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No. 3156:
Revisiting H.L. Mencken

Andy Boyd

Today, we revisit a look at the future. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I was pondering doing an Engines episode about H.L. Mencken - the sharp-tongued journalist of the early twentieth century - when I encountered an interesting essay about him. It was enaltd Mencken and Technological Change, and it was episode number 874 of none other than The Engines of Our Ingenuity. It's actually not that uncommon to come up with ideas that've already been covered. What you're listening to now is episode 3156. A lot of ground's been covered over the years, and it's standard procedure to search previous episodes before taking to the keyboard. 

Episode #874
  Episode No. 874

Normally, when I see a topic's been covered, I'll start anew. However, in this case I didn't. Reading the old episode, I learned Mencken's thoughts on how the arrival of a new technology in his day - television - would impact newspapers. Mencken thought television coverage would chart new directions. He did not, however, think it would replace newspapers. It didn't, as pointed out by the episode's author, John Lienhard. And it still hasn't. But in the twenty-five years since the episode first aired a lot has happened, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to do a meta-episode - an Enginesepisode about an Engines episode. 

Treaty of Versailles Newspaper Article
Treaty of Versailles Newspaper Article   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

When the Mencken episode aired in 1993, we were just beginning to witness the growth of another new medium for delivering news. Not television, but the internet, fueled by the release of the first web browsers. Delivering written format news no longer required printing machines and a fleet of delivery trucks. It simply required the press of a button. The first smartphone, the iPhone, wouldn't be released until 2007. Smartphones took things a step further, taking the paperless paper off our desks, freeing us to track news stories wherever we went, whenever we wanted.

New York Times on smart phone
New York Times on smart phone   Photo Credit: Flickr

In 1993, we knew change was coming; that more people would be consuming written news electronically. But what we didn't foresee was how the internet would change the type of news we consume. Printing a newspaper is expensive, creating a barrier to entry. If you wanted to run a paper, you needed money. Today that's no longer the case. Anyone with a computer can set up a news website in a day for just a few dollars. Or you can simply post news on a myriad of available websites run by others. As a result, much of what we encounter no longer emanates from trained reporters - reporters steeped in journalistic integrity and an appreciation of in-depth research.

Printing machines
Printing machines   Photo Credit: Fairchild AFB

The thought of everyone-as-journalist wouldn't have come as a surprise to Mencken, who carved his place in journalistic lore by relentlessly assailing human shortcomings. Still, he'd be heartened to see that, even as newspapers face daunting challenges, they live on, still striving to carry on traditions that have long served as bedrock for those seeking the day's news.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The 1993 episode referenced in this essay can be found here: Episode No. 874.