my grand theory of journalism, pt. one

with 2 comments

I spoke last week about media/journalism at Vytautas Magnus University, in Kaunas, about 100 km west of Vilnius. Hard to say how it went: the crowd was, like all sober Lithuanian crowds, exceedingly polite. Appreciative? Attentive? Confused? Impossible to tell. I may have spoken too quickly and I may have overspiced my lecture with one too many American references — not everybody reads Huffington Post (thank god). So it wasn’t clear how much got through; maybe it was an unwitting exercise in crosscultural frustration. But my thesis was, I think, pretty neat, and a handful of attendees have asked for a transcript of sorts, so I’ve decided to write the lecture up. To qualify: I’m no historian, and the following is supported by the superficialest of research. I’m probably wrong on any number of points, and almost certainly guilty of simplification, exaggeration, reductionism, decontexualization, etc, etc. No facts, though, were abused intentionally, though doubtless it occurred. Further, I am likely, though unintentionally, continually blaspheming the holy distinction between causation and correlation. (My reluctance to research and actually back anything up, more laziness than anything else, is a good example of the editorial problems inherent in a blog. On the other hand, without a blog I probably wouldn’t write this at all. On the other other hand, maybe it’d be better if it wasn’t written at all.)

Given all that, I would love to be cut down to size, and welcome any corrections of any degree.

Journalism, like air or Lady Gaga, is one of those things that seems to be ubiquitous and eternal. Just always was, and very is. We don’t give it much thought, and as a study it tends to collapse into practice — journalists don’t study the philosophy of information-dissemination any more than tailors study the metaphysics of style. Or, at least, they haven’t until recently: Everyone now knows about the precariousness of journalism’s very future, the impending collapse of traditional media, the evils/glories of new media, what Twitter and Facebook and Google might or might not mean to journalism. For the first time in a long while, probably since the inception and popularization of radio, journalism’s in an evident state of chaotic reassembly. This, unlike most historical goings-on within the annoyingly small journalistic universe, is actually newsworthy, so they’re reporting it. The New York Times on the New York Times’s financial woes: awesomely meta. The beast is self-aware, and it’s obsessed with itself. Seemingly every magazine, newspaper, and website can’t dedicate enough space to the ‘future of journalism’ or whatnot.

The point is that, at least in my generation, the hoi polloi have never had to think critically of journalism, to deconstruct its mechanics, to mine its history for lessons and instructions. But, if the situation’s as dire as we’re being told, then some sort of understanding might be a little bit urgent. Because if nothing else, eulogies without appreciation are silly, not to mention boring.

I’m not going to explain journalism. I don’t want to, I don’t know how to, and I can’t. I will, however, attempt a structure of the phenomenon of journalism. I’m overtly borrowing scientific terminology here — how it works is my operative question, not what it is. The Gas Laws, for instance, explain, via the relationships and interactions of properties, how gas functions. The question ‘what is gas’ is a question of definition, outside the immediate purveyance and goals of the respective laws. Ditto for ‘what is journalism.’ The analogy only goes so far: journalism isn’t a science, and any offered explanation/theory is more intuition than description, really; but I see no reason why that can’t be just as helpful, or at least interesting. So to round out my qualifying intro, what I’m trying to do is demarcate the functions of journalism, highlight if not detail its mechanics, with the hubristic aim of making the process of change that much more transparent.

I’ll boldly define journalism as encompassing three separate but highly interdependent and porous spheres: Delivery, Content, and Consumption. Delivery is the medium, more or less — the physical (or virtual) material and process that gets the content to the reader. Content is the actual journalistic material, and includes all those intangibles like size, tone, format. Consumption is a bit more abstract, though not necessarily more complicated — it’s the Audience, and all her foibles: how and when she reads, her attention span, expectations, etc. I’ll liberally employ examples throughout, so if it’s not yet clear — and I don’t think it is yet — it’ll hopefully be soon.

Here’s my thesis. The history of journalism — that is, the history of major changes within journalism — can be broken down as a sort of process: a new technology (either external or internal) comes along and impacts (by design or accident) one of the three spheres, which affects in ways usually unforeseen the other two, and bango — a ‘new’ journalism emerges.

Let’s start from the beginning. Journalism as a term/concept only really comes into existence with the advent of the newspaper, which in any recognizable form pops up in early 18th century. These papers are mainly British exports; and even the colonies’ papers pretty much report exclusively on London politics and the like. Not local (not until later at least, and even then the emphasis was decidedly Imperial), and usually not recent. But significantly, a proto-journalistic conscience emerges; the care and demand for properly-reported current events is born. The very idea of reportage, really. I stake this as my starting point, hopefully not too arbitrarily.

The Industrial Revolution, eponymously enough, revolutionized the industry: each of the two spankin’ new presses that the London Times purchased was capable of 1100 impressions an hour, instead of just a fraction of that. This was in 1814. Fierce competition ensured that by mid-century every newspaper of note was using the new presses, which had by then evolved the capability to churn out tens of thousands of papers an hour. And all of a sudden there were a lot of newspapers: more than 2500 in 1850, compared to about 350 in 1814. Delivery — in my appointed terminology, though also in its traditional, technical sense — then, underwent an unprecedented transformation: more newspapers (more news, more journalism) were going to more people than ever before. This was probably the greatest period of growth in journalism’s history.

This isn’t the only major technological change within Delivery’s sphere. The Post Office approved a special newspaper rate in 1851, which had obvious and beneficial repercussions. The telegraph, invented ~1830, went mainstream around this time, too, which made bureaus and long-distance reporting feasible, and then mandatory for any big paper. Somebody figured out how to print on both sides of the page, an innovation that, as trivial as it sounds, effectively doubled news-space (and also, and here’s a hint to where I’m going, doubled the news itself, and all that implies). And in 1830, Transcript, the first respectable Penny Press newspaper, was published in Boston. Newspapers had been traditionally priced at 6 cents until a publisher realized that the poorer, a class which by and large included the recent crashing waves of immigrants, was a lucrative, untapped market, and priced their newspaper at a penny — hence Penny Press — which quickly became the standard. This had profound effects. While newspapers weren’t exactly elitist, they were generally higher-class, and the news and tone catered to their (paying) audience. (Remember, advertising wasn’t yet a dependable source of revenue.) Widespread Delivery meant much wider interests; sports and style and gossip and really the entire idea of different sections ate into politics’s news monopoly. Content (again, in my terminology) shifts to reflect the new Delivery.

So to present my oversimplified point: Delivery very quickly becomes big, fast, and mainstream. Now, journalism needs a news story to match its appetite, a stage to showcase its newfound technology and centrality, a scoop big enough and important enough to properly utilize the gleaming journalism infrastructure.

Enter the Civil War.

[Part two TK.]


Written by menachemkaiser

15 November at 07:00

Posted in rants

2 Responses

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  1. did journalism really only emerge in the english-speaking world? that’s what you seem to suggest. i don’t know the ansewr to this, i’m just pointing out that your focus on the anglo-american evolution of news might not be exactly what lithuanians want to hear about… what was happening in europe at the same time?


    16 November at 17:48

  2. Mature response: No, you’re right — I’m occidentally focused here. But… I’m really starting with the Industrial Revolution, which was absolutely an Anglo-American event. (Right? I’m Canadian — I’ll never be entirely comfortable with American history.) So let’s assume that up until those giant presses, it was fairly similar in Europe. Good point, in any case.

    Immature response: America rules!


    16 November at 23:00

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