Journalism History Is Merely a List of Surprises

Article excerpt

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 authence.

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.


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 authences 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 nobid 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. …