Journalism and News: Untangling Their Histories

Here’s my talk to the Joint Journalism Historians Conference in New York yesterday. It contains some ideas I’m working on for my book on the future of journalism.  As a blog post it is rather long. So here is a summary:

  • Journalists and those who think about their work too often confuse journalism and news.
  • We don’t even have a good definition of journalism. (I hazard one at the end of this talk.)
  • Too often journalism is seen as synonymous with the gathering and dissemination of news.
  • This, however, is a view of journalism that comes from one anomalous period in the history of journalism: the period of mass circulation, when it was for the first and, perhaps, the last time in human history possible to make a big business out of selling news.
  • News gathering and dissemination were not seen as the primary purposes of “the press” in the decades before and after the founding of the United States.
  • That is a narrow view of journalism’s purposes and one that leaves the field ill prepared for the future.
  • Because the period of mass circulation is ending. News is once again being given away for free. The big business of gathering and disseminating news looks to be over.
  • Journalists will have to find something new to sell.
  • My suggestion is that their most salable product will be interpretation. “Wisdom journalism,” I call it.

I have something rather embarrassing to say about our discipline: The two main subjects we talk about as journalism scholars, journalism instructors, journalism historians are journalism and news – and we often fail distinguish between them and fail to understand their relationship.

Take, for example, this crisis we seem to be undergoing. We speak of a “crisis in journalism” or a “crisis for news” – as if the two were interchangeable. I am going to argue that they very definitely are not.

We speak of the “future of journalism” and the “future of news” as if they shared the same future. I have been arguing that they don’t – although my argument on the “future of journalism” was then included in a collection on the “future of news.”

My perspective here will be in large part historical. However, I believe this relationship has significant implications for the future of journalism (not news).

This is a subject I’ve written about a few times and am doing a book on. What I want to do in this talk is outline my thesis. And as I do that, I want to go over with you a couple of the problems I am having with it.

My argument begins by noting how often we take for granted a view of journalism as almost entirely dependent on the gathering and dissemination of information.

Here is Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times: “By quality journalism I mean the kind that involves experienced reporters going places, bearing witness, digging into records, developing sources, checking and double-checking….to supply you with the information you need to be an engaged citizen.”

For most of human history, of course, there were no such reporters. There was no such thing as what Keller calls “quality journalism.”

There was, however, news – plenty of it. It was exchanged for free. And it was exchanged by, more or less, everyone – experienced and inexperienced, careful and sloppy.

I have never seen evidence of a society in which people did not tell and hear news openly, enthusiastically, aggressively, often urgently. For good reason: groups that exchanged news of threats and opportunities energetically would seem to have been more likely to survive.

History does offer some intriguing examples of individuals who specialized in the exchange of news, starting with the messengers and criers who seem to have been part of many traditional societies and including the first printed newspapers which begin to appear in Europe early in the 17th century.

Many societies have, obviously, devoted resources to facilitating the exchange of news. Some individuals found a place in their societies as news distributors. Some even supported themselves doing that.

The words “journalism” or “journalist” were not used in their current meaning until – as I understand it – the eighteenth century in France and the nineteenth century in England and America. But might these early efforts qualify as journalism? Does journalism begin somewhere on that list?

And this is where my project achieves its first problem and I recently suffered some embarrassment:

When I presented these thoughts last semester up at Columbia before some PhD students and faculty there. It was noted, correctly alas, that my terms were not well defined.

I think I have a pretty decent definition of news: “new information about a subject of some public interest that is shared with some portion of the public.”

But how do you define journalism?

When confronted on this question up at Columbia, I had recourse to the last resort of the trapped scholar: I turned the question on them: how would you define it? The folks at Columbia had some interesting ideas, but no one in the room had a solid definition. Isn’t this a little strange? All of us journalism professors without a definition of what journalism is.

I’ve had John Sillings, a wonderful undergraduate researcher, begin looking into it:

Here’s Jim Carey, as paraphrased by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel: “Perhaps in the end journalism simply means carrying on and amplifying the conversation of people themselves.” Any conversation? And who is doing the carrying on and amplifying?

Kovach and Rosenstiel are fonder of the definition proposed by Jack Fuller, former president of the Tribune Company, back when it was a decent, solvent company. Fuller: “The central purpose of journalism is to tell the truth so that people will have the information they need to be sovereign.” That is a purpose of journalism (there are certainly others). But I fear it is not a definition of journalism.

John Sillings found another definition in a book out of Prague in 1978, by Vladimir Hudec. I like this definition somewhat better, although it is a little cumbersome. Here’s how it begins: “Under the term journalism we understand collections of pieces of work either written or printed, spoken or pictorial…which in a documentary way depict topical social reality….” One problem: Hudec seems to be defining journalism as that which manages to look like journalism and appears in places where we expect to see journalism.

This is a question with legal implications. Too strict a definition a definition of “journalist” could constrict first amendment liberties. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, consequently, came up with a very broad definition in 1987, when considering shield law protections: “an intent to…disseminate information to the public.” Quite broad indeed. It might include novelists and advertisers as well as Diane Sawyer and Ezra Klein.

The Ninth Circuit was a bit more explicit: “the critical question for deciding whether a person may invoke the journalists’ privilege is whether she is gathering news for dissemination to the public.”

What I like best about that definition is that it means our confusion and embarrassment are well shared. For the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has come up with a definition of journalism that, in my view, would exclude much of the journalism of the decades before and after the First Amendment was written.

Here’s a quote from Ben Franklin in 1731 that I like: “the Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Men’s Opinions, most things that are printed tending to promote some or oppose others….”

The “business of printing” – writing for, editing and printing newspapers he means – was not primarily the exchange of news.

Let me emphasize this: what we would call “journalism” did not have much to do, in the decades before and after this country was founded, with Keller’s “reporters going places, bearing witness, digging into records, developing sources, checking and double-checking.”

In Franklin’s day, in Jefferson’s day, in Madison’s day such reporters simply did not exist. The variety of “quality journalism” Bill Keller insists is needed “to supply you with the information you need to be an engaged citizen” did not exist in the decades when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written and this country was founded.

James Madison, of course, was very alert to how important “a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people” is “to liberty.” But his explanation for it has very little to do with anyone going places, bearing witness, digging into records or developing sources. His argument for the value of newspapers has little to do with the gathering or dissemination of news. Instead, Madison writes, that a free press is of value because it “facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments” – uh, opinions.

Neither the Ninth Circuit nor Bill Keller says anything about opinions, sentiments or their cousins.

You can watch people’s understandings of the relationship between newspapers and news begin to change in the 19th century.

The word “journalism” is now finally beginning to be used in English in its modern sense. It is defined 1833, in its first English usage according to the OED, (in an article translated from French) as “the intercommunication of opinion and intelligence.”

Journalism, then, was beginning to be seen as a mixing of sentiments and news. There wasn’t much doubt which was the more respected half – the “quality” half – of this mix or “intercommunication”:

In an 1869 magazine article on journalism, the American essayist Richard Grant White writes: “Of the two branches of journalism, which are the gathering and the publication of news and the discussion and explanation of the events thus made public, the former is the more essential, the latter the more important.”

White ends up dismissing the former occupation, “essential” as it may be, as “almost purely mercantile and clerical.”

But then the world enters an odd period. A series of new technologies arrive: mechanical – the steam press, the rotary press, the linotype machine – and electronic – the telegraph, radio, television.

These technologies share a strength: they are remarkably good at moving news – fast, far, to large numbers of people.

But they also share limitations: They are expensive. Only fairly large businesses can afford them. And, in part because of that, they are one-way. The communication, as our Internet gurus like to point out, is all one to many – mass communication.

The result – for the first time in human history and perhaps the last: The exchange of news became a professional sport.

The result – for the first time in human history and perhaps the last: It became possible to make a business out of the exchange of news. News could be made to move fast enough, far enough and in enough copies so that it could for the first time be mass-produced and sold – at a good profit.

And since there was so much money to be made in “the gathering and the publication of news” – what White called the “almost purely mercantile and clerical” side of journalism – it began to take over journalism.

This odd period when it was possible to make a business out of the exchange of news – the period when all those powerful means of finding and disseminating news were expensive and controlled by large businesses – lasted about a century and a half.

It was the period in which Bill Keller and many others of us learned journalism. It was the period in which most of our ideas about journalism were formed.

That is why many still confuse journalism with news.

But this period was an anomaly, and it has ended.

In the last couple of decades our machines for moving and disseminating news fast, far and to many have fallen in price to the point where masses of us can now employ them.

The exchange of news is now once again an activity in which amateurs can engage.

And news – even the fastest news from the farthest away – now once again comes free – as free as it once was in a marketplace or at a crossroads.

News is not facing a crisis – there’s more of it than ever before, moving faster, coming from all over:

  • It comes on twitter and on blogs.
  • It comes live and unmediated on cable and on YouTube.
  • We see the press conference, and then the transcript of the press conference and then the Associated Press or Reuters stories on the press conference as quickly as they see it in the New York Times newsroom.

Often — in other words — we can bear witness ourselves at home

Bill Keller’s witness bearers may occasionally get themselves someplace that no one with a video camera or a twitter account has gotten to.

They may do some truly useful investigating. I certainly don’t want that to stop.

Bill Keller’s “experienced reporters” may be able to obtain an extra quote and produce a more thorough account.

They may occasionally manage to obtain – or be handed – an exclusive.

But lots of Internet journalists are pretty smart and they get some exclusives and even do some investigations. And most of us know how to find plenty of bloggers and tweeters who really don’t make many mistakes and when they do correct themselves or are corrected even faster than traditional journalists.

New York Times Front PageSo for the most part the news the New York Times gets – its take this morning on the earthquake in Japan, for example –is readily available faster, for free and with rather high quality elsewhere.

Which means journalists – if they want to earn a living – are going to have to find something else to sell besides news

This is the crisis. It is a crisis for journalism.

And it means that journalists – except maybe for those who work for organizations like the AP and Reuters – have to lose the idea that their role is mostly to gather and disseminate news.

And the answer to what they might sell besides news – not a perfect answer, I understand – can be found in the other branch, the more respected branch of journalism, as defined by Richard Grant White in 1869: “the discussion and explanation of…events.”

So I am arguing that now that news is once again free journalists are going to have to sell interpretations of that news. They are going to have to provide an interesting take on events.

I call it “wisdom journalism.”

Journalism is going to have to be once again untangled from news.

That is my thesis.

But here I have another problem, also at least in part definitional: and that is that it is hard to explain exactly I mean by “interpretation.”

  • What is the difference between “interpretation” and “analysis”?
  • Where does wise interpretation end and ranting and raving begin?
  • Is it possible to come up with a definition of “interpretation” or “wisdom journalism” that distinguishes it, in some way, from all the shrill, unenlightening, prejudice-confirming verbiage that passes for commentary on some cable-news programs and radio talk shows?
  • What about “objectivity”?
  • Are there categories of opinion – some enlightening and some not, or just some opinions we like and some we don’t like?

We have spent a lot of time in journalism departments categorizing the different types of news stories. Where is a typology of interpretation?

And I have one additional problem that I want to kvetch about with you: some people (difficult as this may be for you to believe) hear what I am saying and insist that it is absurd:

Free our better journalists from responsibility for gathering and disseminating news? Who then is going to tell us what is going on:

  • Blogging high school students?
  • Public relations people?
  • Glenn Beck?
  • Who will ask the tough questions?
  • Who will do the digging?
  • Who will, indeed, bear witness?

Many – particularly many professional journalists – can’t imagine a news ecology that is not actively cultivated, supervised, managed by professional journalists. Some can’t imagine such an ecology not managed by newspaper journalists.

On the other hand – and I am still kvetching — some point out, correctly for the most part. that what I am calling for already exists, is obvious.

The New York Times – they note or should note – already includes much more interpretation and much less stenographic reporting than it did twenty, ten or even five years ago. And the Web is full of interpretation.

My response is that I am not so much arguing for something revolutionary as arguing against reactionary understandings – such as those of Bill Keller or the Ninth Circuit – understandings that take an view of journalism based on one period in the history of journalism, a period that is ending, and assume that that is all journalism might ever be.

Here’s my first stab at a definition of journalism: Journalism is the activity of collecting, presenting, interpreting or commenting upon the news for some portion of the public.”

The Ninth Circuit will has to realize that it is protecting the right to interpret and even comment upon the news, not just to gathering and disseminating it.

The New York Times has to realize that that its business today and tomorrow – probably its primary business – is interpreting not just bearing witness.

  • That may mean assigning people capable of interpreting the news to each of the major news stories of the day.
  • That may mean hiring very different kinds of journalists: more people like Nate Silver or Paul Krugman, fewer Jimmy Olsens and Lois Lanes.

We all have to realize that while journalism is about news, it is much more than just a means for collecting and distributing news.

About Mitchell Stephens

Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism in the Carter Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of "Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World" (Palgrave Macmillan), "Beyond News: The Future of Journalism" (Columbia University Press) and "Journalism Unbound: New Approaches to Writing and Reporting" (Oxford University Press). He also wrote "A History of News" (Viking, Penguin, Oxford) and "the rise of the image the fall of the word" (Oxford), along with two widely used journalism textbooks.
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