“This is an old team trying to learn a new trade.” That was how legendary broadcaster Ed Murrow introduced the first episode of his CBS TV show “See it Now,” back on November 18, 1951. Murrow had come to prominence with his radio broadcasts from London during the Second World War. Now he and his CBS News colleagues were making the transition from radio to television, which in 1951 was about as new as a new medium could get.
(The era has been popularized for a whole new generation in George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which I wholeheartedly recommend.)
These days book publishers feel much the same way Murrow did. After all, book publishing is a much older trade than radio journalism was in 1951, and the transition from the world of ink-on-dead-trees to photons-emanating-from-a-screen is a much bigger leap than from radio to TV.
Nor does Murrow’s own experience necessarily make one feel better. Most of Murrow’s team (including Murrow himself) never really did learn their new trade all that well, and the first stars of television news — CBS’s Walter Cronkite and NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley — were of a later generation.
I don’t know that book publishers are going to navigate the current transition any better — if as well — than the “Murrow boys” did. But at heart, whether it’s book publishing, the Web, radio, or TV, it’s all about the effective communication of ideas. Oxford University Press has been in that business a long time: since the late 1400s in the UK, and since 1904 here in Canada. Over that time, we’ve had to learn new trades time and time again. (Anybody remember linotype machines?) My bet is we’ll do it again. This new website and blog are just a tentative toe poked into the surf.
But it’s a start!
P.S. For more on Murrow and “See It Now,” check out the Museum of Broadcast Communications.