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Home > Publications > Quill > Journalism history is merely a list of surprises


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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Journalism history is merely a list of surprises

Philip Meyer

The Society of Professional Journalists was founded as Sigma Delta Chi in 1909, one year after Henry Ford produced the first Model T -- the product that kicked the Industrial Age into high gear with interchangeable parts and an assembly line. No one knew it at the time, but that event symbolized the great wave of technological change that would govern our means of practicing journalism.

The Bureau of the Census classified newspaper publishing as a manufacturing industry. Its parallels with automobile production seemed more obvious then. Both involved large capital investment in machinery to make a physical product. Both benefited from economies of scale, which meant that a single product had to be designed to meet the needs of the largest feasible number of consumers. And mass production needed mass media to sell its output.

While Henry Ford’s market was national, newspapers were constrained by their ability to ship their product to users before the news went stale. That led to some interesting circulation patterns. For example, as recently as 1951, the Topeka Daily Capital covered not only its immediate region in northeastern Kansas, but also the northern tiers of Kansas counties all the way west to the Colorado line. That was because the Union Pacific had an overnight train that could accept bundles from the state edition’s 9 p.m. press run and drop them off on its long westward journey.

Early in the century, the economics of publishing allowed some daily print competition in large and medium-size markets. But the daily newspaper still evolved into a smorgasbord of content, much aimed at specialized interests. Some editors I knew in mid-century imagined that the typical reader started at page one and read dutifully through all the pages in numerical order. When market research became fashionable, they learned differently. Each reader had his or her own idiosyncratic pattern, some starting with the comics, some the sports page, some with their favorite columnist. The trick was to choose the collection of specialized items that would maximize the newspaper’s utility across the entire audience.

It took some time for this insight to soak in. At first, editors treated market research as a referendum and tried dropping the least-read features. But an editor who dropped the crossword puzzle, because only 8 percent used it, quickly learned that for that segment, the crossword was the main, if not only, reason for buying the paper. Test-dropping, and then counting the screams, was an early form of market research.

The first challenge to the monopoly of print came early in the life of SPJ, which had been founded as an honorary fraternity but quickly got practical, changing its designation to “professional fraternity” in 1916. That opened the way for professional chapters in 1921. (It would not become SPJ, the Society of Professional Journalists, until 1973.)

In those early years, print, silent movies and billboards were the only mass media. Newspapers flourished and hit their peak in household penetration in 1922. In that year, 130 newspapers were sold for every 100 households.

Into the airwaves

Why 1922? In November 1920, the Pittsburgh Post supplied election results to a tiny makeshift station that had just been licensed as KDKA. And about a thousand listeners learned, without waiting for the newspaper to be printed, that Warren G. Harding would be the next president of the United States. Newspaper audiences still grew after that, but as a function of growing population, not as a proportion of that population.

Harding’s election led to another milestone for journalism in general and SPJ in particular. His secretary of the interior, Albert B. Fall, was convicted of taking a bribe in exchange for a no-bid contract to exploit government oil reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming. The investigation was triggered by a Wall Street Journal exclusive in 1920, and, in 1929, Fall became the first Cabinet member to go to prison. All of the good reporting led to a national concern for morality in public life, and journalists turned this concern inward. SPJ adopted its first code of ethics in 1926. (Its second code corresponded with another government scandal, Watergate, in 1973.)

Radio’s advantage was presenting news in real time, like when Franklin D. Roosevelt used it to address the public directly with his “fireside chats” from 1933 to 1944. The immediacy of radio was demonstrated by Herb Morrison’s recorded description of the crash of the airship Hindenburg at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in 1937. It was the credibility of radio that made Orson Welles’ 1938 “The War of the Worlds” seem real to enough people — especially those who tuned in too late to hear the introduction — to cause a nationwide panic. And Edward R. Murrow brought World War II into America’s living rooms with his broadcasts from London while it was being bombed.

Radio was also pop-ular as an entertainment medium, and it competed so success-fully for the public’s time that when it peaked, in the late 1940s, it was getting 16 percent of national advertising revenue.

Along came television

Television became the next new medium, and by 1955, 64 percent of households had a TV. The limited number of air channels supported the smorgasbord model of content, but then opening the ultra-high-frequency spectrum (UHF) increased the number of channels and allowed some specialization.

I was an accidental UHF pioneer while serving in the U.S. Navy in Little Creek, Va. One of my jobs as a Navy journalist was to create programming for public service time at a new station with hours to fill and not much of an audience because so few sets could receive it.

Color television had the same problem. Stations had to start broadcasting long before the number of receivers reached a significant number just to prime the pump. While reporting for the Topeka Daily Capital in 1955, I discovered that the newspaper-owned station, WIBW, was broadcasting in color and wrote a story about it. The story was spiked at the insistence of the advertising department. Local stores still had a large inventory of obsolescent black-and-white sets and needed naïve consumers to buy them.

Television cost newspapers a good deal in terms of national advertising, which was mostly image advertising. But newspapers were still the better medium for advertising that required detailed information: classifieds, grocery store sales and the diverse content of department stores.

And newspapers proved to be useful training grounds for the new breed of broadcast journalists. Some of the best, including Walter Cronkite, had started at newspapers.

After World War II, FM increased the number of radio channels and permitted more specialization.

The arrival of cable and satellite television multiplied the number of channels again. Journalism’s business model began the long evolution from serving a mass audience to serving a great variety of specialized audiences. Industrial production, also driven by technology, became decentralized and served specialized markets through boutique-type stores that gradually edged out the downtown department stores. The suburban big-box stores that replaced them were specialty stores, and reaching their customers through a mass medium was not as efficient.

None of the new media drove out the old

Despite our fears at the time, none of these new media drove out the old. The older media survived by demassifying, i.e. seeking out and serving specialized niches. Jack Benny had been the most popular radio entertainer of the 1940s because he appealed to everyone, and families everywhere would gather around the radio at Sunday evening meal time. After television, radio stations broke up into a variety of specialized formats: liberal talk, conservative talk, all news, and more categories of country and rock music than we could have imagined in earlier decades.

Magazines became more specialized. Life magazine lost advertising and went out of business as a weekly in 1972. It had been created in 1936 to display the kind of photo-journalism that high-speed films could enable.

After World War II, the relative success of magazines was inverse to their frequency: monthlies did better than weeklies, and quarterly publications did even better — the lower the frequency, the more specialized the audience. This trend toward specialization created a market for specialized journalists. The old maxim, “A good reporter is good anywhere,” was no longer as convincing.

The other salient postwar development was the lowering of barriers to women in journalism. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique” triggered organized campaigns to remove social and political barriers to female participation in the work force. SPJ began admitting women in 1969, and Jean Otto, in 1979, was the first female elected president. The 2002 Indiana University American Journalist survey found that, for the first time, women were a majority among new journalists, those with five years of experience or less. They were still, however, underrepresented at the managerial level.

Enter the Internet

In the late 1990s, development of the Internet delivered a serious blow to mass-audience business models. News as the product of mass production no longer seems sustainable now that it is feasible to create content for an audience of one. This intense specialization was good for advertisers. For example, the creators of Google figured out a way to divine users’ interests by the Web sites they looked at or key words found in their e-mail messages so that advertising messages could be selected accordingly. This strategy made advertising not only efficient but accountable. The number of clicks was recorded, and the advertisers paid on that basis.

(The system is not perfect. My wife received an e-mail advising that her new purse was arriving by UPS. The message was accompanied by click-on ads for a different kind of UPS: uninterruptible power systems.)

Newspapers’ last surviving specialty, classified advertising — which accounted for 40 percent of their ad revenue by 2000, up from 18 percent in 1950 — was undermined by Craigslist and other low-cost or free classified ad Web sites. If newspapers follow the path of other technology-compromised media, they will have to specialize. One viable specialty ought to be information about local public affairs for news junkies. Focusing on that group makes sense. As media economist Robert Picard has said, people who don’t care about news have already left.

What about the future?

I believe there will be room for other kinds of specialized newspapers. Sports and business sections will be broken out and sold separately, like chicken parts at the grocery store. That will make print advertising a more efficient buy than it has been because the advertiser won’t have to pay for newsprint that goes unread. Community newspapers, specialized by definition, will continue to do relatively well.

A paradoxical development is under way, and that is the trend toward less specialization in the various crafts of journalism. In the 1950s, I was considered a “combination man” because I could shoot pictures with a 4-by-5 Speed Graphic as well as write. We were useful but rare.

Now reporters are increasingly expected to come back from an assignment with notes, audio and visual recordings, both still and moving, and then upload and edit them in a variety of media forms. Where that’s going, I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure that SPJ’s next 100 years will continue to bring the unexpected.

As Kurt Vonnegut has said, “History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.”

Philip Meyer, a 2005 Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for journalism research, is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s the author of numerous books, including the heralded “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age” and “Precision Journalism.”

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