Category Archives: journalism history

Trump epitomizes the “charismatic leader” where power is personal

By Christopher B. Daly

Nothing so aptly captures the phenomenon of Donald Trump as the social theory laid out more than a century ago by the German social thinker Max Weber. In Weber’s scheme of understanding power, Trump epitomizes a type known as the “charismatic leader.”

American politicians are sometimes described as charismatic by people who really want to use a word more like “charming.” But leaders like Trump are actually pretty rare in American political history.

Which means, in turn, that Trump is likely to present challenges to the journalists trying to cover him. Most of the national political press corps has never seen the like. On the one hand, Trump is a gift to the news media because he’s exciting; on the other, he does not fit nicely into any conventional category or narrative.

According to Weber, “charismatic authority” is different from traditional or legal sources

max weber

of authority. As the great German sociologist argued in “Politics as a Vocation,” the charismatic leader is followed because of his personal qualities. His success depends on “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” In essence, a charismatic leader is endowed with special qualities because his followers believe he has those qualities. He is powerful because people think he’s powerful.

Trump’s authority is entirely personal. It is not connected to a party or a movement or a set of policies. It is all about him. His subliminal message to the convention and the television audience was: I will make you safe. It’s the rough equivalent of saying “I will walk you to school so no one will scare you.”

As a businessman, he is the “Lord of the Tower.” High inside Trump Tower, he rules over a privately held company. He is not like a CEO of a big publicly traded corporation. The modern corporate executive is a cog in a giant machine – made up of corporate boards, executive committees, finance committees, legal counsel, giant organizational charts, rules, policies, and guidelines. This environment produces CEOS who are risk-averse and who know that their time at the top is limited to about four or five years.


credit: Orlando Sentinel

None of that pertains to Trump. He trusts only those people who work for him in Trump Tower. Any authority they have flows from him directly, in proportion to how close they are to him or how trusted. No one in the Trump camp exercises power independently or by virtue of a place in a bureaucracy. It’s all about personal relationships, as in a royal court or a cult.

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While Trump was rising last week, another career in American conservative politics was ending. Roger Ailes, the founding chief of Fox News, was ousted from his powerful position by his only boss, media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Like Trump, Ailes was a charismatic leader in the Weberian mold. For decades, Ailes ruled Fox News by fear, bullying, helping favorites, and attempting to exercise the droit de seigneur by “flirting” with the many attractive news readers he hired.

Trump and Ailes also shared a masterful instinct for managing the public’s resentment. Even if you never watch Fox News, you have probably heard phrases like these:

  • “liberal elites”
  • “the War on Christmas”
  • “mainstream media”
  • “radical Islamic terrorism”

These and similar conservative tropes (or “memes”) are all hobgoblins intended to amplify the fear and loathing felt by some Americans. Such memes reinforce the fear that something is slipping away and reinforce the loathing of those responsible – smart people, immigrants, jihadis, liberals.

Ailes toiled for decades inside the conservative meme factory – generating, refining, and broadcasting the idea that America used to be a great country until _______________________  (fill in the blank: secularism, feminism, political correctness, elites, blacks, gays, immigrants) came along and ruined everything. Like Trump, Ailes practiced a politics of restoration.

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Trump had a successful convention in one sense: he managed the almost impossible task of making a modern convention interesting. For decades, the national conventions have been highly scripted, fully produced pageants made for television. No surprises – and no real politics, either. Everything is decided beforehand.

As the Democratic National Convention unfolds in Philadelphia, watch for a dramatic contrast from last week’s show in Cleveland. Hillary Clinton is the opposite of a “chaos candidate” like Trump. He huddles with a small team of political novices and makes decisions at the last minute. In Hillary’s approach to politics, by contrast, professionals are respected, and qualities like steadiness, consistency, and predictably (which Trump disdains) are considered virtues.

She makes plans and sticks to them.  She limits access. Everything is vetted. There is a structure with veteran professionals staff all key positions, from speechwriting to finance to policy.

Not so with the charismatic candidate Trump. He harkens back to political insurgents like Huey Long or George Wallace – not (just) in his bigotry but in his personal approach. Trump has no bureaucracy around him. A reporter cannot go seek out Trump’s “foreign policy shop” and get briefings on his approach to the Mideast. First of all, there is no “shop.” Second, even if there were a shop, there is no policy. There will be a policy when Trump makes one up, and it will change when he feels like it. He may meet with Netanyahu, for example, and if they hit it off personally, then Israel is under U.S. protection. If they don’t hit it off, then all bets are off. What are Trump’s budget plans? Who would make up the Cabinet? No one has a clue. Reporters are hard pressed to find reliable sources.

In covering Trump, the media have a further problem: they feel obligated to treat Trump with a straight face. Their professional code prevents them from writing and saying many things that they know to be true.

Moreover, the press gets no down time with Trump. Even when he has retreated to Trump Tower, he could still feel the urge to tweet out some message or insult or provocation at any time, creating a brand-new controversy and “winning” that news cycle.

Trump likes to talk about law and order. But in his style, he is the candidate of chaos. Fasten your seatbelt.

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Media Earthquake: the end of the Roger Ailes era at Fox News

By Christopher B. Daly

“If you would strike at a prince, you must kill him.”  –Niccolo Machiavelli

The fall of Roger Ailes is an ephocal event in the history of modern news media. For a man who delivers more than $1 billion in annual profit to his boss and who delivers the top viewer ratings in cable TV news to be fired certainly marks the end of an era.

Carlson : NYDaily NewsHis departure today was brought about by the charges of sexual harrassment filed in court by Fox News on-air star Gretchen Carlson. (Before there was Megyn Kelly, there was Gretchen.)

Variety's Power of Women New York luncheon - Arrivals

Megyn Kelly Credit: Dennis Van Tine


Ailes was a king-maker who became a powerful prince himself within the kingdom of American conservatism. By assembling a loyal audience for Fox News, Ailes performed several important services for resurgent conservatism:

–Fox News attacked the rest of the news media

–Fox News provided an outlet for conservatives (including climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and conservative ideologues who could not get on the air otherwise)

–Fox News hounded the Clintons and Obama while endorsing and defending George W. Bush

–Fox News cultivated and sustained Bill O’Reilly (and stood by him when O’Reilly had his own problems with a sexual harrasment claim).

–Fox News, by selling ads for gold bullion, attorneys for the plaintiff’s bar, and many other products, delivered a consistent profit stream to Murdoch’s News Corp.

The back story is well told in the 2014 biography of Ailes by the journalist Gabriel Sherman. The book is titled “The Loudest Voice in the Room” and subtitled “How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News and Divided a Country.” Sherman, a national correspondent for New York Magazine whose recent daily reporting has driven and shaped the coverage of Ailes, lays out the rise of Ailes from the day the young tv producer met Richard Nixon in 1967 and lectured the veteran politician on the power of television.

Ailes went on to work for Nixon, then became an impresario of conservative media. He had a big role in the rise of conservative talk-show champ Rush Limbaugh, then teamed up with conservative media mogul to found Fox News in 1996.

Fox News is the embodiment of Roger Ailes. He is responsible for the shrewd and deeply cynical slogans “Fair and balanced” and “We report/you decide.” Never mind that neither slogan was true. They served the purpose of assembling an audience of American conservatives who consider Fox a national message board.

Ailes harrangued the mainstream media for being liberal, while building the most ideological news operation on the air, all the while denying that he was doing so.

What brought him down was his failure to make an alliance with Murdoch’s sons, who are the future of News Corp. The sons may be less conservative than their father and, as members of a younger generation, they certainly have far less tolerance for the towel-slapping, know-nothing ethos of the Fox News morning show. On that show, whose co-hosts regularly humiliated Gretchen Carlson, who may have more i.q. points than Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade combined. They harped regularly on her looks, her wardrobe, and her hotness.

Under Ailes, Fox News had a history of hiring attractive women and placing them in front of the cameras in ways that displayed their physical attributes. Even in an industry like television, which is obsessed with visuals, Fox News stood out for its use of news babes. Turns out, Ailes — who resembles the late Sidney Greenstreet minus the charm — was “flirting” with them and implying that they should put out for him.

In the end, it would appear, the man who ruled by fear was brought down by one brave woman.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.23.42 PM


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Journalism jobs: Digital now outnumbers print

By Christopher B. Daly

Two important trend lines have recently crossed, probably forever. The number of jobs in the U.S. newspaper sector has now dipped below the number of jobs in the digital media. Newspapers are not dead, but they are no longer the center of gravity for the news business. Thus ends a dominance that began in the 17th century and reached a peak in the 20th century before cratering in the 21st century.

That is one of the major findings in a new study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, documenting what many have long noticed: American newspapers are no longer the driving wheel of American journalism. The past belonged to the printing press, but the future belongs to the web.

Here’s the big picture:

Jobs in news

Here are some highlights:

–The purple line that starts so far above the others in 1990 represents all employment in the newspaper industry. It’s worth noting that the BLS counts everyone who works at a newspaper, not just the newsroom crew. So, this is just a rough approximation of the employment situation of journalists — reporters, photographers, videographers, podcasters, editors, producers, and others who are directly involved in gathering and disseminating news. That is a much harder number to track.

–Newspaper employment took a hit in the early 1990s, then sort of plateaued, took a steeper hit when the “tech bubble” burst in 2001 (taking with it a lot of full-page ads), and then really dove in the Great Recession of 2008-9. Since then, the downward trend has slowed a bit, but the trend from 2009 to 2016 gives no reason to think that newspapers are coming back.

–The BLS also provides a helpful monthly chart of the data used to draw all those lines. Here are some salient details I found in the data tables.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 11.23.24 AM

–Looking deeper into the numbers, it is heartening to see that the overall numbers of jobs in all these industries combined has not dropped very much, having fallen about 3 percent over 26 years. The biggest proportional hit seems to have occurred in “books” — which I take to mean the publishing industry as a whole. While a small number of journalists make a living by writing non-fiction books, it is probably a very small group that depends primarily on their book royalties.

–The big gainer is “Internet publishing and broadcasting.” It’s hard to imagine how 28,800 people made a living putting stuff online in 1990 (which was before the Web became ubiquitous), but there is no mistaking that web-based activities have been on a surge.

–The other big gainer in the last quarter century has been “Motion picture and video production.” It is unclear from the BLS definitions of its categories what fraction of all those folks could be considered journalists. Probably a lot of them work in Hollywood or other venues where they produce content that is fictional or promotional. Still, it is a rough indicator of where the growth is.

One question that these data raise is this: what will journalists of the future need to know and do?

About a decade ago, my colleagues and I began a deep re-think of our curriculum to bring it out of the days of print newspapers, glossy magazines, film-based photography, and broadcast television. We eliminated our separate, medium-based “concentrations” and decided that all our students should be educated as digital journalists. We tore out our darkrooms, converted to all-digital photography, and decided that all our students need to be competent in “visual journalism.” We ramped up our instruction in shooting and editing video. We converted our student radio station to digital and embraced podcasting. We decided that essentially all our coursework should be multimedia. Like other journalism programs in U.S. universities, we found that it was not easy, but it was a matter of survival.

As a specialist in the history of journalism, I spend a lot of time thinking about the centuries when the newspaper ruled the field. The newspaper had a good long run, but it is clearer every year that newspapers not only documented history, they are history.




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Trump is dangerously wrong on libel: Why journalists need Constitutional protections

By Christopher B. Daly

In his recent remarks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump issued a thinly veiled threat to the news media: if he’s elected, he will (somehow) change the country’s libel laws to make it easier for him and others to sue the news media. It’s an issue with a history that is worth remembering.

Here’s Trump (from CNN):

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win… I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” he said. “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”


Trump in Fort Worth (Getty)


Trump, who has lost a libel suit in the past, took his usual menacing tone and framed the issue as a conflict between himself and the media. The party that is missing from that formulation is the American people, who are the real clients of the First Amendment. That is the amendment that says, in part: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”

And that press freedom extends into the realm of libel, as I explained in my history of 51zTMdE6eDL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_this country’s journalism, Covering America. Trump is not the first public figure to try to use the libel laws as a backdoor way to achieve the ultimate goal of intimidating and controlling the news media. Here’s an excerpt from Covering America:


One of the greatest potential threats to the national coverage of the South arose in 1960 in Montgomery, Alabama. The means of intimidation was not the usual one—violence or the threat of it—but the legal system itself. At risk was the ability of the news media even to cover the movement in an honest, independent way.

The threat first arose in April 1960 as an unintended consequence of a decision by a group of civil rights activists to place a full-page advertisement in the New York Times decrying the “unprecedented wave of terror” being imposed on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and student activists. The ad stated: “Again and again, the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. . . . They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person.” For good measure, the ad charged “grave misconduct” on the part of Montgomery officials as a group.

The city’s police commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was incensed and decided to sue the Times for libel. (It didn’t matter that the offending passages were in the form of an advertisement and not a news story produced by a Times journalist; under U.S. law, a publisher is equally responsible for all content. It also didn’t matter that Sullivan was not singled out by name in the ad; under U.S. law, if an individual can reasonably be identified, that is enough.) Sullivan sued for $500,000 in an Alabama state court, charging the Times with publishing damaging falsehoods about him. The threat was clear: if Sullivan won, no paper could afford to cover the civil rights movement. “Silence, not money, was the goal,” as one recent history puts it.

For the Times’ Southern correspondent, Claude Sitton, the suit meant that he had better hightail it out of Alabama to avoid being subpoenaed, so he headed straight for the Georgia line, leaving Alabama essentially uncovered for the next two and a half years. For the paper’s lawyers, however, fleeing to another state was not an option, though they tried. It was difficult even to find a lawyer in Alabama who would agree to represent the Times. When one was finally found, the lawyers decided that their only recourse was to argue that the suit did not belong in an Alabama court, since the paper did hardly any business in the state. The jurisdictional argument didn’t work. The paper lost in the circuit court in Montgomery (where the judge criticized “racial agitators” and praised “white man’s justice”), and Sullivan was awarded the full $500,000—the largest libel judgment in that state’s history. The Times appealed, only to lose again. Further appeals did not look promising, since the U.S. Supreme Court had held that journalists had no constitutional protections against libel claims. So far, the use of the courts to silence the press was working.

The passage through all those courts took years, but the Times did not give up. Whatever the publisher and editors thought about civil rights, they were professionally committed to upholding ournalistic principles and prerogatives. The final appeal was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 6, 1964. The stakes were high. “The court would decide nothing less than how free the press really could be,” one observer has noted. “If the decision went against the Times,would reporters be vulnerable to every libel claim filed by a ticked-off sheriff?”

And it wasn’t just the Times that was at risk. All told, Southern officials had filed some seventeen libel suits against various news media, seeking damages that could total more than $288 million. If they succeeded, the cost of covering race in the South would be so prohibitive that even the wealthiest national news media would have to pack up and go home.

On March 9, 1964, the Court issued its unanimous ruling in the Sullivan case—in favor of the Times. The ruling, a milestone in expanding press freedom, rewrote many of the rules under which journalism has been practiced ever since. The key finding was that the law of libel had to yield to the First Amendment. The Court held that if the award to Sullivan were allowed to stand, the result would amount to a form of government censorship of the press, tantamount to a de facto Sedition Act, forcing every journalist to prove the truth of every statement, which would in turn lead to self-censorship. Instead, the high court said that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

To make sure that journalists had the breathing room they need to report on and editorialize about the performance of public officials, the Court determined that libel should not be used to trump press freedom. Public figures like Sullivan, who voluntarily enter the public arena by seeking office, must expect to take some criticism. Henceforth it would not be enough for a public official who wanted to win a libel suit just to prove that the published material was false and defamatory. Plaintiffs would have to meet a higher burden of proof, which the Court defined as “actual malice,” a legal term meaning that the material in dispute was published with the knowledge that it was false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

Either way, public figures would have a much harder time winning such suits. The Times—and the rest of the media—were free to go back to Alabama and wherever else the civil rights story took them. . .

For more on these issues, see the classic work by NYT journalist Tony Lewis, Make No Law. There is also a very worthwhile discussion in The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.


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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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Remembering Tony Lukas, teller of true stories

By Christopher B. Daly 

As a service to my readers, I am posting this brief life of Tony Lukas, author of “Common Ground” and many other fine works of narrative non-fiction. I wrote this for American National Biography Online, a marvelous authoritative resource for information about prominent Americans.

Tony Lukas

Tony Lukas

Lukas, J. Anthony (25 Apr. 1933-5 June 1997), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, was born Jay Anthony Lukas in New York City to Edwin Jay Lukas, a prominent civil rights lawyer, and Elizabeth Schamberg, an actress. After his mother committed suicide, young Tony was sent to the Putney School, a progressive boarding school in southwestern Vermont. In 1951 he entered Harvard College, where he promptly joined the staff of the independent student-run newspaper the Harvard Crimson. One of his classmates and a fellow editor of the paper was David Halberstam. Lukas graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1955 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and pursued graduate studies at the Free University of Berlin. From 1956 to 1958 he served in the U.S. Army, stationed in Japan, where he wrote for the Voice of the United Nations Command.In 1959 he got a job at the Baltimore Sun covering the police beat for $105 a week. He quickly made his mark and took on a variety of assignments. Seeking a foreign assignment that the Sun could not provide, he joined the New York Times in 1962. He was once again on the same staff as Halberstam, and the two ambitious rivals crisscrossed the globe on assignment. Lukas served in the paper’s metro, Washington, and UN bureaus before going abroad and filing dispatches from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, Japan, Pakistan, South Africa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and elsewhere. Eventually he joined the staff of the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Lukas won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1968 in the category of Local Investigative Specialized Reporting for a feature story he wrote for the Times about the life and murder of Linda Fitzpatrick, an affluent young woman caught up in the drug culture of New York City. Feeling out of touch with the youth of his own country after many years abroad, Lukas delved more deeply into Fitzpatrick’s story and widened the scope of his reporting to include a number of other young Americans. He later told their stories in a multiple biography titled Don’t Shoot–We Are Your Children! (1971).

During the same period, Lukas spent a year back in Cambridge as a Nieman fellow at Harvard. Returning to the Times, Lukas became a roving national correspondent based in Chicago. There, he plunged into covering the trial of the “Chicago Eight” (later reduced to the “Chicago Seven”)–political radicals accused of conspiring to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Making regular trips to the U.S. district court in Chicago, Lukas covered the trial from the fall of 1969 through the winter of 1970. During their five-month trial, the defendants cursed loudly and often in the courtroom. Since the Times style rules forbade the use of obscenities, Lukas littered his trial stories with the phrase “barnyard epithet” instead. That reporting resulted in The Barnyard Epithet and Other Obscenities: Notes on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1970).

In the early 1970s Lukas dove into freelance assignments for major magazines, including the Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Review, Esquire, Harper’s, the Nation, and the New Republic. In 1971 he became a cofounder of MOREmagazine, which engaged in a critical examination of journalistic methods and ideals. The magazine, which was widely read by journalists, lasted seven years. Lukas also helped found the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provided free legal counsel for journalists, along with other services to the profession.

His next major project was an examination of the Watergate scandal. In April 1973 the New York Times Magazineasked Lukas to look into the abuses of power committed by President Richard Nixon. That assignment grew into the book Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1976). Consumed by the story and determined to write a coherent narrative of the notoriously opaque Watergate saga, Lukas produced a nearly six-hundred-page book that cemented his reputation as a deep researcher.

For several years Lukas held a series of positions that allowed him to continue to research and write books. In 1976-1977 he was a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. The next year he was an adjunct professor at Boston University’s School of Public Communications. During 1977-1978 he took part in the Study Group on Urban School Desegregation sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge. He credited the group, especially the education scholar Diane Ravitch, with deepening his understanding of issues of equity in education. In 1978-1979 he had a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1979-1980 he was an adjunct lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In 1982 he married Linda Healey, an editor at Pantheon Books.

Starting around 1978, Lukas began the research for a book about Boston’s response to court-ordered school desegregation, usually known as “the busing crisis.” The result was his masterpiece, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985). Blending history, journalism, and sociology, Lukas created a braided narrative of three Boston families–one Yankee, one Irish, and one African American–to illuminate the forces that led to the federal court order to desegregate Boston public schools and the aftershocks of that ruling. Common Ground was hailed as a major work for its treatment of race and class in modern America, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1986 as well as the National Book Award and many other prizes.

Around this time Lukas began to suffer from depression. Still he continued to work. Lukas came out of the experience of writing the Boston book with a greater awareness of the role of class in American life. That interest drew him to a time in American history, the early twentieth century, when class warfare seemed plausible and perhaps imminent. The result was his final book, Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. A sprawling work of history and reportage, Big Trouble tells the story of the miners’ struggles in the West and the mysterious assassination of a former governor of Idaho.

On 5 June 1997, while he was in the late stages of completing Big Trouble, Lukas committed suicide in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At the time of his death, he was president of the Authors Guild. Published posthumously, Big Trouble was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1998. After his death, the J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Awards were established in his honor. The prizes, awarded annually and co-administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, recognized excellence in nonfiction that addressed a political or social concern.

Tall, rumpled, and sad-eyed, J. Anthony Lukas was a tenacious reporter and researcher, known for conducting extensive interviews and accumulating mountains of facts. He was a reporter’s reporter, famous for his epic research. Throughout his career, Lukas elevated the standards of American journalism, both in his work with professional organizations and in his masterful demonstrations of narrative nonfiction.

BibliographyLukas’s papers–including manuscripts, letters, and subject files–were donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison. His reporting can be found in the online archives of the Harvard Crimson, the New York Times, and the many magazines he wrote for. Lukas was the subject of many interviews and profiles, notably a sketch by John McPhee in the New Yorker, 30 June 1975, and an alumni note in Harvard Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1997, which includes a fond reminiscence by David Halberstam. A detailed assessment of Common Ground appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Jan. 2014. Lukas’s brother, Christopher, addressed his family’s history of suicide in his book Blue Genes (2008). Obituaries appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post, 7 June 1997, and a tribute appeared in the Baltimore Sun, 9 June 1997. Also helpful is a remembrance by the Washington Post book editor Jonathan Yardley in the Post on 9 June 1997.

Christopher B. Daly

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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