Symptoms of Underlying Stress in Journalism

By McManus, John | Nieman Reports, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Symptoms of Underlying Stress in Journalism


McManus, John, Nieman Reports


Punditry and attitude are more symptoms than causes of changes in American journalism. Think of them as signs of stress, foreshocks, as more powerful forces interact under the surface due to transformations in the technology of news distribution and, with this, the economics of journalism.

Technological innovations that began 150 years ago are what shaped today's relatively impartial mainstream journalism. The steam-powered press and the telegraph ended the era of the partisan political press--a period when news was largely punditry, enabling a truly mass media by lowering production costs. From the mid-1800's until the 1980's, technology and economics combined to apply a centripetal force on news to create a more uniform product designed to appeal to mass tastes.

But as business--with the capital to purchase and operate the press--became the primary producer of news, its purpose changed from political persuasion to selling. Partisanship fell from favor because it limited the customer base. The telegraph also fostered neutral "bare facts" reporting. Many newspapers could use the same wire story if it were written from no obvious point of view. In the 20th century, mass advertising enforced an editorial environment that offended no potential customers. Once newspapers discovered Wall Street in the 1960% chain ownership spread like a sniffle in a daycare center. The product of one MBA-managed newsroom became hard to distinguish from another.

Now cable and satellite television transmission and the Internet are shifting the ground again and fracturing the mass audience into interest groups. As bloggers demonstrate, one can reach a million households today without working for a media corporation. Now technology and economics are beginning to exert a centrifugal force on news, this time pulling it apart into niche markets.

As a result, the best days of the leading news providers of the centripetal era--metro newspapers and televised news--are probably either passing or past. But that doesn't necessarily mean the best journalism is behind us, only that we are entering a bumpy transition period.

Network newscasts have lost almost two-thirds of the audience share they drew 30 years ago. Newspaper penetration continues to fall. Their most profitable pages, the classified ads, are moving to the Web. Big-box retailers like Costco don't advertise like traditional department stores. At the same time the Faustian bargain news corporations made with Wall Street is coming due. To stoke their stock prices, many news firms are hollowing out newsrooms. …

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