Use back button to return to Table of Contents.
Excerpt of chapter 16 of Democracy and New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), edited by Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn

The Frequencies of Public Writing

John Hartley

Time in communicative life can be understood not merely as sequence but also in terms of frequency. A "wavelength" of 1,000 years represents a very low time frequency, whereas the pip-pip-pip of the speaking clock or the up-to-the-second news bulletin represents high-frequency time. Time and news are obviously bound up in each other. The commercial value of news is its timeliness. Simultaneously, for the public, part of the quotidian sense of time in everyday life comes from keeping up with the news. For its devotees, news confirms a sense both of time passing, as stories unfold and new ones emerge, and of the concrete experience of the "nowness" of each day and time of day, as one pays attention to a particular news program or title.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the longest-lasting news outlets tend to be named after time itself, whether their frequency is the hour, day, or week; for instance, the American weekly magazine Time, the British daily newspaper The Times, and the nightly Soviet/ Russian TV news bulletin Vremya (Time). For more than seventy years BBC Radio has used the second-by-second time pips to introduce its most portentous news bulletins. This convention is so naturalized that it has become unthinkable to begin broadcast news bulletins at any other time than "on the hour" (or half-hour): The public simply can't be trained to tune into a news show at, say, seven minutes past the hour.

Clocks and datelines feature prominently in the design of television news programs, such as the British Independent Television News (ITN) News at Ten. Indeed, over a thirty-year period, this show and its timeslot became tightly bound together with a widespread sense of British national togetherness. The commercial television network Independent Television (ITV) was allowed to timeshift News at Ten only in 1999 (to make room for peak-time movies) after a failed attempt in 1993, a national inquiry by the Independent Television Commission (ITC), and a hostile parliamentary debate. It seemed that messing with the news was tantamount to messing with time itself. The conjunction of time and journalism was thought to be significant to national identity. The "frequency" of news is thus a weighty matter.

Public Writing: From Slow-Mo to Po-Mo

Public writing is produced, circulated, and deciphered or read. Each of these moments in its career has its own frequency:

  • The speed of creation: how long a given "text" of public writing takes to produce
  • Frequency of circulation: intervals between publication
  • The wavelength of consumption: the period a given text spends in the public domain before being superseded by later "pulses" of text from the same source

In news, the frequencies of production and consumption are designed to match that of publication. A premium is set on high-frequency news gathering, on increasing the frequency (i.e., reducing the time lag) between the occurrence of an event and its public narration, although not all public writing shares this imperative. And all news relies on what they used to call built-in obsolescence: a high frequency of consumption. News that is golly-gosh today is chip wrapper tomorrow. There are commercial and even ideological reasons for trying to keep the three wavelengths tightly bundled, although in principle they are not. For instance news can sometimes take much longer to create than its daily rhythm would predict (investigative stories, news from remote locations, stories recovered from the past and rerun); and of course once published, news "texts" continue to exist long after their newsworthiness has expired. Given long enough, their value begins to appreciate once more; a copy of a seventeenth-century newspaper is much more valuable than a copy of this morning's.

In contrast to news, very low frequency public writing, like an inscription on a public monument, which is designed to remain legible for a very long period, may take longer to create and to transmit than very high frequency writing that is expected to be discarded after a day or two. In other words, carving is slower than speaking, and it also takes a given "interpretive community" longer to pass by a fixed building to read the inscription than it does to broadcast a news bulletin to the same proportion of that population. Low frequency should not be confused with inefficiency: The proportion of Americans who have personally scrutinized fixed inscriptions of the peak national monuments in Washington and New York is likely to be higher than the proportion watching any news show. "Bring me your huddled masses" is written on just one structure, located inconveniently in the middle of a very large harbor, but it is a better-known text than the lead item on the highest-rated news broadcast.

Thus "public writing" displays high to low frequencies right through the process from creation ("writing"), via publication ("text") to consumption ("reading"). For the purposes of this chapter, however, the primary "wavelength" will be that of circulation: the interval between publications, on the model of "journalism" itself (the word derives from the French jour, "day").

As already hinted, "public writing" as a term refers not just to alphabetic print but to communication by any means that is designed to address its interlocutor as "the public." Such writing includes contemporary electronic forms of public address from broadcasting to the Internet. Naturally it also includes print, from the tabloid press to book publishing. But public writing is much older than those forms that are currently recognized as "the media," and it extends to much lower frequencies. It certainly includes inscriptions carved into monuments, tombs, temples, and the like.

But to do full justice to the range of "public address" covered by the notion of frequency, it is in fact necessary to expand what is normally understood by the term "writing." Messages "written in stone" are clearly intended to be more permanent and portentous than those breathed into the air; inscription is a mode of public address somewhere along a continuum with speech. However, stone itself may be regarded as a form of writing. Sculpture and architecture are themselves among the earliest forms of public address, the "mass media" of their day, certainly in Western (Egypto-Hellenic) traditions. Tombs and temples, palaces and palisades, statues and sphinxes were all, beyond their functional organization of space, also forms of public communication, using familiar codes, conventions, idioms, and styles. They were for their creators, and remain today, forms of public writing in fact. Furthermore they were designed to express long-term, stable meanings, and to communicate very serious messages. They spoke the language of death, eternity, empire, power, and beauty. They took communication from the personal to the collective plane, from individual to imperial. They remain to this day the lowest-frequency forms of public writing.

Indeed, the continued existence of ancient examples of public writing and the reworking of their "idiom" in contemporary buildings demonstrates that "new media technologies," all the way from limestone and granite via print to electronic and digital media, do not supplant but supplement older ones. Writing itself has never been extinguished since the Egyptians and Sumerians first invented it some time before 3000 B.C., despite a number of mass-extinction crises suffered by particular writing systems since then. Individual texts, such as the pyramids at Saqqara and other antiquities dating back to the very earliest periods of public writing, are still belting out complex messages that "speak" to millions of contemporary readers (the Egyptian economy is dependent upon this fact). Such messages survive millennia and communicate to cultures with meaning systems quite different from that of the original builders.

But more significantly, the idiom of ancient public writing in stone survives and is reworked to make new messages; it remains an active "medium" of communication among the many later media. Cities around the world are crammed full of postmodern, high-tech buildings that add their contemporary voice to the low-frequency mode of public writing in stone. Their facades are clad in Portland limestone (quoting St. Paul's Cathedral) or travertine marble (quoting the Roman Forum), even while their occupants are busy producing electronic, virtual, and digital public communication at ever higher frequencies.

Some communicative syntax (for instance, many architectural details understood as "classical" from the portico to the pediment, column to frieze) have been transferred from temples and triumphal arches to the facades of banks and media corporations. Presumably the urge here is to preserve rather than to change the temporal signification of stone. Such uses of architecture have become the very "language" of permanency and power, exploiting the ultra-low frequency of architecture and sculpture to "say something" public about commercial institutions, using the idiom of civic and religious communion. The classical temple, tomb and palace, the imperial European city, the art deco American one, and the sprawling megalopolis of the developing world: all rework the low-frequency mode of public writing (see table 16.1).

Paradoxically, the most enduring human creation is the ruin. The ruin may indeed be defined as public writing that has outlived its author's intentions and even the language of public communication in which it was created. It sends what may be termed the "Ozymandias" message. Ruins speak to the unfolding present from "time immemorial," but the message is unintended, a text without an author. The ruin, together with other immemorial texts, such as prehistoric cave paintings and carvings, is the lowest-frequency of all forms of public address.

Some ruins remain semiotically active without a break for millennia: Stonehenge, the pyramids, the Great Wall, the tomb of Augustus in Rome. Although they are not ruins in the same way, even greater communicational longevity may apply to rock carvings and cave paintings. But it would not be safe to associate low-frequency public address with traditional and pre-industrial societies. They too make widespread use of high-frequency forms, from the sand art of the Navajo and also of some Aboriginal peoples of Australia, to the painstaking making of the mandala by Buddhist monks who destroy their work on completion. But of course it is the low-frequency communication of traditional societies that tends to survive. Although some "rock art" is perhaps tens of thousands of years old, it remains sacred and significant for the Aboriginal communities who live with it, and it is increasingly revered by official cultures as part of their unique "national" heritage.

Other ruins are intermittent signifiers, being lost or forgotten perhaps for centuries, later to be "reincarnated," as it were, to communicate new meanings with the help of archaeology: Such texts include "rediscovered" temples in Java or Cambodia; Maya, Aztec, and Inca ruins in the Americas; and the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China.

If all media are forms of public writing, then the concept of "media" extends well beyond those forms that are currently recognized as belonging to the media sector of the contemporary economy. Between high-frequency journalism and low-frequency marble there are myriad media of public address, distributed across all frequencies from the moment to the millennium (see table 16.1).

Journalism Frequencies

Over its two- to four-hundred-year history, journalism has shown a consistent tendency to drift upward in frequency. New forms of news, especially those that attract the most intense capital investment and public disquiet, are ever faster. Journalism can range in frequency from the second and faster down to the quarter (e.g., Fashion Quarterly), though this frequency (like the once-common biweekly newspaper) is now archaic for news; it has been occupied by academic and scientific journals.

Table 16.1
Frequencies of public writing

Before the Event   Previews, Leaks, Briefings, PR, "Spin"
High Frequency
Instant/Second   Internet, Subscription News: e.g., Matt Drudge; Reuters Financial TV,
Minute   "Rolling Update" News: e.g., CNN, BBC-24/Choice, Radio 5-Live
Hour   Broadcast News: e.g., CBS/ABC/NBC, ITN/BBC, Radio 4
Day   Daily Press: e.g., The Times, New York Times, Sun, New York Post
Week   Weekly Periodicals: e.g., Time, New Statesman, Hello!, National Enquirer
Month   Monthly Magazines: e.g., Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Face, Loaded
Quarter   Scientific and Academic Journals: e.g., International Journal of Cultural Studies
Year   Books, Movies, Television Series: e.g., Harry Potter, Star Wars, Ally McBeal
Low Frequency    
Decade   Scholarship, Contemporary Art: e:g, "definitive" works, textbooks, dictionaries, portraiture, fashionable artists
Century   Building, Statue, Canonical Literature: e.g., Sydney Opera House, war memorials, Shakespeare
Millennium   Temple, Tomb: e.g., Parthenon, Pyramids
Eternity   Ruins, Reruns: e.g., Stonehenge, Star Trek

At the very highest wavelengths, instantaneous reporting has appeared on the Internet. This development has caused some commentators to predict the end of journalism (as we know it). The Monica Lewinsky affair was the trigger for such concern, since court decisions and other news-sensitive information were released on the Internet, bypassing the usual journalistic gatekeepers. On the publication of the Starr Report, television viewers around the world enjoyed the spectacle of CNN cameras pointing to a computer screen while the reporter scrolled down pages of Internet text to find newsworthy references to nonstandard uses for cigars. It certainly looked as though the form of journalism that prided itself on its high frequency (i.e., the rolling-update continuous "breaking news" format of cable television) was reduced to the status of mere servant to the instantaneous Internet. Furthermore, CNN got into trouble even for this secondhand timeliness, as commentators expressed discomfort at seeing the unexpurgated facts on a television screen, although they seemed happy for the full text of the Starr Report to appear on the Net itself.

Currently, then, there is a complicated readjustment in progress between the previously fastest and next fastest news media. Up-to-the-second forms of journalism are concentrated at the premium end of the market for news, targeted at the most highly capitalized sector of the economy with time-sensitive information needs: the financial markets. This is one place where news has attracted new investment and innovative format development. Reuters Financial Television and Bloomberg, for example, are locked in an international competitive struggle for this "narrow-cast" but ultra-high-frequency form of journalism, which can be sold at a premium to corporate clients. Meanwhile, the look of the instantaneous format has already been "borrowed" from the Net to give the slightly slower television screen the appearance of instantaneous news. For instance, CNN's on-screen design now resembles the aesthetic of the Internet, with rolling stock prices, text captions that may or may not relate to the pictures being displayed, and inset video frames with pictures that may or may not relate to each other.

It seems journalism can't get any faster than the instant. But with previews, leaks, spin doctoring, news management; and public relations, a good deal of news crosses the time barrier into the strange world of "news before the event." This sector too is in a phase of rapid commercial development and expansion. Of course it gives the lie to the old-fashioned notion that news can occur only after some sort of event has occurred, a myth of news making that has never been true.


top of page