Brain Pickings

The Medium Is Not The Message: 3 Handwritten Newspapers

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What Indian calligraphers have to do with disaster relief in Japan and free media in Liberia.

Since their invention in the early 17th century, newspapers have remained one of society’s most important sources of what their name promises — news. Today, we hear various tonal cries of the “print is dying” chorus daily and it’s easy to get caught up in the Marshall McLuhanism that “the medium is the message. Today, let’s consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the medium is not the message, that “print” can mean many different things, and that in the end, the oldest of technologies can be the most innovative. Case in point: Handwritten newspapers.

THE MUSALMAN

Since 1927, The Musalman has been quietly churning out its evening edition of four pages, all of which hand-written by Indian calligraphers in the shadow of the Wallajah Mosque in the city of Chennai. According to Wired, it might just be the last remaining hand-written newspaper in the world. It’s also India’s oldest daily newspaper in Urdu, the Hindustani language typically spoken by Muslims in South Asia. The Musalman: Preservation of a Dream is wonderful short film by Ishani K. Dutta, telling the story of the unusual publication and its writers’ dedication to the ancient art of Urdu calligraphy.

Thanks, GMSV

ISHINOMAKI HIBI SHIMBUN

Last month, I mentioned a fascinating reversal of the-medium-is-the-message as one Japanese newspaper reverted to hand-written editions once the earthquake-and-tsunami disaster destroyed all power in the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. For the next six days, the editors of the Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun “printed” the daily newspaper’s disaster coverage the only way possible: By hand, in pen and paper. Using flashlights and marker pens, the reporters wrote the stories on poster-size paper and pinned the dailies to the entrance doors of relief centers around the city. Six staffers collected stories, which another three digested, spending an hour and a half per day composing the newspapers by hand.

This handwritten newspaper joins a running log of historical instances in which journalists have adapted to disaster situations. During the Civil War’s Union siege of 1863, a scarcity of newsprint in Vicksburg, Miss., led editors of The Daily Citizen to print on wallpaper. Its final issue, now part of the News Corporation News History Gallery, declared: “This is the last wall-paper edition. It will be valuable hereafter as a curiosity.”

Japan’s incidental project has since been acquired by Newseum, the museum of journalism in Washington, D.C.

THE DAILY TALK

Minuscule literacy rates and prevailing poverty may not be conditions particularly conducive to publishing entrepreneurship, but they were no hindrance for Monrovia’s The Daily Talk, a clever concept by Alfred Sirleaf that reaches thousands of Liberians every day by printing just once copy. That copy just happens to reside on a large blackboard on the side of one of the capital’s busiest roads. Sirleaf started the project in 2000, at the peak of Liberia’s civil war, but its cultural resonance and open access sustained it long after the war was over. To this day, he runs this remarkable one-man show as the editor, reporter, production manager, designer, fact-checker and publicist of The Daily Talk. For an added layer of thoughtfulness and sophistication, Sirleaf uses symbols to indicate specific topics for those who struggle to read.

The common man in society can’t afford a newspaper, can’t afford to buy a generator to get on the internet — you know, power shortage — and people are caught up in a city where they have no access to information. And all of these things motivated me to come up with a kind of free media system for people to get informed.” ~ Alfred Sirleaf

Thanks, @kirstinbutler

In related news, don’t forget the fantastic Newspaper Map, which I raved about the other day — an amazing tool for exploring and translating over 10,000 of the world’s newspapers.

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