Category Archives: media

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

institutions:

—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

skills);

—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.

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The Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly

Let’s start the week with some required reading. From the Times:

–David Carr on I’m not sure what exactly. This sounds like a mash-up of several columns.

–Here’s a piece about some popular new conservative website, Independent Journal Review. (It’s always odd to see young conservatives. What’s left for them to grow up into?)

–Sleek and shiny Conde Nast gets a sleek and shiny new hq. Just don’t look down on your readers.

–The Times demurely reports its own quarterly earnings. I’d say this glass is half full. Yes, they lost a little money overall last quarter, but don’t bury the lead. Here it is, in grafs 6+7:

While the print business continued its steady decline, with advertising revenue dropping 5.3 percent, the company showed growth in its digital business. Digital-only subscribers — a number closely watched by analysts, some of whom suspect that growth may soon plateau — increased by 44,000 during the quarter, the best quarterly digital subscriber growth in nearly two years. The Times now has 875,000 digital-only subscribers.

Third-quarter digital advertising revenue was $38.2 million, a 16.5 percent increase compared with the third quarter of 2013. Mr. Thompson, the chief executive, said that the digital advertising growth came from a number of areas, including Paid Posts, the company’s push into so-called native advertising, in which ads resemble editorial content.

Just watch out for those “native ads,” and you’ll be fine in the digital future.

–At the new website First Look, zillionaire owner Pierre Omidyar is discovering that it’s not easy to lead a newsroom full of talented, difficult people. The e-Bay founder, who sank $250 million into this news venture, is learning something about how great Ben Bradlee really was.

Mr. Omidyar, according to people with knowledge of internal discussions at First Look who spoke on condition of anonymity, seemed not to realize what he had gotten into by hiring so many aggressive and competitive journalists and then trying to manage them largely from his home in Hawaii, with only sporadic visits to First Look’s offices.

Ouch.

–And from the op-ed page, Tom Friedman weighs in with this thought: what if they gave a war and no reporters showed up? Imagine what ISIS will do when they know that no one’s watching.

ELSEWHERE. . .

NPR’s “On the Media” is on target.

Robert Krulwich had a good show about the “War of the Worlds” on his RadioLab. (which is on death row)

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” host Brian Stelter went a few rounds with a founder of the Weather Channel (“… I am the founder” he lectured Brian) who is a self-proclaimed “climate change skeptic.” My question: who cares what this guy thinks? The planet is going to settle this argument for us.

The Boston Globe had an amusing piece in its improving Sunday “Ideas” section about the hidebound typographical practices of the esteemed Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Turns out, the SJC is stuck on Courier, a “monospaced” font, where all the letters take up the same space. This allows the court to enforce its ancient rules about the length of briefs by imposing limits based on page numbers. The court could readily update its practices by imposting a word count and allowing lawyers to use cooler fonts. No rush — it’s only the oldest continuously sitting court in the New World.

2typewriter-courier-658

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Remembering Ben Bradlee (1921-2014)

By Christopher B. Daly

Let us now praise Ben Bradlee. He has rightly been called the most courageous and consequential newspaper editor of the postwar period, and I would give him the whole 20th Century. During his 25+ years leading the Washington Post newsroom, Ben elevated the Post from the middle ranks of U.S. news institutions to the front ranks. He did it with nerve, imagination, and guts. If you think it’s easy to lead a couple hundred journalists, try it some time. Most days, you can’t get two or three to agree on anything, follow anyone, or admit that they couldn’t do any job better.

It should also be noted that Ben transformed the Post with Katharine Graham’s money. It takes nothing away from Ben to observe that he was lucky in the timing of his career. He said as much himself.

“I had a good seat,” he said to Alicia C. Shepard in a 1995 interview with The American Journalism Review. “I came along at the right time with the right job and I didn’t screw it up.”

 What made it the right time was that the Post was then gushing money, enjoying the heyday of all the big-city U.S. dailies that enjoyed a monopoly (or near monopoly). As I wrote in my book Covering America, the Post was poised for takeoff when Mrs. Graham took control of the Post in 1963.

Though terrified of what she was getting into and almost entirely unprepared to lead a large enterprise, Kay Graham became president of the Washington Post Company in late 1963 and set about making her mark. In 1965 she brought Ben Bradlee over from Newsweek and made him managing editor of the Post. She helped him become a great editor, not only by supporting him professionally but also by presiding over a business that was practically printing money. These were boom years in Washington. Under Johnson, the Great Society programs were staffing up, bringing thousands of middle-class, white-collar jobs to the city and its increasingly far-flung suburbs. This was the target audience for the Post, and for every advertiser in the region. Money came rolling in. During the three years after Bradlee took over, the budget for the Post newsroom more than tripled, leaping from $2.25 million a year to almost $7.3 million. Bradlee got to add fifty new slots in the newsroom, and he went on a hiring spree. In the process, he transformed the paper, creating a star system (known famously at the Post as “creative tension”) in which reporters had to jockey for space in the paper and for favor in Bradlee’s inner circle.

Imagine that: 50 new hires! And those were good jobs with good salaries and benefits. All those newbies were beholden to Ben, so he had most of them in his pocket. Plus, he managed to rid the newsroom of some holdovers who did not fit with his plans. In the end, he was able to build a giant new team of people who mainly loved him.

Could he have been a great editor in another period? How would he have managed decline, cutbacks, and the diminished clout of the last 15 years at the Post? We’ll never know, of course. It’s entirely possible that he would have prevailed with his charm and his bravado. But without the budget to back it up, I have my doubts that even Ben could have made newspapering fun in the dreadful years.

I did not know him well, but he was my boss for more than two years when I worked at the Washington Post near the end of Ben’s 25-year-run. (I say “Ben,” because that’s what everyone called him; we all called his boss “Mrs. Graham,” but he was always Ben.) I was a tiny asteroid in his universe, but I remember my few encounters with him vividly. You could not be around him and not want to be closer to him. You wanted to know that he knew your name, and you treasured his “attaboy”s and any kind of attention. For most of my career as a journalist, I wanted my editors to leave me alone. Not with Ben.

Everyone has been telling Ben stories since his death on Tuesday, and I have been spending hours soaking them in. One good place to start is his own memoir, A Good Life — which is, as he might put it, a goddamn good book. It has many of Ben’s virtues: it’s unpretentious, it’s full of fun, and it doesn’t spend a moment feeling sorry for its subject.

Among other remembrances that I’ve enjoyed:

Here is a piece by Martha Sherrill, one of the many voices Ben promoted in the Post Style section that he invented (and which may be his second-largest legacy to U.S. journalism).

Here is a tribute from David Remnick, who, as usual, is right on target.

Here is BU Prof. David Carr’s smart, funny recollection.

Here is Ben in his own wonderful voice talking with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” saying that journalists should be fair and honest and not back down (which just about sums it up). He also observes that anybody would have to have been “lobotomized” not to have pursued the Watergate story.

Finally, here’s one photo of Ben (among so many — the man was ungodly handsome and photogenic) that I particularly enjoy. It shows him in August 1974 in the Post’s composing room, looking pensively at a “chase” of metal letters that newspapers still used in those days to create a negative image from which newspaper pages could be printed. That particular page says (in reverse) NIXON RESIGNS. I like this photo because it reveals another side of Ben Bradlee, one that not everyone knew about. In that summer of 1974, when Ben knew that the end was near for Nixon after the Watergate scandals, he sent the word out through the newsroom: there was to be no gloating, no spiking the football, no champagne. He enjoyed a fight, and I believe he loved being in the arena, but he had the virtue and sense of decency that demanded good sportsmanship in the game of life.

Photo by David R. Legge (WaPo)

Photo by David R. Legge (WaPo)

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Former NYT Editor Jill Abramson: Getting back into journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Is former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson getting back into journalism?

Yes, according to hints she dropped Monday night during a talk at Boston University. Abramson said she has been exploring the possibility of launching a new journalism start-up with veteran publisher and investigative reporter Steven Brill.

The proposed new operation would focus on a few large stories, and it would employ professional journalists at decent salaries, Abramson told a packed hall during a conversation with Times media columnist and B.U. professor David Carr.

After Carr teased her about making some news and challenged her to “show a little leg,” Abramson said, “Well. . .” Then she divulged that she and Brill have been conducting talks with investors who might back their proposed venture.

But she revealed little else, offering no details on how her journalism start-up would work financially or how it would stand out
professionally.

Since her departure from the Times, Abramson has given a series of i

Jill Abramson ( L) and David Carr (R) discuss what David Carr describes as the “present future”, when the production and distribution of media is in constant flux. Photo by Ann Wang

Jill Abramson ( L) and David Carr (R) discuss what David Carr describes as the “present future”, when the production and distribution of media is in constant flux.
Photo by Ann Wang

nterviews (mostly to female journalists), and she has been teaching a course in narrative non-fiction in the English Department at Harvard.

When Carr brought up the subject of her separation from the Times and seemed to be groping for a euphemism, Abramson abruptly corrected him, saying “I was fired.” She added that she has spent her career seeking the truth and telling it, so she saw no reason to sugar-coat her dismissal from the newspaper in May at the hands of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Abramson, 60, began her career in journalism by reporting for and editing a student publication at Harvard, the Independent, then went on to jobs at the American Lawyer, Legal Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times.

Her conversation with Carr was sponsored by Boston University’s NPR affiliate, WBUR-FM. It was to be broadcast Tuesday evening at 8 p.m..

[Full disclosure: Jill and I were classmates in college, and I have seen her sporadically since then. I enjoyed her book about her dog.]

Update: You can listen to the full conversation here on WBUR’s superb midday program “Here and Now.”

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Gail Sheehy: still pitching herself

Don’t miss today’s review in the Times of the new memoir by Gail Sheehy. Not that she needs any more exposure.

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New media outlet in New Hampshire

By Christopher B. Daly

Welcome to the news business to the latest wealthy businessman seeking to have a role in politics through the media. The newest member of the club is Bill Binnie, the founder of the media venture NH1, which is having its rollout this month in the state known as FITN for its “first in the nation” presidential primary, which is just around the corner in political terms.

Based on a quick search, it appears that Binnie is a Republican who made a fortune in plastics, which he converted into another fortune in the investing business. Born in Scotland, Binnie went to Harvard (on a scholarship, it should be noted) and to Harvard Business School, then did a stint at McKinsey as a consultant, telling other businesses how to run better. Eventually, he actually founded and ran several businesses of his own, including Carlisle Plastics, followed by a venture capital firm, Carlisle Capital Corp.

In 2010, he ran as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire and lost. He is a big donor to GOP causes and fund-raiser, and he has served as the chair of the finance committee for the N.H. GOP.

Now comes his latest venture: NH1, which debuts next week. Here is part of the Boston Globe‘s take, from today’s Capital section (which, BTW, is a welcome addition to the paper and potentially more meaningful to a lot of Globe readers than its much-heralded [if I may use that term!] new Catholic-watching section called Crux):

At a time when most newsrooms are shrinking, Binnie Media is doing the opposite, doubling staff to 120 in the past year and recruiting top journalists like former CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser and veteran political reporter Kevin Landrigan, who was laid off when The Telegraph of Nashua closed its New Hampshire State House bureau earlier this year. Binnie has also attracted a number of other seasoned journalists from cash-strapped local papers.

Hooray for hiring. It’s good to see someone taking up the slack from the diminished statehouse press corps. And Binnie could not have done better than to hire Kevin Landrigan — whose desk used to abut mine when we both worked in the Massachusetts Statehouse Press Gallery in the mid-1980s, he for the Lowell Sun and me for the AP. Kevin was simply the best reporter in the room (the Globe’s Frank Phillips was down the hall in a separate room, and John King didn’t stay long enough to build up Kevin’s cred). I learned a lot just from eavesdropping on Kevin’s phone conversations with his sources — not that I picked up any actual facts but I got to see his technique at work, which was relentless questioning, double-checking, and working his sources. He broke a lot of stories and always seemed to know what was about to happen next. I knew Kevin as decent, fair, straight-ahead, a total pro.

As for Binnie, he has actually been involved in TV and radio in New Hampshire for a few years, but he is taking another step forward in creating NH1, which is billed as a multimedia platform — which I guess means broadcast TV, plus a website (still under construction) but no print medium that I can see. The idea appears to be to capture some of the vast amounts of money spent in New Hampshire every four years on TV political ads.

Will NH1 survive through the lean off-years in politics?

Stay tuned.

Shiny! The Globe caption says: NH1 News anchor KeKe Vencill (left), reporter/anchor Paul Mueller (center), and chief meteorologist Clayton Stiver rehearsed a news broadcast. Photo by Boston Globe

Shiny!
The Globe caption says:
NH1 News anchor KeKe Vencill (left), reporter/anchor Paul Mueller (center), and chief meteorologist Clayton Stiver rehearsed a news broadcast.
Photo by Boston Globe

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Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly

As a public service, I am rounding up some recent reports and commentary about journalism and history.

Here is a new report from our friends at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, asking:

Where are the women in the executive ranks of the news media?

Good question.

Here’s the latest episode of NPR’s “On the Media.” This week’s show looks at the decline in “beat reporting.” Any thoughts from my JO310 alumni?

Here’s the latest episode of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” — much improved since Brian Stelter replaced Howie Kurtz. So, should news organizations censor ISIL’s propaganda videos? I say, yes.

And from the NYTimes. . .

Here is B.U. Prof. David Carr on TMZ’s sacking of the NFL.

Here is a confusing story about NPR doing “live” shows. (Isn’t all of NPR live?)

Here is a story about the sale of Digital First Media. Want to buy a newspaper? (I don’t mean one copy, I mean a whole paper!)

Here is an update on the Hachette-Amazon brawl. I am still not sure which side to join in this one.

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