What can publishers in the age of the Internet learn from sailors in the age of Gutenberg?

William E. (Bill) Garber

American political scientist and author George Friedman takes us to the navigation school where Vasco da Gama, who made the first voyage from Europe to India, and Ferdinand Magellan, who first circumnavigated the globe, studied nearly a century before Columbus sailed to the New World.

Just 3 miles west of Cabo de Sao Vicente at the base of the Ponta de Sagres lies Sagres, a pleasant little town of small villas and apartments. For the most part, these are summer homes, many owned by Germans and British, judging from the flags flying. It was here in 1410 that Prince Henry the Navigator founded a school for navigators. If Cabo de Sao Vicente is where the Earth ended for the Europeans, Ponta de Sagres became the place where the world began.

While we remember the legends, many just brought back logs that charted the world for the likes of da Gama and Magellan. We learn almost all we know from the experience of others.

How prosaic business opportunities generate the most risky and grandiose undertakings have come to interest me. This school arose with the specific goal of training sailors to go farther and farther south along the African coast in search of a sea route to India. The Portuguese sought this route to cut out the middleman in the spice trade. Spices were wealth in Europe; they preserved and seasoned food, and were considered medicinal and even aphrodisiacs. But they were fiendishly expensive, since they came to Europe via the Silk Road through Muslim-controlled territory, with each merchant along the way increasing their price.

We have another model for sailing in uncharted seas.

The more I learn more about Henry, the more his program reminds me of NASA and of Tom Wolfe’s classic, The Right Stuff, about America’s space program. Like NASA, each mission built on the last, trying out new methods in an incremental fashion. Henry didn’t try to shoot for the moon, as they say. He was no Columbus, risking everything for glory, but rather a methodical engineer, pushing the limits a little at a time and collecting data.

This sure feels like the path for publishers facing the uncertain waters that swirl just outside the office.

And what this essay is about is the European Legacy that began in Ponta de Sagres, the place where the world began. It is instructive that Europe has left us with ‘a legacy something extraordinary: a world that knew itself and all of its parts.’

That sure sounded like publishing to me, too.

Yet it is instructive that it was America and Russia that raced into space, while Europe stood by and watched. Europe!

I was called up short by this commentary on Europe.

Their great search for the holy grail is now reduced to finding a way to resume the comforts of the unexceptional. There is something to be said for the unexceptional life. But it cannot be all there is.

It is the same for publishers today. We live on the edge of the Internet abyss, if you will. There is no going back to the life of mere ink and paper and mechanical machines where perhaps you owned the only printing press in town.

We are all on a voyage to discover, which is another word for create, is it not? Every business is voyaging and creating. There is no unexceptional life in business.

Especially publishing, where everything is new every week or more often.

George Friedman is not only seeing Europe, he is seeing every culture, every business.

He is seeing publishing, too.

We humans are caught between the hunger for glory and the price you pay and the crimes you commit in pursuing it. To me, the tension between the hunger for ordinary comforts and the need for transcendence seems to lie at the heart of the human condition. Europe has chosen comfort, and now has lost it. It sought transcendence and tore itself apart. The latter might have been Henry’s legacy, but ah, to have gone to his school with da Gama and Magellan.

The comfort lies not in a discovery already found, but lies in the realization that we live in an age like that of Prince Henry and in the place where the publishing world begins.

It is really important to keep logs, and share them. If you are not yet a National Newspaper Association member, now would be a great time to join. NNA is the publishing worlds Prince Henry school of navigation. The de Gamma’s and Magellan’s are already enrolled. Join them in the chart rooms and classes and learn to sail your vessel with insight and calm in the face of fear and uncertainty.

In today’s publishing world, there is no safety in sailing alone.

And for the typical weekly newspaper, NNA membership at less than $10 a week means you’ll never have to sail alone.

 

Here’s the link to NNA’s Membership Application  http://nnaweb.org/pub/doc/newspapermembership01.pdf

Here’s the link to NNA’s Dues Calculation http://nnaweb.org/dues-calculator

Here’s the link to Friedman’s essay from Mauldin Economics. You’ll have to just share your email to read the article and you can unsubscribe at any time.  Geopolitical Journey: Europe, the Glorious and the Banal 

 

 

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