On Journalism: Part I

Even though I happen to attend business school, English has been a passion of mine for as long as I can possibly remember.  My family’s photo collection provides some basis for this—I’ve seen tens of photos of myself engrossed in a book when I was younger, before I even started formal schooling.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten an even greater appreciation for English, as both a language and an obsession, to the point that it was close to being a borderline obsession.  I text with proper grammar and criticize those that don’t.  I won English Student of the Quarter in high school and was more excited than I had been to score a big win over a rival in soccer.  I often ask, somewhat jokingly, somewhat not, if I can help my mom grade her English student’s papers (yes, I know I’m weird).  This post about a more refined craft that I love equally as much as the more general subject—journalism.

I was first introduced to the world of journalism in my sophomore year of high school.  I was interested in joining our school’s newsmagazine, the Devils’ Advocate, but had missed the “try-out” process the previous year.  However, I was fortunate enough to have a friend on staff, and she referred me to the faculty advisor of the magazine.  I ended up joining the online staff, where I learned the finer points of the craft, before eventually joining the more prominent print magazine as a staff writer, a position I was lucky enough to hold for two years.  That first year, I was surrounded by some incredibly dedicated, and incredibly talented, writers and researchers, passionate and detail-oriented editors, and creative design staff, and this phenomenal combination led us to receive the prestigious Pacemaker award for our work.  Since then, though, the Advocate, and many other journalistic sources throughout the country, have been stricken with issues that could leave their futures in jeopardy.

Before delving into those problems, though, it’s worth doing a brief overview of how things came to be as they are today.  Formal journalism as we know it has been in practice since before the United States even existed.  The longest running newspaper in the country, The New Hampshire Gazette, has been in operation since 1756 (!!), and the longest running daily paper, The Hartford Courant, has been in circulation since 1764.  There were even papers that dated back to the early 18th century.  Up until that time, people in the US found out their news through word of mouth, letters, or almanacs, which were sometimes not factually based and not published on a very regular basis.  The introduction of newspapers changed all of that, and people began to rely on daily papers to catch up on their local news, and also to gain insight from noted opinions columnists.  Their ascension to fixtures of public domain was rapid, as they became immensely influential in the development of the American Revolution; one of the most famous of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, used the paper that he owned and published, the Pennsylvania Gazette, to further the initiatives of the revolutionaries, and many other papers supported those rebelling against the English.  As the influence of papers grew, so did their numbers; when George Washington took office in 1789, there were 92 daily papers in operation in the United States.  20 years later, that number had almost quadrupled, to 376, and that number quadrupled, to roughly 1200, by 1835.  The specialization of papers increased, as well; newspapers on a variety of subjects, such as business, foreign affairs, and even farming, materialized, as did papers from specialty groups, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s famous Liberator.

Newspapers remained the main source of journalism for people throughout the 19th century, and for the first 20 years of the 20th century; in fact, it was not uncommon for any one person to purchase, and read, three, four, or five newspapers every single day.  Around 1920, though, journalism as we know it was altered forever through the use of the radio as a broadcasting medium.  People could get up-to-the-minute news from the comfort of their own homes, and once they had a radio, the news was, essentially, free.  Newspapers continued to be the most popular medium for traditional journalism, but radio was slowly eating away at their slice of the pie, vocalizing the news that publishers had to work incredibly hard to get out on paper.  FM radio was established in the US around 1935, becoming more and more popular as the technology improved, and that same year, CBS hired Edward Murrow as its “director of talks,” headlining a series of news bits over CBS’s national airwaves while informing, and inspiring, hundreds of thousands of people.  As the medium spread more and more across the country, broadcast journalism, as it came to be known, became far more spontaneous than print mediums ever could.  It was much harder to hold back one’s opinions when constantly broadcasting, so it was in this time that journalism started to become more blatantly partisan.

Just as radio started to take off, though, a new medium for journalism emerged—the television.  In 1940, the famous radio broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, anchored the first ever live telecast of a political event, the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, an event that thrust the popularity of the television into the public spotlight.  Thomas was also the man that was the host of the first ever regularly scheduled television-news broadcasts 10 years later, in 1950.  Within the next few years, the major radio communications providers of the time, NBC and CBS, worked hard to establish daily news broadcasts in locales throughout the country.  The fact that these broadcast journalists could not only be heard, as they could be on radio, but also seen live, rocketed some of the more well-known broadcasters, such as the legendary Walter Cronkite, into superstardom.  ABC and WGN entered the television industry shortly after their rivals, racing to establish news agencies in every major city.  As more and more networks were created, the partisanship of journalism continued to increase; the visibility of broadcast journalists allowed people to put words to a face, and those journalists often used that to their advantage, using their positions of prominence to give their views on current events.  This partisanship was what led to the creation of more targeted news stations, such as Fox News and CNN.

While there is, of course, much, much more detail to go into, the evolution of the mediums discussed above are enough to connect the state of journalism today.  The field is extraordinarily large, with journalists opting to work for a satellite television station, on digital radio, or podcast, platforms, or even glorified blogs, instead of the traditional, yet still fully functioning, mediums.  However, with the contentiousness surrounding our country’s recent election cycle, and the man that it elected, Donald Trump, journalism, as an industry, has been under fire more than it has been in recent memory, and perhaps ever.  The number of people with newspaper subscriptions has decreased, and the trust levels that people have in those papers is shockingly low for publications that pride themselves on integrity.  Immense partisanship, immense bias, is not only to be expected, but is also readily obviously slanted, to be either conservative or liberal, especially over radio, where pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken reign supreme.  Claims of “fake news” are running rampant.  The President himself has lambasted the media for its coverage of him, while CNN president Jeff Zucker has admitted that the way that they handled Trump and his campaign may have contributed to him being viewed more favorably across the country.  This isn’t a post where I’m interested in delving into politics, about who is “right” and “wrong”—but I am interested in making clear that there is a real problem with the direction that the journalism industry is headed.

Come back on Tuesday to read Part II!

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: On Journalism: Part II | Kevin J. Gaffney

  2. Pingback: On Journalism: Part III | Kevin J. Gaffney

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