America’s newspapers wallow in red ink. Several prominent dailies have morphed into internet apparitions of their former selves. Others become thinner with each passing week, much like grandma before cancer carried her off.
Benjamin Franklin was, first and foremost, a newspaperman. His earliest job, starting at age 14, indentured him to his brother’s (James Franklin) print shop in Boston. There, he set type, operated the press, and even secretly wrote articles for James’ New England Courant. When Ben slipped away before his indenture time was up, he found work in a Philadelphia print shop. Likewise, soon after starting his own printing business, Ben bought a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and turned it into colonial North America’s most popular and trustworthy publication. Indeed, modern historians who rely on microfilmed copies of Franklin’s weekly refer to it as the “New York Times of early America.”
So what would Ben Franklin think about the disappearance of newspapers and their replacement by Internet news stories?
Here’s what I think Ben Franklin would say: “Tis Good for Trees.”
Franklin, were he alive today, would already have MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter accounts. He would blog regularly. He would’ve long ago canceled his daily newspaper subscriptions, seeking up-to-the-minute information from the Web.
We tend to forget how progressive was dear Dr. Franklin.
As a businessman, however, Franklin would applaud the way The Wall Street Journal sells online subscriptions for its news content and would laugh at how other newspapers post their articles on the Web for free.
Finally, Franklin would recognize that eliminating newsprint and substituting his “electrical fire” (electrons) to convey information would save countless trees. Franklin, you see, was the first person to realize that trees replace something in the air necessary to sustain life. As wrote to Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen:
“I hope this will give some check to the rage of destroying trees that grow near houses, which has accompanied our late improvements in gardening, from an opinion of their being unwholesome. I am certain, from long observation, that there is nothing unhealthy in the air of woods; for we Americans have everywhere our country habitations in the midst of woods, and no people on earth enjoy better health, or are more prolific.”