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How web publishing is making the world more democratic

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 15 April 2002


In the beginning, we are told, there was the Word, and the Word was with God and was God. But despite this high-level support, it took quite some time for the word to take shape and dwell among us as the printed word. And when it has done so, it has always been in uneasy alliance with capital. Such as in 1455 when Gutenburg’s financier repossessed his printing press just after he had published the Bible and used it to set himself up in business as a printer and publisher!

What I want to do here is to first sketch a brief history of the relationship between publishers, writers and democracy and show how the Internet profoundly changes that. Then I want to look at a couple of manifestations of online journalism and finally I want to suggest some ways forward.

Before the printing press, publishing required large sweated-labour factories called monasteries. The discovery of moveable type changed all this. Initially this led to a fracturing of the publishing industry. The large monasteries were more than factories – they had monopoly access to distribution and sales networks via the Roman Catholic church. The protestant reformation combined with the printing press cracked these distribution networks wide-open. It also opened up the whole field of secular publishing and provided new challenges to civil authority.

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Before the printing press it was hard to get an argument up against authority. The only way to argue your case was to do so personally, and that exposed you to the risk of immediate arrest. The printing press, by producing multiple copies of your argument which could be widely distributed in your absence, meant that you could be virtually omnipresent and invisible. Dissent became a safer, but by no means risk-free, occupation.

But as time went on things changed. As printing presses became cheaper, distribution networks, and then sales and marketing networks, became more important. Publishing went from being essentially a cottage industry to being the large vertically integrated conglomerates that publish much of what we read today (one of which is a key sponsor of this forum). That meant that power shifted: the princes of the press got to determine what you could read rather than the princes of the church or the king of the realm.

The promise of the Internet is that it will restore a more decentralised model, but will it?

What the Internet does is to drive the cost of publishing – from production through to distribution – down to almost nothing. In the established publishing relationship, the publisher provides:

  • the capital;
  • marketing, sales and distribution;
  • credibility and quality control; and
  • indemnity against legal risk (e.g. defamation).

But Internet publishing requires little capital. With a little bit of know-how you can publish your work on the web using your existing computer and your existing word-processing software. At the same time distribution is cheap and occurs simultaneously and seamlessly with publication. In the belief that this makes meaningful publishing easy just about every advocacy group, and even a number of motivated individuals, have set-up their own web sites. We really do seem to be back in the cottage industry days, but with 21st century professionalism.

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So is democratic nirvana here? Will everyone be able to have a place to stand and a lever that will move the world?

Unfortunately not, but it will be easier to be heard than in the past. It doesn’t eliminate the need for publishers and it doesn’t really make publishing a cottage industry. It does, however, change the power balance between publisher and author because successful publishing no longer requires large wads of money.

There is a place for publishers online, but it is what I call "gate-keeping lite". I see the major role of online publishers as being to provide accessibility and visibility to online materials and to rate it for quality. To give you an idea of what I mean I want to deal with some examples of web publishing, with a special emphasis on those involved in publishing opinions.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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