Harold Innis and the Press

Robert E. Babe

More than a half century after his death, Harold Innis (1894-1952) remains Canada's pre-eminent communication/media theorist. Innis is less famous certainly than his self-proclaimed 'protégé', Marshall McLuhan, who termed his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, as being but 'a footnote to the observations of Innis'. Nonetheless, Innis far surpassed his disciple in terms of scholarship. James Carey once quipped that the Canadian contribution to media studies would have been far more impressive had the Innis - McLuhan lineage been in the opposite direction.

Innis is most remarkable for having inaugurated the 'media thesis', the contention that modes of transmitting messages (speech; the various means of inscription - clay, stone, papyrus, paper; and electronics) have significantly different consequences for cultures and civilisations found in his three media books, Empire & Communications (1950), The Bias of Communication (1951), and Changing Concepts of Time (1952), as well as other writings,

Innis emphasised the time or space bias of the various media, proposing that particular modes of communication encourage either control through time (in the sense of continuity and duration), or control over geographic expanse (in the sense of empire), but not both. Featured prominently in his media analyses was the concept of 'monopolies of knowledge', the claim that in any given era the predominant mode of communication is aligned closely with a particular type of knowledge, thereby empowering a particular class of people who control the medium and exercise the knowledge associated with that. McLuhan in a sense followed in Innis's footsteps, but inverted Innis's media thesis by focusing on biases in the mode of perception (eye vs. ear), rather than the time-space bias of the modes of transmission, neglecting as a result political economy issues inherent to the notion of monopolies of knowledge. To cite but one of many possible examples, McLuhan claimed that 'Electricity takes away the old "centre-margin" of visual and written structures of authority'. Other writers too, as diverse as Walter Ong and Mark Poster, have developed variants of Innis's thesis, albeit not always acknowledging their indebtedness to that great political economist and media theorist. Arguably, Innis foreshadowed the Herman-Chomsky Propaganda Model by several decades.

Harold Innis began his scholarly career as an economic historian specialising in Canadian economic development. He formulated the 'staples thesis' to explain Canadian economic history, and in the process foreshadowed his analyses of 'media bias' and 'monopolies of knowledge'. According to Innis, the rise to predominance of a new staple (first fish, then fur, followed successively by lumber, mining and wheat), combined with concomitant technological changes required for harvesting the various staples, produced crises. New staples required major modifications to the economic infrastructure (particularly the systems of transportation and energy); groups controlling the new staple and the new technology, moreover, ascended to power, whereas groups associated with the old ways waned in their influence. Innis viewed staples as linking, albeit asymmetrically, imperial centres and colonial margins, a position paralleled in his later media analyses as he became a pioneer in what would become known as media imperialism and dependency theory.

Of greatest relevance for this comment was Innis's analysis of the forestry staple. Timber not only provided something of an endpoint for his unfolding of the staples thesis, but also constituted an entree to his media analyses. By Innis's account timber supplanted fur as a key staple for export. Timber's bulk and weight relative to price meant that this staple, unlike furs, was manufactured close to the source. Paper is of course a major product of timber and in eastern Canada a large number of lumber companies began manufacturing pulp and paper in the 1800s. Due to high fixed investment costs, paper manufacture was characterised by significant economies of scale, resulting in a concentrated industry with few production centres.

Exports of paper to the United States had a large impact on the development of the American newspaper industry. Newspapers in the American commercial centres had developed prior to 1812 in response to the needs of business, the first daily journal in the USA being The Pennsylvania Packet and General Advertiser (1784), joined the following year in New York by the Daily Advertiser. They ran 'a large number of small advertisements', often legal notifications, and enjoyed circulation only in the hundreds. These 'broadsheets' endeavoured to conserve paper by reducing font sizes and trimming their physical dimensions.

According to Innis, however, by the 1830s, increases in supplies of paper, accompanied by technological advances in the production of newspapers (i.e., printing press technologies), gave rise to 'a new type of paper', namely the penny presses, focused on mass circulation, on sensational news, and sustained by advertising directed toward 'consumers'. According to Innis, supply usually precedes demand. He declared, 'Expansion of the pulp and paper industry has supported intensive advertising and revolutions in marketing essential to the demands of the city'. He then added, poignantly:

'[This expansion] has coincided with the decline of editorials and of freedom of speech, and the emergence of headlines and the modern newspaper with its demands for excitement, including wars and peace'.

Imports of paper from Canada, then, figured prominently in the transformation of the American newspaper industry. Innis noted, for instance, that in St. Louis newspapers between 1875 and 1925 reduced space allocated to news from 55.3 to 26.7 per cent, with a concomitant increase in the space devoted to advertising. For Innis news for the 'cheap papers' was little more than 'a device for advertising the paper as an advertising medium'. 'Freedom of the press', as guaranteed by the US Constitution, Innis observed ironically, narrowed the 'marketplace of ideas' as the industry began, of necessity, to accommodate the interests of its advertisers, even while itself growing into large, oligopolistic enterprises.

Innis investigated also the role of the telegraph in transforming both the nature of 'news' and the structure of the American newspaper industry, the rise of the Associated Press news monopoly, the role of copyright in strengthening that monopoly, the invention of linotype which permitted advertisements to 'be changed daily and become part of the news', and the role of patronage in the creation/selection of news (appointments to diplomatic postings, exemptions from military and jury duty, as well as government printing contracts and low postal fees being but a few of the tactics Innis described that were used to elicit press favour).

Innis drew attention, moreover, to the connections between the press system and the broader economy. 'By holding down the price of subscriptions and thereby expanding circulation, newspapers favoured a marked extension of advertising'. Innis continued:

'The economy became biased toward the mass production of goods which had a rapid turnover and an efficient distribution system. The advertiser was concerned with constant emphasis on prosperity. Disappearance of muck-raking in the financial field was accompanied by a decline of restrictions on speculative activity'.

For Innis, newspapers eroded freedom of thought. For one thing, the press is concerned most with the sensational events of the last twenty-four hours. Another factor is its emphasis on discontinuity, a characteristic according to Innis, common to newspapers and dictionaries alike. Even in the burgeoning information age of his day, Innis remarked, there was the danger 'that knowledge was growing too vast for successful use in social judgment, since life is short and sympathies and intellects are limited'.

Innis's writings drip with ironies, still relevant for our time, for example:

1. Freedom of the press had been an essential ingredient of the monopoly for it obscured monopolistic characteristics.

2. As modern developments in communication have made for greater realism they have made for greater possibilities of delusion … We are under the spell of Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness. The shell and pea game of the county fair has been magnified and elevated to a universal level.

3. The conditions of freedom of thought are in danger of being destroyed by science, technology, and the mechanisation of knowledge.

4. The difficulties of separating the indirect sale of advertising, by making the front page sell the newspaper, and the direct sale of advertising, has led to the rapid development of publicity men who have become skilled in disguising advertising material and planting it in unexpected places to be picked up as news.

5. The new journalism emphasised a vast range of interests at the expense of politics and with the rise of public relations agencies, lost the power to expose abuses, particularly abuses from which it gains.

Innis's historical, critical analyses of press systems set in relief concerns of our day. His insights and historical parallels are worth recounting as we contemplate contemporary issues such as embedded journalism, media concentrations, 'infotainment', advertiser influence, simulacra and pseudo-environments, public relations, the media-military-industrial nexus, and war-related propaganda. In a way, it is comforting to read Innis in 2006, and understand that these issues, in one form or another, have long characterised press systems, that we are not necessarily in the midst of a grand deterioration in our news; rather, it is just more of the same. Indeed, Innis's history and commentary may well serve to increase our critical stance toward media generally, and press systems in particular, which is certainly a healthy occurrence in the midst of so much media attention afforded the 'war on terror'.