Category Archives: history

My favorite films about journalism

By Christopher B. Daly

This weekend marked the general release of the terrific new film “Spotlight,” about the team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who broke the prize-winning story about the widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests. The film, as I noted in my review, is a much-needed valentine to traditional news media, praising their willingness to use their resources in pursuit of telling the truth and holding the powerful accountable.

“Spotlight” is already being hailed (to use a bit of journalese) as one of the best films of all time about journalism. Which raises the question:

What are the best films about journalism?

Here’s my annotated list:

[I like all of these films, for one reason or another, so I am not ranking them. Instead, they are arranged chronologically, which makes some interesting points about the evolving view of journalists over time. I had never noticed how many of these come in clusters, which must be a lagging indicator of something.]



Claudette Colbert plays a smuggler’s daughter who is being investigated by a reporter, played by Ben Lyon. Complications naturally ensue. Fun fact: The title song was recorded by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and others.



Dir. Howard Hawks. My personal favorite. Watch Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at the top of their games in a romp through Chicago journalism of MV5BMTM3ODQ2Mzg0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjM3ODA5._V1_UX100_CR0,0,100,100_AL_the 1920s. HGF features an epically dense screenplay, as the two leads constantly talk over each other. One memorable zinger after another. From the play, “The Front Page,” written by journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.



Dir: Alfred Hitchcock. Joel McCrea plays a young American reporter in London on the eve of WWII, trying to expose enemy agents (as all good journalists just naturally do!). Ben Hecht is one of the writers, though uncredited.



The cinematic masterpiece from Orson Welles, who wrote, directed and MV5BMTQ2Mjc1MDQwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUyOTUyMg@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_starred. It’s a thinly veiled biography of William Randolph Hearst, who hated it and did all he could (which was a lot) to try to suppress it. Welles gets the last laugh. Screenplay co-credit goes to Herman J. Mankiewicz.




The first of the nine Hepburn/Tracy films. Two rival reporters meet cute and marry not-so-cute. Kate Hepburn plays a version of the real-life columnist Dorothy Thompson. Spencer Tracy wishes his globe-trotting, multi-lingual wife were home a bit more often. Ring Lardner Jr. shares screenwriting credit.



Gregory Peck plays a journalist who decides to investigate anti-semitism by pretending to be Jewish himself. Peck at his righteous best. Screenplay by Moss Hart, based on novel by Laura Z. Hobson.



Jimmy Stewart, who knew his way around a fedora, plays a Chicago reporter who re-opens a cold murder case in this film-noir drama.



Burt Lancaster, depicts gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Tony Curtis, MV5BNTk2MzU2ODc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDU1MjkyMw@@._V1_UY105_CR6,0,105,105_AL_plays an oily, sycophantic p.r. agent. A noir masterpiece that explores the careers of people who don’t know how not to manipulate others. One of the screenwriting credits goes to playwright Clifford Odets.



MV5BODAxMTc4ODcxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDY0NTAyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR8,0,214,317_AL_The essential celebration of investigative reporting, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The film dramatizes the real-life reporting of the Washington Post reporters that led to the downfall of President Nixon. Screenwriter William Goldman wrote the best line, uttered by Hal Holbrook, playing “Deep Throat” in a dark and empty parking garage: “Follow the money.”


NETWORK (1976)

Dir: Sidney Lumet. Starring: Faye Dunaway and William Holden. Featuring Peter Finch for his memorable freak-out live on television, urging viewers to join him in ranting: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Writer: Paddy Chayefsky



Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and a bearded Michael Douglas star in this drama about white-hat journalists exposing safety problems at a nuclear power plant. Very much in the shadow of the Three Mile Island incident of the same year.



Dir. Sydney Pollack. Sally Field plays a young reporter who libels Paul Newman (horrors) by publishing leaked information about him that is false and harmful to his reputation. This one causes a lot of journalists to squirm.



Dir. Peter Weir. Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. Australian reporter, assisted by Linda Hunt, covers Indonesia during a period of turmoil and finds time to romance Sigourney Weaver. Could be Gibson’s career high.



Sam Waterston depicting NYTimes correspondent Sydney Shanberg covering Cambodia during the appalling regime of the Khmer Rouge. Terrific performance by first-time actor Haing S. Ngor, portraying the Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran.



Dir. James L. Brooks. A romantic triangle involving William Hurt, Albert Brooks, and their boss, the incomparable Holly Hunter. Set in a MV5BMTMwMzg2Mzc1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjY4ODk4._V1_UX100_CR0,0,100,100_AL_television newsroom, the main characters manage to address real journalistic issues without preachy speeches. Written by James L. Brooks, no relation to Albert. (who also wrote the newsroom-based TV shows Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant).


THE PAPER (1994)

Dir: Ron Howard (formerly Opie on Mayberry). Michael Keaton plays Henry Hackett, the city editor of a NYC tabloid, in a day-in-the-life about a journalist’s crusade for the truth at any cost: major fight with wife, lost job at the New York Times, etc. Highlight: the knock-down brawl with Glenn Close.


WAG THE DOG (1997)

Dir. Barry Levinson. An acidic satire of Washington’s manipulation of the mass media. Starring Robert DeNiro as a political operative who enlists a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to gin up a photogenic war to divert public attention from scandal. Hoffman envisions was as “a pageant.” From the book by Larry Beinhart.



Dir.: Terry Gilliam.

Benicio del Toro plays Dr. Gonzo himself. In a masterpiece of understatement, IMDb tries to gets its arms around this film this way: “An oddball journalist and his psychopathic lawyer travel to Las Vegas for a series of psychedelic escapades.” That about sums it up. From the book by HST.




Starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. Based on CBS investigation into Big Tobacco. Crowe plays a chemist-turned-whistleblower, and Pacino plays TV producer Lowell Bergman as a blow-hard. Christopher Plummer portrays a TV reporter based on Mike Wallace of CBS’s “60 Minutes” – who did not appreciate the insinuation that he pulled punches. Based on Marie Brenner’s article in Vanity Fair called “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”



Writer/director Cameron Crowe wonders what it would have been like to be a teenager who gets to write a story for Rolling Stone that involves traveling with a rock band on tour. Starring Kate Hudson as the allusive singer Penny Lane.



The sad, miserable story of some guy (I don’t want to even use his name) who bamboozled his editors at The New Republic for an unforgivably long time. The guy’s story pitches were too good to be true, alas. Partial writing credit: journalist Buzz Bissinger.


CAPOTE (2005) MV5BMTczMzU0MjM1MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjczNzgyNA@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

In one of his last major roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman does a star turn as the writer Truman Capote as he undertakes the reporting that turned into the non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood.” Catherine Keener plays the young Nelle Harper, Capote’s sidekick and better known as the author Harper Lee of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”



Dir. George Clooney. David Straithairn plays Edward R. Murrow in this heroic biopic. Good as far as it goes, but it pulls punches on what happened to Murrow after he took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (CBS sidelined Murrow because he was too overtly political.) Clooney wrote it, too.


THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)MV5BMTMyNjk4Njc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDkyMTEzMw@@._V1_SX80_CR0,0,80,80_

Meryl Streep plays an imperious editor of a woman’s high-fashion magazine (a la Anna Wintour at Vogue), and Anne Hathaway plays her plucky assistant. Terrific cast.



A dramatization of the real-life interviews conducted by British talk-show host David Frost with disgraced former president Richard Nixon (see “All the President’s Men”). Frank Langella turns in a very credible Nixon. Fun fact: the role played by Oliver Platt in the film was played in real life by former BU Journalism professor Bob Zelnick.



Replacing Brad Pitt (who backed out), Russell Crowe plays an old-school Washington reporter covering the death of a congressional aide, with help from perky blogger Rachel McAdams, who tries to teach the old dog Crowe some new reporting tricks found on this thing called the Internet. Fun cameos of actual DC reporters, including Woodward.



Dir. Tom McCarthy. With help from screenwriter Josh Singer, McCarthy delivers an appreciative bouquet to traditional “accountability” journalism. Based on the true story of the Pulitzer-winning investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe who exposed the rampant sexual abuse and extensive cover-up within the Boston Catholic archdiocese.

*        *         *      *       *       *

Honorable mention, TV series:

The Wire, Season 5


Lou Grant

Superman (George Reeves)

See a mild-mannered reporter at The Daily Planet, Clark Kent, turn into a righteous super hero. If only all reporters could be caped crusaders.


Honorable mention, documentaries:

Reporting America at War

Control Room

Around the World in 72 Days




[For more info, see the website Image of Journalism in Popular Culture at USC]


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Journalism informed by history

By Christopher B. Daly

After a summertime hiatus, I want to revive this site. As ever, there is much to say about journalism, history, and the assorted other topics that show up here from time to time (NCAA, fossil fuels, etc.)

Today, I want to praise the NYTimes business columnist Eduardo Porter for his smart and effective use of history to inform what was essentially a political column about Donald Trump.

Porter begins with the premise that we all have our own histories and that our individual histories are entwined with the broader histories of our times. In Trump’s case, that personal history involved a coming of age at a very unusual period in American history — when the fraction of the foreign-born population was at an all-time low.

When Donald Trump was reaching adulthood in the mid-1960s, the United States was a less diverse place. By 1970, the share of the population born overseas had shrunk to 4.7 percent, the slimmest on record. Only about 0.4 percent of the population had been born in Mexico.

For a person of Trump’s time, that experience helps define a norm, against which all change is experienced as a deviation. Thus, for Trump and the slice of the population that is about his age (69, about the oldest possible slice of the baby boom), the last few decades represent a disorienting change in the composition of American society. Incidentally, there is nothing inevitable about his perception that such change represents a decline. He might see it as a plus. The fact that he interprets the change as a harm tells us a lot about Donald Trump as an individual. The times in which we live do not dictate everything about us; they just give us material to work with.

My only gripe with Porter’s column has to do with an issue that pervades the Times. Why won’t the paper include more links to source material? Most of the links in the online version link to other Times stories or to backgrounders prepared by the Times. In the Porter piece, it would make sense to link to the works of some of the experts he cites or to link to the Pew study he relies on. I suppose the paper is worried that readers will depart from the Times‘ site via links and never return. But I think that’s wrong. I think more readers would value the Times more if it included external links.

Besides, if the Times is going to write using a historical perspective more often, the writers will have to meet the standards that historians have for evidence. Footnotes anyone?


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A Grim Anniversary: The A-bomb 70 years later

By Christopher B. Daly

Seventy years ago this week, the United States used atomic bombs in war for the first (and so far only) time in history. It is an occasion to reflect on what that action meant and what it continues to mean for every person on the planet. Without getting into the debate over the morality or the military effectiveness of the bomb, here are some thoughts on the journalism of that fateful period.

Here is a recent piece by me that ran on The Conversation (a terrific website in which academics are invited to write for non-specialists). It is adapted from my book Covering America.

Here is the NYTimes own history of its role in the coverage.

And here is the text of John Hersey’s masterful account of Hiroshima.


William Laurence (left) on Tinian Island before departing for Nagasaki.  Military photo.

William Laurence (left) on Tinian Island before departing for Nagasaki.
Military photo.

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Filed under history, Journalism, journalism history, media, New York Times

Death of the Newsroom?

Here is an article I wrote for The Cairo Review for a special themed issue on the news media. It’s a condensed history of journalism in America for a global audience.

38 C A I R O R E V I E W 1 6 / 2 0 1 5

By Christopher B. Daly

Many Say the Internet Is killing the Golden Age of Journalism.

The Real Story Is More Complicated.

Death of the Newsroom?

For anyone interested in discovering how the business model for American

journalism has changed over time, here is a thought exercise. Consider the following


—CBS News Radio, the House of Murrow, the leading source of breaking

news for Americans by the end of World War II.

New York Herald Tribune, the finest paper in the United States for much of

the twentieth century (yes, a smarter and better written paper than the New

York Times), and the home base for the indispensable Walter Lippmann, the

most influential columnist of the century.

Saturday Evening Post, which featured the work of the country’s greatest

illustrator, Norman Rockwell, and presented its millions of readers with

news, views, and diversions.

LIFE magazine, a pillar of the vaunted Time Inc. media empire and the most

important showcase for the skills of photojournalism.

Next, let’s pick a historical moment. Somewhat arbitrarily, let’s go back fifty years

and look at 1964. If you asked any educated, engaged American adult who paid attention

to world and national affairs in 1964, that person would have agreed that all four

of those journalistic institutions were indispensable. It would have been hard to imagine

American society without them.

Within a few years, though, all would be gone

New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger defending publication of the Pentagon Papers, June 16, 1971, in New York.  Barton Silverman/ New York Times

New York Times publisher
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger
defending publication of the
Pentagon Papers, June 16, 1971, in New York.
Barton Silverman/
New York Times

(or so diminished that they were mere shadows of

themselves). The rise of television news hollowed

out CBS Radio and ultimately killed off LIFE as we

knew it. A printer’s strike finished off the Herald

Tribune, leaving the quality newspaper field to the

Times alone. Corporate ownership pulled the plug

on the Saturday Evening Post when tastes changed and the magazine started racking

up annual losses in the millions.

Now, let’s jump ahead to 1989, halfway to the present from 1964. The lineup of

indispensable media would look different.

—The Times had not only outlived the Trib by then, but had surpassed it in almost every respect.

—National Public Radio, and its television sibling, Public Broadcasting

Service, brought intelligent, original reporting to the airwaves and won the

loyalty of millions.

—CNN, the brainchild of billboard businessman Ted Turner, established the

24-hour news cycle by putting journalism on television round the clock and

across the globe.

—Bloomberg, the business news service, was not even founded until 1982 but

burst on the scene and soon became an essential tool for traders and later, as

a general business news service for readers worldwide.

Thus, at quarter-century intervals, we can see the phenomenon known to economists

as “creative destruction” at work, with a vengeance. The older media, despite

their eminence in the journalism establishment and their deep ties into the lives of their

audiences, were swept aside and replaced, often by upstarts less than a decade old.

And all that happened even before the Internet came along to “change everything.”

In light of such a turbulent history, it behooves us to look deeply into the

history of news organizations. Where did they come from? How did they pay the bills

in earlier periods? Is there anything to learn from the days before the Huffington Post,

YouTube, and social media?

Nowadays, it is commonplace to refer to the news media that predates the Internet

as “legacy media.” Just what is that legacy?

Printers and Pamphleteers

In America, the history of selling the news can be said to have begun in 1704, when

John Campbell, the postmaster in Boston, got tired of writing his longhand weekly

summary of interesting developments for his friends. So, copying the model of news

journals in London, he went to a nearby “job printer” and launched something never

seen before in North America: a printed weekly newspaper. The world took little

notice, but Campbell’s new venture, titled The Boston News-Letter, began the long rise

of “big media” to the pinnacle of power and profit that it reached in the late twentieth

century, just before going through a near-death experience in the last fifteen years. Over

the course of those three centuries, news has been carried in many different kinds of

vehicles. In broad terms, the news business has also operated under a succession of

prevailing business models. And each time the business model changed, a new philosophy

of journalism was needed. Repeatedly, journalism has evolved slowly over decades,

only to face a crisis or some external shock in which innovators could flourish.

Campbell and other colonial-era newspaper editors and printers, including the

estimable Benjamin Franklin, all operated in a business world that had several key characteristics.

Most producers of newspapers were printers, and they worked in a shop,

which was the era’s distinctive form of productive activity other than farming and fishing.

In the typical eighteenth century shop, whether it was a cooperage or a chandlery, a

brewery or a printshop, a “master” presided. A master in any field had two distinguishing

features: he had all the skills needed to take the raw materials of his trade and turn

them into finished products, and he had enough capital to be able to afford a workplace

and the tools and materials needed to get started. As in most other kinds of shops, the

master printer was assisted by a journeyman (who had the skills of the trade but lacked

the capital—so far—to open his own shop) and an apprentice (who lacked both skills

and capital but whose contract with the master entailed a legal right to be taught the

mysteries of the trade). Each shop had a small crew, working in a strict hierarchy.

For printers in America, the greatest challenge was to import a press and a set of

metal letters from England, which was a major capital outlay. An economist might

observe that printing had a higher “barrier to entry” than many other shop-based

businesses. The technology imposed further conditions. Presses were operated by

hand, and inks were slow to dry, so there was a physical limit on the number of papers

a printer could turn out in a week—on the scale of the low hundreds of copies. Most

of these newspapers were offered only on a subscription basis, a year at a time, and

they were quite expensive. My research indicates that they were priced along the lines

of a contemporary investors’ newsletter, costing the equivalent of several thousand

dollars a year. It is worth noting that the subscribers were paying nearly the full cost

of the paper (plus a profit), since there were very few ads in the early papers.

In 1704, as newswriting conventions were just being established, most items in a

newspaper read more like letters. They were discursive, they took a lot for granted,

and they assumed that the reader would continue reading to the end. Often the contents

of a newspaper would include many actual letters, sent to the postmaster-editor

or to his friends, and they would be printed because they were so informative. The

early papers also contained a regular flow of proclamations from the Crown or the

provincial authorities, always conveying a one-way message from those at the top of

the social hierarchy to those below. Newspapers in America also aggregated news from

Europe. The printer would simply subscribe to one or more papers from England,

and when they arrived through the postal service, the American printer would lift

items verbatim from the source paper—never minding if the material was weeks or

months old. If news of Europe had not reached the colonies, then it was still new to

the colonists. Most early newspapers were only a page or two long, and some left

blank space for comments.

The “public prints” also carried plenty of information interesting to merchants,

ship captains, and others involved in the vast Atlantic trading system, including offers

of slaves for sale. In addition, papers routinely carried news about oddities such as

lightning strikes, baby goats born with two heads, meteor showers, and the like. Such

strange occurrences were often presented for more than their ability to astonish; they

were framed as occasions for readers to reflect on how these signs and portents revealed

God’s providence, and many were explicitly presented as episodes of the wrath of

God. Another common type of item involved reports of public executions; these often

included descriptions of rather leisurely procedures designed to torture the miscreant

before sending him (or her) to meet the Creator. In describing such burnings, hangings,

and stranglings, the newspapers were advancing the social purpose of public executions,

which was to caution and intimidate the general population against a life of depravity. In

addition, newspapers offered a grab bag of poetry, quips, jokes, and whatever else came

to the printer’s mind. In that sense, dipping into a newspaper 300 years ago was not all

that different from doing so today: you never knew what you might find there.

With rising levels of population and economic activity in the colonies, newspapers

slowly began to spread and grow. By the 1760s, there were a few dozen titles, mostly

in port cities from New Hampshire to South Carolina. They catered to an elite audience

of literate white men who needed information and could afford to pay for it.

By necessity, they were small-scale, local operations. No printer owned more than

a single newspaper. A few copies could be sent to distant places through the postal

service (where they enjoyed a special low rate), but they remained overwhelmingly

modest, local affairs. The only way that most people of middling ranks could read a

newspaper was by finding one in a tavern, where many a barkeep would share his own

paper with his customers by hanging it on a post (hence the popularity of the name

Post in newspaper titles).

The newspaper trade suffered a blow in 1765, when Parliament imposed a tax on

paper. The Stamp Act required that all paper products bear a stamp proving that the

tax had been paid. The tax fell heaviest on printers, who considered paper their stock

in trade, and they felt particularly aggrieved. Several printers went so far as to declare

the death of newspapers and printed images of tombstones on their front pages. As it

happened, Parliament lifted the tax, and newspapers survived. But the Stamp Tax left a

bitter taste among printers, and more of them opened their pages to politics and began

sympathizing with the radicals in the patriot movement. A decade later, they would

be helping to lead the American Revolution.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, another form of journalism arose—the

pamphlet. These were much cheaper than newspapers and sometimes widely distributed,

but the writing, printing, and distribution of pamphlets was not a real business.

These were done by amateurs for non-economic motives. Indeed, it has been observed

that newspapers were like stores, and pamphleteers were like peddlers. They were

hit-and-run efforts—usually political, almost always anonymous (or pseudonymous).

The pamphleteers managed to inject a big infusion of politics into American journalism,

advancing political arguments that could not be risked by printers of regular

newspapers. In some respects, the pamphleteers resemble the bloggers of our times,

ranting about political topics not to make a living, but to have an impact.

The pamphleteers engaged in a polemical debate that grew increasingly polarized

in the early 1770s over the issue of separating the colonies from Britain. Cautiously

at first, the regular newspapers joined in the great debate, and—driven by their readers—

they became identified with the Whig or Tory cause.

During the early years of the Republic, papers not only became more political,

but they also became more partisan. Indeed, newspapers predated American political

parties and provided the first nodes around which the parties grew. Some papers

were founded by partisans such as Alexander Hamilton (or, as in the case of his rival

Thomas Jefferson, by surrogates), and newspaper editors helped readers figure out

which candidates for office supported Hamilton’s Federalists and which ones supported

Jefferson’s Republicans. In return, victorious parties rewarded loyal editors

with lucrative government printing contracts and showered benefits like reduced

postal rates on the whole industry.

Such then was the kind of journalism that American’s founders were familiar with.

It was local, small-scale, independent, and highly argumentative. One thing it did not

have was much original reporting. Indeed, throughout the first century of journalism

in America, there was no one whose job was to gather facts, verify them, and write

them up in story form. Opinions were abundant, facts were haphazard.

Hail to the Penny Press

During most of the nineteenth century, the news business was a high-technology,

innovative field, often at the forefront of deep changes sweeping through the U.S.

economy. It may be hard for us today to think of newspapers as innovators, but they

once were, and it may well be that the failure to continue to innovate is a major source

of newspapers’ current problems.

Beginning in the 1830s, newspapers pioneered in creating the first truly mass

medium. Led by Benjamin Day, who founded the New York Sun, and his great rival

James Gordon Bennett, who founded the New York Herald, newspaper editors

discovered the simple but powerful truth that there is money to be made in selling

down-market. The founders of these “Penny Press” papers brought a profoundly new

model to American journalism, based on deep and simultaneous changes in economics,

technology, marketing, and philosophy.

First, Day decided to go after an under-served market: the literate from the middling

ranks of society. He wrote for tradesmen, clerks, laborers, anyone who could

read. His motto for the Sun was “It shines for all”—and he meant all. To make his

paper affordable, he slashed the price from six cents a copy to a penny. That allowed

him to take advantage of simple arithmetic: if you multiply a small number by a very

big number, you end up with a pretty darn big number. In his case, the Sun began selling

many more copies than anyone had before—rather than hundreds a week, he was

selling thousands a day. So, his small purchase price was more than offset by his large

circulation figures.

To make his paper even more affordable, Day changed the business model in

another way: readers no longer had to subscribe for months at a time. They could lay

down a penny for the Sun today and skip it tomorrow. This put tremendous pressure

on Day to meet an entirely new problem: his paper would have to be interesting

every day. He met that challenge by re-defining news. Instead of old, recycled news

from Europe, letters from ship captains, and official proclamations from New York’s

government, Day discovered the appeal of telling New Yorkers short, breezy stories

about the calamities and strange doings of regular people. The Sun’s pages were filled

with stories about suicides, riots, brawls, and the fires that plagued wooden cities like

New York. People loved it, and they voted with their pennies for Benjamin Day’s new

kind of journalism day after day. Soon, the circulation was soaring and money was

rolling in. News was now defined as whatever lots of people found interesting.

Day was also fortunate in his timing, because the decade of the 1830s was a time

when inventors were applying a new technology to a host of age-old human problems.

That new technology was steam power, which was being applied to such problems

as powering ships that could travel upstream and the new-fangled railroads. One of

the earliest adaptors of steam power was the printing trade, which had relied since

Gutenberg’s time on the power of human muscles to raise and lower the heavy platen

that pressed paper and ink together. With the introduction of steam-powered presses

(and fast-drying inks), it was now physically possible to produce enough copies of a

newspaper in a few hours to meet the demands of thousands of ordinary people in a

growing city like New York.

The success of Day and Bennett and the imitators who soon followed in other

cities had some powerful unintended consequences. One was a radical new division of

labor, which brought about the de-skilling of printer/editors and a radical flattening

of the organizational chart. Once, newspapers had been produced by a master printer,

assisted by a journeyman (who could expect to become a master one day), and an

apprentice (who could in turn expect to become a journeyman one day). But, with the

growth in scale of newspapers, the owners forced through a deep restructuring. The

new big-city dailies would be run by one person, with the title of publisher. The publisher

was the sole proprietor and was responsible for organizing the entire enterprise.

As papers grew, publishers began appointing assistants, along these lines:

—A chief of production to oversee printing (a trade that, thanks to steam

power, now involved tending machines rather than the traditional hand


—A head of circulation to make sure all those thousands of copies got distributed

every day;

—An advertising director, to run the growing volume of ads, which would

soon make up a giant new revenue stream;

—An editor, to preside over the newsroom, where the new job of reporter was

spreading and would eventually develop into specialties such as covering

crime or sports.

Called by various titles, these four individuals would all see their domains grow

in the coming decades, until newspapers were employing hundreds of workers in specialized

roles. By the 1840s, it was already dawning on journeymen that they were

not going to learn all the skills of this new trade, that they would never accumulate

enough capital to go out on their own, and they would never be their own master.

They were now doomed to a life of wages.

The rise of popular and profitable newspapers had another profound consequence:

publishers like Day and Bennett declared their separation from the parties and became

politically independent. Observing that they won an “election” every day—in which

the ballots were the readers’ pennies—publishers said they would stand apart from the

parties and pass judgment on the performance of all office-holders. They would do

so in the name of “the people,” whom the publishers now claimed to represent. They

would act as the people’s tribune (hence the popularity of that name in the newspaper

trade) and “lash the rascals naked throughout the land.”

Near the end of the nineteenth century, all these ideas were taken to their ultimate

fulfillment by a later generation of mass-market newspapers, known as the “yellow

press.” Led by Joseph Pulitzer and his rival, William Randolph Hearst, the yellow

papers brought tabloid journalism to new heights. Readers loved it, and by the year

1900, the yellow papers passed the circulation milestone of a million copies a day. (Let’s

do the math on that: 1 million purchasers x 1 cent = $10,000 a day in income from circulation

alone. That’s $3.6 million a year. Add a comparable amount of income from

advertising, and you have a huge enterprise.) The money surged into these papers,

flowing in two broad streams of revenue—one from circulation, both regular subscribers

and newsstand sales, and another from advertising, both “display” ads and

classified. Readers grew accustomed to paying less than the real cost of the newspaper,

because advertising brought in so much money. In another case of good timing, the era

of Pulitzer and Hearst coincided with the rise of big-city department stores like Macy’s

and Gimbels, which regularly bought full-page ads to carry on their rising competition.

Rise and Fall of Corporate Empires

In the early twentieth century, some leading figures in American journalism pushed

back against the rise of the tabloid style. They aspired to make journalism into a true

profession—along the lines of law and medicine—with a defined canon of knowledge,

a set of standard procedures, and a mechanism for certifying new journalists

and policing the ranks of practitioners. None other than Joseph Pulitzer himself gave

this movement a big lift when he decided to leave a major portion of his huge fortune

to Columbia University in order to endow a school of journalism and a set of prizes

intended to elevate the practice of journalism by rewarding each year’s best work.

Another major supporter of the drive to raise the standards of journalism was Adolph

Ochs, the publisher who bought the failing New York Times in 1896 and set about

trying to turn it into “must reading” for the American establishment. Ochs asserted

that his paper would provide all the news that respectable people needed “without fear

or favor,” regardless of parties, religions, or other interests. Through his involvement

on the board of The Associated Press and other industry groups, Ochs strove to get his

fellow publishers to produce papers that were serious, responsible, and decent.

Pulitzer, Ochs, and other reformers thought their biggest problem was achieving

real independence. That was the foremost quality they associated with professionalism

(and interestingly, not “objectivity”), and they understood journalistic independence

not just in political terms. Yes, they believed that newspapers should, of course, stand

apart from the political parties. They should not carry water for either side in their

news coverage, and they should editorialize freely in a non-partisan manner in favor

of the best candidates and policies. But they also had a deeper concern: they wanted to

liberate the nation’s newsrooms from the pernicious effects of hucksterism, ballyhoo,

and puffery. They wanted to stamp out the influence of the emerging field of press

agentry, to get their own staff reporters to stop taking bribes for favorable stories, and

to assert the inviolability of the newsroom. The goal was to create a wall of separation

between “church and state,” between the newsroom and the advertising side of the

paper. As newspapers became big businesses, the professionalizers hoped to insulate

reporters and editors from the imperatives of making money.

As businessmen themselves, most publishers did not see the greater threat to professionalism

that they actually faced—the growing transformation of the news industry

from stand-alone, family-run small businesses to the corporate form of ownership that

would sweep almost the entire field in the coming decades. It was the new business

model, dominated by the for-profit, publicly traded corporation that transformed

journalism in the mid- to late-twentieth century and left it vulnerable to collapse.

It was often great fun while it lasted. One of the pioneers in building the big media

companies was William Randolph Hearst. Heir to an enormous fortune, Hearst had

the means to build the first major media empire. Keeping his family-owned newspaper

in San Francisco, Hearst bought a failing paper in New York City in 1895. And he

did an unusual thing: he kept the Examiner, so he now owned two newspapers. Later,

he founded new newspapers—in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere—and

kept ownership of all of them in his hands, thus dictating their editorials and giving the

Hearst press an increasingly conservative, isolationist outlook that mirrored his own

views. But he did not stop there. He also bought magazines, including the muckraking

Cosmopolitan, then ventured into new fields as they came along—newsreels, radio,

television. By the time of his death in 1951, the Hearst Corporation was a mighty

media monolith.

In the 1920s, radio manufacturers like the Radio Corporation of America (RCA)

and Westinghouse—which were already large, profitable, publicly traded corporations—

became darlings of Wall Street when they figured out how to make money

in radio not just by building the receivers that people craved, but by broadcasting

programming as well. In short order, companies like RCA’s new subsidiary NBC

(National Broadcasting Corporation) began adding to the corporation’s bottom line

by creating “content” for a growing audience and then renting that audience out to

advertisers and commercial sponsors. In the new era, RCA could make money on

both the hardware of radio and the programming. All that remained was to build the

network of affiliated radio stations across the country, which allowed NBC to profit

many times over from the same content. In that setting, the cost of putting a little

news on the air—to satisfy the broadcast regulators’ requirement that radio operate in

“the public interest”—was a tiny cost for running a very lucrative enterprise.

The emerging broadcasting powerhouses of NBC and CBS (Columbia Broadcasting

System) were highly profitable entertainment companies that ran their news divisions for

decades as “loss leaders.” The vaunted CBS Radio News operation, run by the Tiffany

Network, the home of Edward R. Murrow and the other pioneers of radio news, was

paid for by the jokes of Jack Benny, and his sponsors—Chevrolet, Jell-O, Grape Nuts,

and Lucky Strike. When television came out of the laboratory after World War II and

entered consumers’ homes in the 1950s and 1960s, the same corporate and regulatory

scheme that dominated radio took over the new medium, and television news grew up

almost entirely in the corporate domain overseen by NBC’s David Sarnoff and CBS’s

William Paley, whose first commitment was to make money for their stockholders.

And make it they did. In the process, they became almost entirely dependent on

advertisers. Their industry depended on sending signals through the airwaves to consumers

who pulled those signals in through an antenna. At the time, no one could figure

out a practical scheme for charging them to receive the signals, so broadcasting was

originally founded on a free model. NBC and CBS—and their rivals and affiliates—

gave their content away for free in order to assemble the largest possible audience, so

they could sell that audience to advertisers. Like the big automakers, a small number

of sellers—including, eventually, ABC (American Broadcasting Company)—dominated

the market. Although each one was big, they all wanted to be bigger. The logic

of the situation was simple: if some viewers or listeners are good, more are better. Best

of all would be to rope in every single radio listener and television watcher. To do that,

of course, broadcasters would have to cater to mass taste and shun partisan politics.

As a result, the news divisions in corporate broadcasting needed to acquire a “cloak

of invisibility”—an ethos of factuality and detachment that would avoid offending

Democrats and Republicans, or anyone else for that matter.

In the world of print journalism too, publishers and investors kept moving in the

direction of the corporate model. One pace-setter was tycoon Henry Luce (to use an

epithet that he brought into news vocabulary). Along with sidekick Briton Hadden,

Luce invented the weekly news magazine in 1923, and TIME quickly caught on with

American readers, making it the profitable cornerstone of the Time & Life empire.

Time Inc. launched Fortune, Sports Illustrated, People, and dozens of other titles before

merging with the movie and music giant Warner Communications Inc. Most recently,

the company orphaned its original magazine businesses and sent them out to fend for

themselves, while morphing the remaining film and television properties into a global

entertainment conglomerate made up now mainly of “video content providers.”

Through the middle and later decades of the twentieth century, the corporate

model eventually came calling even on the now long-established and no-longerinnovative

newspaper industry. As newspapers folded and merged, a smaller number

of papers remained standing as monopolies (or near-monopolies) in most of the big

and medium-large cities of the United States. That meant that they could practically

print money on their presses, since anyone who wanted to advertise (either display

or classified) in their domain had to pay the newspaper for the privilege. Many of the

monopoly papers were lucrative enough to become takeover targets for the emerging

chains like Gannett and Knight-Ridder. As they sold out to the chains, those papers

left the control of their long-standing family owners (the Chandlers, the Binghams,

the Coxes, and the like) and became small parts in the portfolio of big, remote corporations

with no civic or sentimental ties to the areas those papers served.

For a while, it all sort of worked. In the decades after World War II, the big media

that arose in the new corporate order seemed to have it made. They were (mostly)

earning buckets of money, which allowed them to pursue the professional goals so

admired in the newsroom. Editors could tell the business side to buzz off. Editors

could open new bureaus in Washington and overseas. A correspondent like Morley

Safer could spend CBS’s money to shoot film of American soldiers burning Vietnamese

villages. Publishers like Arthur Ochs Sulzberger (grandson of Adolph Ochs) at the

Times and Katherine Graham at the Post could bet the house on bold reporting—such

as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate—that directly challenged the power of government.

It was an era of rising salaries, rising standards, and rising expectations. The

journalism that was originally enshrined in the Constitution—small, local, independent,

opinionated—had been changed beyond recognition.

Then it all went bust. It is tempting to say that the Internet was to blame for

everything, and many people in journalism (especially those of a certain age) really

do believe this. It’s easy to see what happened in journalism as an episode of “technological

determinism”—that is, the new technology of the personal computer and the

Internet combined to form a superhuman force that destroyed everything. But the

real story is more complicated and gives a bigger role to the agency of the people (in

and out of journalism) who made the decisions that brought about the big crack-up.

One issue that is often overlooked is the threat to journalism posed by corporate

ownership itself. Take NBC News, for example. The news division was a small part

of NBC, which was first and foremost an entertainment company. NBC was, in turn,

a small part of its parent company, General Electric (GE), which was a globe-straddling

conglomerate of industrial and financial interests. NBC News was a small tail

on a mighty big dog. Managers at GE gave profit targets to all divisions with simple

instructions: meet your numbers or face being spun off. But the pressure to make a

profit was not the only problem in this regime. There were also inherent conflicts of

interest that journalists could not escape. How could NBC News report on GE’s role

as, say, a supplier of jet engines to the Pentagon? Or as a builder of nuclear power

plants? Or, at ABC News, after the The Walt Disney Company bought ABC, how

could a film reviewer for ABC’s Good Morning America show critically evaluate a

new film from Walt Disney Studios?

As more and more of these journalism operations got folded into bigger and bigger

corporations, they lost something else—their ability to rock the boat. Large corporations,

especially ones that sell products to the U.S. government or face regulation by the U.S.

government or need favors from the U.S. government, are not in the habit of blowing

the whistle on government waste. Large corporations do not have it in their DNA to

pick fights with powerful institutions like the Catholic Church or the Democratic Party

or the professional sports establishment. Yet, the dictates of journalism sometimes lead

reporters to fight those fights. My point is that the news business had serious, systemic

problems before anyone tried to read a newspaper on a computer. The golden era that is

so often lamented turned out to be more of a gilded age. In any case, it can now be seen

in the rear view mirror as a distinct historical period—one that is over.

In what could serve as an epitaph for that period, here is what journalist Steve Coll

(now the dean of the journalism school at Columbia that Pulitzer endowed) said in 2009:

Uniquely in the history of journalism, the United States witnessed the rise of

large, independently owned, constitutionally protected, civil service-imitating

newsrooms, particularly after the 1960s. These newsrooms and the culture of

independent-minded but professional reporting within them were in many

respects an accident of history.

Bottom Lines

Starting in the mid-1990s, people with online access began discovering a part of the

Internet known as the World Wide Web. It brought an apparently endless array of

visual displays to your computer screen. As with the telegraph and the radio before

it, this seemed like a cool invention that delighted hobbyists but did not come with

operating instructions on how to make money with it. Most publishers disdained the

Web at first, which was a costly human mistake they made, and not the product of

technological determinism. Because they tried to stand still, publishers got run over.

The mighty dual revenue stream that had paid for all the great journalism in print

media suddenly dried up. Display advertising shrank, as more and more ads migrated

to the Web. Classified advertising dried up almost overnight, thanks to Craigslist.

On the circulation side, subscriptions and newsstand sales both evaporated as readers

moved online and expected content to be free.

To make matters worse for the legacy media, the Web posed an existential threat.

From the beginning, most newspapers were a grab-bag of various content. They covered

politics and government, along with business and crime and sports and fashion

and a growing array of features and departments. Early newspapers often included

poetry and fiction, too. In every case, the newspaper presented itself to readers on a

take-it-or-leave-it basis as a pre-determined bundle of material, ranging from important

news to the comics. The Web un-bundled all that content and rearranged it.

Online, people who really liked sports could find faster, deeper coverage of sports on

a website than they could in their local print newspaper. People who really liked chess

could find a higher level of engagement with chess online than in a newspaper’s chess

column. And so it went for all the elements in the newspaper: there was a superior

version online, usually for free, without having to wait for an inky stack of paper to

arrive at your doorstep to tell you about things that happened yesterday. It was time

to ask: if the newspaper didn’t exist, would it make any sense to invent it?

Now, all media are digital.

People who liked the Web and understood it moved rapidly into the digital space,

and they are thriving. The founders of Huffington Post, Drudge Report, BuzzFeed,

Vice, TMZ, Talking Points Memo, Politico, and many more are doing just fine, thank

you. News ventures that were “born digital” are not carrying the big fixed costs of

legacy media, so they are able to profit in the changed environment.

This is not the future; it’s the present. We are in a transitional period, and it is

naturally messy. We are in a period of great contingency, with many unsolved problems—

notably how to pay for ambitious, expensive, accountability journalism. On

the other hand, journalists have better (and cheaper) tools than ever. The “barriers

to entry” have fallen, and the field is open to new talent in a way not seen since the

early nineteenth century. Journalists have a global reach that earlier generations only

dreamed of. I don’t believe in historical golden eras, but there’s a definite shine on

some of these new ventures.

There is a brisk trade in making confident assertions about the future of journalism. I

will venture this tentative judgment: if you want to look into the near future, look at the

powerful trends now at work. One snapshot of those trends appeared in the New York

Times last October, in a story about the newspaper’s own recent financial performance.

The Times is the most important institution in American journalism, so its future is a

matter of no small concern. It turns out that the paper’s latest quarterly numbers were

mixed. Overall, the paper lost $9 million, on revenues of $365 million. The main reason

for the loss was the cost of buying out about 100 newsroom employees, who were being

let go (out of more than 1,300), combined with the continued downward trend in print

advertising, which dropped by another 5.3 percent. That is the kind of gloomy news we

are used to hearing about the legacy media. But the report also pointed the way forward.

During the same three-month period, the Times added 44,000 new digital subscribers,

and the revenue from digital advertising rose by 16.5 percent. That sounds like a glass

that’s half full (at least). The news business will survive. That’s the headline.


Filed under history, Journalism, journalism history, media, news, press, press freedom

Where to draw the line between history and journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly 

As an author with a foot in both camps, I often wonder where the dividing line can be drawn between history and journalism. After all, both fields are devoted to empirical research into the past — just along different timelines.

Journalists want to know what has just happened — within, say, the previous day or so. Some journalists also want to explore what those developments might mean.

Historians want to know what has happened beginning at some time prior to the present, going as far back as the evidence can go. Most historians also want to comment on the meaning of those facts.

Because these inquiries overlap so much, it’s often hard to say who’s who. Many journalists explore historical topics. For example, my colleague in the B.U. Journalism Dept. Mitch Zuckoff, a veteran journalist, has written two best-selling books involving WWII topics and a brand-new best seller about the disaster at Benghazi in 2012. Is he a journalist or a historian? [As for me, I’ve written a history of industrialization and a history of journalism, but I do not have an academic appointment in a history department.]

Thanks to the BBC, we now have some data about how non-specialists (at least Brits) view this issue. In a recent survey, the BBC History Magazine asked folks to specify when events become part of History. Their answer: about 10 years.

Here are the results:

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 12.57.46 PM

The BBC also rounded up some expert opinion, and here are some of those thoughts:

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 12.59.55 PM

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 1.00.11 PM

What’s your view? When does history start?

Leave a comment.


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Filed under history, Journalism, journalism history

Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly

Good Monday, readers!

–As so often happens, first up is B.U. Prof. David Carr.

His latest Media Equation column heralds the re-vitalization of The Washington Post under big-spending owner Jeff Bezos. Hooray for new money in the news business. Personally, I am very pleased to see my old

Katie Zezima Mediabistro

Katie Zezima

employer having the resources and the sense to hire smart young journalists like BU alumna Katie Zezima, now part of the Post’s political coverage team — covering the White House, no less — after her stints at the NYTimes and the AP. Good luck to the Post’s owner (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) and the paper’s top editor (Marty Baron).

–Sticking with the Times for a moment, here is the Public Editor’s recent comment on the big flap between Amazon and Hachette, involving many writers on both sides.

Can someone help me get to the bottom of this issue? Is there a “good guy” in this fight? Who is really on the side of authors? Are all authors in the same boat?

–Interesting piece here about the European approach to archiving material on the Internet. Even better is 140929_r25505-320this recent New Yorker piece by Jeffrey Toobin.

–Delighted to see Peter Canellos, after being unceremoniously released by the Boston Globe, has landed an important new job at Politico. Why is Politico thriving? Maybe it’s because they hire talented people. . . (On the other hand, Politico has some of the most vicious comment-ers on the Internet, so if you want to hear “the other side” about Canellos, just read the comments. Phew!)

–The radio show “This American Life” by Ira Glass has launched a terrific new audio narrative that they are 537_lgcalling “Serial.” It is described as a “spin-off” and is available as a podcast. I listened to the debut installment this weekend, reported by Sarah Koenig and a team. It’s a terrific tale of the reporting of a doubtful prosecution of a “convicted murderer.” It ended on a real cliff-hanger, leaving me ready for more.

–The always worthwhile NPR program “On the Media” delivered again this weekend. I particularly enjoyed this piece on the work of Craig Silverman, the founder of the site “Regret the Error,” which paid attention to the neglected subject of news media carrcorrections. His latest cause: tracking rumors as they emerge online, at his new side Good luck with that, Craig.

–The Nieman Journalism Lab asks “What’s up with those 100 layoffs in the New York Times newsroom?” Ken Doctor has some answers.

–History keeps happening: the culture wars shift ground to the teaching of history. Conservatives don’t like the new guidelines for teaching Advance Placement U.S. history courses in high school. Part of their beef is that the new approach, devised by “revisionist” left-wing academic historians, dwells too heavily on America’s faults. Imperiling our sense of patriotism (Is that really the take-away kids are supposed to get from studying history), this new approach focuses too much on negative stuff, like protests.

So, how do smart high school kids respond? THEY PROTEST!

I’d say that shows they have already learned something!


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Filed under AP history, history, Journalism, journalism history

The Roosevelts and the media — a historian weighs in

By Christopher B. Daly

[Update: Here’s a thoughtful, tough evaluation of Ken Burns from an academic historian. It makes some points I have been struggling to articulate. H-t to Harvey Kaye.]

Could either Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt get elected today? That’s a fun question to kick around as the epic new video documentary by Ken Burns unfolds on PBS.

A rare view of FDR using crutches. PBS identifies this as a photo taken in 1924 when FDR nominated Al Smith a the DNC at Madison Square Garden, NYC. Photo is credited to the Roosevelt Little White House state historic site, located in Warm Springs, Ga.

A rare view of FDR using crutches.
PBS identifies this as a photo taken in 1924 when FDR nominated Al Smith a the DNC at Madison Square Garden, NYC.
Photo is credited to the Roosevelt Little White House state historic site, located in Warm Springs, Ga.

The lead writer of the series is the redoubtable Geoffrey C. Ward, who is probably one of the most successful, most familiar, and least known American historians of recent decades. Ward, who apparently has never had an academic appointment in a university history department, has a real knack for writing history in a way that lots of people appreciate. A graduate of Oberlin and former editor of American Heritage, Ward has an impressive track record: 18 books (including a 1989 biography of FDR, A First-Class Temperament), a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Parkman Prize for history, seven Emmys, a bunch of other prizes and the “Friend of History Award” from the Organization of American Historians.

Among his many talents, I would say Ward excels at the majestic, omniscient note needed to introduce Big Subjects in our national drama like the Civil War or the Roosevelts. One arrow in Ward’s quiver is the “historical conditional” verb tense, as in: “His When his words are read by Peter Coyote, you better listen up.

As this recent NYTimes piece notes, Ward has a special connection to FDR — Ward suffered from polio as a child and still wears braces as a result — that perhaps gave him a special affinity or empathy with the president. Although it is not taught much in school, empathy may not be a bad quality in a historian.

Geoffrey C. Ward (left) and Ken Burns PBS photo

Geoffrey C. Ward (left) and Ken Burns
PBS photo

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Filed under FDR, history, TR, writing