a universal language which required no teaching for their comprehension" (Innis, 1952c, p. 86). And along the same lines, "the limitations of words have led to resort to architecture and the rise of skyscrapers as an advertising medium" (Innis, 1950, p. 205).

Parallelling the trend towards "present-mindedness" as based in a press which insists on "time as a uniform and quantitative continuum" and thereby obscures "qualitative differences and its disparate and discontinuous character," Innis argues that the dimension of time, which had formerly been at the core of the oral tradition, had been colonized by advertisers:

Advertisers build up monopolies of time to an important extent through the use of news. They are able to take full advantage of technological advances in communication and to place information before large numbers at the earliest possible moment. Marked changes in the speed of communication have far-reaching effects on monopolies over time because of their impact on the most sensitive elements of the economic system. (Innis, 1952c, p. 108)

Overall, the twentieth century was characterized by its "growth of irrationalism, reflected in the interest in psychology, advertising, mass propaganda, totalitarian states and war" (Innis, 1946b, p. 35). As Innis suggested, the advent of the radio and more sophisticated image technologies effectively marked the beginning of a new era, one that was characterized by the triumph of advertising and propaganda in public life.

This analysis suggests the fruitfulness of examining Innis' thought in relation to a particular set of media, with a view to shedding light on his methods and arguments.15 This concern with how specific media worked within historically distinct social formations, I argue, was related to Innis' moral concern with the fate of Western civilization, which represented to him an "ideal typical" collective experience of certain "Anglo-Saxon" countries (Britain, Canada, and the United States) along with some Western European states (above all, Germany, France, and Holland).

It was through the process of tracing how and to what extent the American-based model of newspaper development had come to affect the various national components of "Western civilization" that Innis was able to make better sense of the cultural and political trends of his day, particularly as they pertained to Canada. In line with his historical analysis of how the American conception of publishing was linked to the decline of public life, Innis sought to understand how the interrelated trends in Canada of political centralization coupled with the lack of cultural and intellectual vitality was connected to its ever-increasing integration into the American continentalist empire. In view of the international dynamics that he uncovered in his analysis of printing and publishing, it was not surprising that, towards the end of his life, Innis came to the view that Canada should seek common cause with Britain and continental Europe against American cultural imperialism -- effectively bringing his historical engagement with the history of the newspaper industry in relation to public life full circle.

There is more at issue here than simply demonstrating that Innis had a deep and abiding concern in the history of newspapers, publishing, and journalism. The historical trajectory constructed by Innis reveals the specific concerns about printing and modernity that underpinned his general reflections about time- and space-binding communications. But as long as he is considered primarily as a general theorist of media, one is confined to examining his writings on particular communications phenomena as simply embodiments of his broader theoretical approach. What is needed, as this paper suggests, is more attention given to the complex of media -- that is, those connected to printing, publishing, and journalism -- which Innis believed to be crucial to the unfolding of modernity along particular lines. To this end, I have sought to provide a synoptic account of that aspect of the printing complex, namely, the American model of newspapers, which Innis believed to be particularly decisive after the onset of industrialism. This analysis has involved the juxtaposition of a broad range of Innis' writings on newspapers as related to publishing. In doing so, I have attempted to make explicit how his engagement with the malaise of modernity informed not only the overall narrative that he fashioned but also his treatment of specific episodes in the development of newspapers and journalism.

According to Innis, it was only by paying close attention to the specificities of time and space that one could understand the trajectory of the modern newspaper industry. Like Minerva's peripatetic owl which Innis evoked with evident fondness, the zeitgeist of the newspaper, as the herald of modernity, traced a circuitous and erratic path. Forged in the crucible of the British Industrial Revolution, it migrated to the United States where it metamorphosed into a new and powerful form. From there, it found its way back to the mother country assuming a particularly nefarious semblance in the process. But it failed to make significant inroads in continental Europe (particularly in Germany), where the earlier domination of book culture still held sway. Meantime, back on the new continent, as the development of the newspaper industry in the United States gathered steam, it increasingly distorted the pattern of development north of the American border. This took place not so much via the exportation of a new mode of journalism -- as with Great Britain -- but rather through the merciless exploitation of Canadian newsprint resources coupled with the relentless dissemination of advertising and other essentially mindless cultural products.

Overall, the impact and consequences of the newspaper industry varied enormously depending on a bewildering number of factors. These included not only time and space, but also technological development, government policy, legal frameworks, class structures, power relations, and commercial arrangements, not to mention deeply rooted cultural traditions and personal megalomania. Given the considerable variations in the relation between newspapers and the social order -- as linked to a variety of conditions and circumstances -- it makes little sense to discuss their impact as a distortion brought about by their inherently "space-binding" features. Such a line of thinking, which has commonly been attributed to Harold Innis, is seriously at odds with the detailed historical analysis that he has provided. What he suggests, rather, is that the potential capacity of newspapers to connect space and integrate communities is but one of an array of factors which, taken collectively, account for how the printing complex -- in varying ways and through multiple guises -- has been implicated in the onslaught of modernity.


This paper is based on papers given at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, held in Montreal in May 1997, and at the Colloque annuel de l'Association canadienne des sociologues et anthropologues de langue française, held in Chicoutimi, QC, May 1995. I wish to thank Manon Niquette for translating the abstract.
Such an approach to understanding Innis first gained currency in Marshall McLuhan's influential introduction to The Bias of Communication in which he made note of how Innis demonstrated "the space-binding power of the eye" (McLuhan, 1964, p. xii). On the basis of this reading of Innis, McLuhan goes on to state that "the visual power extended by print does indeed extend the means to organize a spatial continuum" and that "visual technology creates a centre-margin pattern of organization whether by literacy or by industry and a price system" (p. xiii).
See, for instance, Menzies' (1993) discussion of monopolies of knowledge in relation to global information.
The general obscurity of these texts has led many to rely on secondary interpretations of Innis' ideas, such as the eloquent articulations of his thought offered by Kroker (1984) and Carey (1967).
That Innis was concerned to argue for the particularity of media is evident in his review of the Hutchins Report in which he chided its authors for lumping all of the media together indiscriminately: "We might ask for separate consideration of the radio, newspapers, motion pictures, magazines, and books rather than a general blur to the effect that `whereas the word "press" is used in the publication of the Commission, it refers to all these media' since each medium has its peculiarities and an appreciation of this fact is the beginning of a study of the press" (Innis, 1949, pp. 265-266).
The original manuscript is located in Harold Innis' Faculty Papers held at the Rare Books Room of the Thomas Fisher Library, University of Toronto: Acc. no. B79-0039, Box 001. A copy on microfiche can be found at the McLennan Library, McGill University. Evidently, copies of the manuscript were made available to other university libraries as well. The manuscript is 1,554 pages long and consists of eight large sections (ranging in size from 43 to 307 pages), accompanied by 12 fragments and short treatments (ranging in size from 3 to 19 pages). The first five large sections bear chapter numbers from "IV" through "VIII." The last three large sections appear to correspond to chapters, given their themes and order, but do not bear chapter numbers. This suggests that Innis had begun the process of blocking out the work into specific chapters but did not complete this task. The inclusion of the fragments at the end of the text suggests that he wished to carry through the analysis into the twentieth century, making particular reference to newspapers. That the first chapter was numbered as "IV " can be explained by the fact that the first three chapters (devoted to developments prior to the coming of paper) were for some reason not included in the manuscript. A handwritten version of them can be found in a different section of Innis' Faculty Papers. For the past few years, I have overseen a project of transcribing this material so that it might eventually be available in a more accessible form.
What has largely gone unrecognized is that Empire and Communications was based extensively on the first three chapters of History of Communication. In effect, what is commonly considered to be Innis' grand synoptic vision of communications history can be more accurately viewed as largely a prelude to the detailed treatment of print and modernity provided in his unpublished manuscript.
Innis' conception of public life bears some resemblance to that of Habermas (1992). However, rather than focusing on speech communities, Innis gives more attention to how the media have shaped the form and direction of public life.
This was in line with his efforts to support and encourage vestiges of the oral tradition (such as the study of humanities in universities and the common law tradition), which he believed could serve as a counterweight to the pervasive present-mindedness attendant upon massive technological change in the twentieth century. See Buxton (1997).
Indeed, Innis attributed innumerable changes in American life in the nineteenth century to the newspaper. These included "the concentration of the natural sciences on the problems of physics and chemistry" (Innis, 1946c, p. 32), the humanities coming under the domination of science (Christian, 1980), the transformation of literacy (Innis, 1946c), and the "powerful influence on the state by extending the franchise and compulsory education" (Innis, 1946c, p. 17).
This was a clear illustration of Innis' claim that "the conservative power of monopolies of knowledge compels the development of technological revolutions in the media of communication in marginal areas" (Innis, 1952c, p. 78).
What made for this "importation of improvements in techniques in the production of newspapers from the United States" was the "removal of taxes on knowledge about the middle of the nineteenth century" (Innis, 1952c, p. 79).
This led to a decided bias towards urban-industrial rather than rural development: "In these drastic reorganizations hydro-electric power assumed a more important position.... Since prices of newsprint tend to be held down by the strong position of newspapers, attempts will be made to divert hydro-electric power to municipal and industrial purposes" (Innis, 1952c, p. 81).
It is instructive that Innis' alarmist views of the role of the press in Canada were almost diametrically opposed to those of his exact contemporary Victor Barbeau (who was also born in 1894). Working within the Quebec context, Barbeau believed that the press could serve as an effective form of cultural critique and mass education. The lack of correspondence between the perspectives, it could be argued, is rooted in the widely different cultural and intellectual milieux of the two thinkers. See Martin & Buxton (in press).
This is not to say that Innis' historical account was entirely accurate. As Richard Collins (1986) has pointed out, a number of his claims can be called into question. There are undoubtedly numerous other assertions of Innis that are either plain wrong, doubtful, or in need of serious qualification. In order for this sort of assessment to take place, more critical examination of particular aspects of Innis' communications history is needed, along the lines of the reflections on his account of the fur trade offered by Eccles (1979, 1981) and Grant (1981). While Collins' commentary offers a useful starting point in this direction, he has largely confined himself to "nit-picking" about the accuracy of some of Innis' statements rather than trying to offer any fresh insights into his overall line of argument.


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