John Nerone

2Journalism history

Abstract: A quick survey of the history of scholarly work on journalism history underscores the difference between the history of news – which is a long history, in which every human society can claim some part – and the history of journalism, which is a much shorter and more defined history. News acquired a normative role in democracies, first as a factor in the operation of public spheres, then as a resource for partisan competition in mass electoral democracies. The development of news technologies interacted with market factors to advance the commoditization and then mass production of news. Journalism, understood as a set of professional standards and practices, was produced at a moment during the industrialization of news systems, and might be seen originally as an explanation and legitimation of the business of news in modern capitalist societies, an ideology that spread globally along with western military power, commerce, wire services, and news organizations. But western professional journalism has long been challenged by other journalisms, including the journalisms of local, religious, social, and political movements and counterhegemonic journalisms associated with developing countries and the socialist bloc. By the late 20th century, journalism was also challenged by the postmodern moment and the rise of competition in media channels, intensified by the emergence of digital media.

Keywords: Democracy, digital media, industrialization, news, professionalism, public sphere, telegraph, wire services

Work on the history of news media and news organizations has two genealogies, an internal one and an external one. The first histories were written by people who worked in the news – printers, reporters, and correspondents, who told their own stories and recounted the ways the business operated in their times. These “original histories” formed the raw material of the first scholarly histories, which were usually written as teaching instruments for courses in journalism in colleges and universities, which had been established as components of professionalization projects in various countries dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Josephi 2009). At around the same time, sociologists began to examine the press as a political institution, developing a critical history that looked at news as an element in the formation of parties, crowds, or publics (Hardt 2001).

Both of these genealogies emphasized the place of the press in the life of the polity, and downplayed its more demotic aspects. At the same time, both realized the importance of the business models that supported news organizations. Both saw a natural evolution of the press from a dependent arm of organized politics to a market-based agency of relatively autonomous information gathering and dissemination.

It is only in retrospect that early histories can be called “journalism histories”. Until the 20th century, these histories usually referred to their subject as “the press” or “newspapers” and not “journalism”, and the protagonists of these accounts were “reporters” or “correspondents” or “editors” and not “journalists”. Writing on the history of news began to refer specifically to the history of journalism in the last quarter of the 19th century, and the term “journalism history” was applied to the field sometime after 1920. The first really scholarly journalism histories in the US were written partly as textbooks for journalism curricula (Bleyer 1927; Mott 1941). These accounts emphasized the emergence of journalism as an independent profession, and seemed to later, more critical scholars in the 1970s and beyond as “whiggish” or “progressive”, and perhaps too congratulatory (Carey 1974; McKerns 1977). Subsequent scholarship interrogated the social history of journalism (Schudson 1978) and critiqued its relationship to markets and capital (Chalaby 1998).

Changes in nomenclature signify institutional changes in the news environment. “Journalism” is a term that carries a normative charge that “news” or “press” lacks. Journalism is an ism, like liberalism or Catholicism, in that it defines itself according to a set of standards and ideals. News is something every society produces, but only some of it can be called journalism; furthermore, within journalism, distinctions are constantly being made between better and worse practices.

Before people talked about “journalism”, there were people who were identified as “journalists”. A journalist was originally someone who worked on a journal, and usually that meant he (for the most part) wrote argumentative pieces about the affairs of the day. Only in the second half of the 19th century did it also become common to refer to journalism as a set of news practices governed by professional standards and ideals. The invention of journalism came about because of the confluence of industrial and market conditions, on the one hand, and broadly shared anxieties about the political effects of the news business on the other (Nerone 2015). Together these factors provided the capacity for the regulation of the news and an urgency about assembling standards and ideals.

1The long history of news

Any organization at any point in human history has had a system for distributing news. Organizations in general like to keep the circulation of news internal, limited to the members who need to know. But organizations with public activities – governments, for instance – also need a system for external news distribution. The publicity that governments generate changed over time as modes of legitimation and media technologies changed.

Modern news culture appeared when new ideas about government encountered new media technologies. Governments began to claim legitimacy through the consent of the people in early modern Europe at about the same time as news began to be written and then printed on paper and transmitted through postal systems. Under these circumstances, news appeared as a relatively autonomous public enterprise.

Printed news was an important source of revenue for early print shops (Pettegree 2014). Much of it appeared in pamphlet form, offering often sensational accounts of dramatic events: “faits divers”, as the French called it (Stephens 2007). The format was also used by people with a political or religious cause to advance. Martin Luther and his colleagues were extraordinary pamphleteers, and the Reformation produced a vibrant news culture that followed conflicts between Catholic and Protestant powers. Indeed, anywhere power was contested, activists were likely to take recourse to print, partly to inform the people, but more importantly to represent the public as monitoring affairs of state, thereby exerting pressure on governing elites (Baron & Dooley 2005).

By the beginning of the 17th century, printed news had begun to appear in regular editions, on a monthly or a weekly basis. Periodical publication had characterized earlier handwritten newsletters, like the well-known Avvisi of Venice (Infelise 2007), commonly exchanged among merchants, and flowing through the newly developing postal networks of the 16th century. This sort of news was more powerful if fewer people knew it, unlike the more public news that conflicts produced.

So news culture grew through the interaction of these two polarities: the transmission of privileged information to elites in commerce and government, and the dissemination of news as an instrument of representing public opinion in religious and political conflicts. Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, some print shops developed operations for producing news content as a significant part of their business models, and cultivated a regular clientele, usually among social elites. The printers who ran these shops also developed networking practices, sharing their productions with fellow printers, who provided regular sources of additional content as well as like-minded ideological material (Raymond 2013). By the end of the 18th century, a toolkit of print tactics, including networked newspapers, was available for political and religious movements in the European world.

Techniques of regulation accompanied the growth of print culture. Because governing elites in church and state recognized the power of print, they instituted laws and offices for directing and in some cases monopolizing it. Techniques included licensing printers, requiring prepublication approval for individual works, establishing copyright, punishing transgressions as libellous and in extreme cases treasonous, and imposing taxes on publications and raw materials like paper and ink.

These techniques had significant impact everywhere, but also had limits. Print shops tended to overproduce skilled workers, and printing equipment could be portable and easily concealed, so that activists with resources could usually find a way to circumvent strict regulation. The greatest fallibility of regulation occurred when governing elites divided into competing parties. The system of press regulation in Britain failed when civil war broke out in the 1640s, and again when party conflict climaxed in the 1690s (Siebert 1952). French regulation, centred around royal grants of monopoly, failed as the Revolution approached in the 1780s (Gough 2016).

2The public sphere

The concept of the public sphere, especially as formulated by Jürgen Habermas (1989), has influenced a generation of histories of the media. In Habermas’s account, the emergence of bourgeois capitalism in western Europe featured the development of “civil society”, which included markets, independent churches, and the domestic life of sentimental families. Civil society came to see itself as a realm of freedom, as opposed to the realm of compulsion associated with increasingly bureaucratic states. Civil society barricaded itself away from the state by erecting barriers made of rights – for instance, the rights to life, liberty, and estate found in John Locke’s treatises on government. As civil society separated from the state, the space left in between formed a public sphere.

As an abstract space between civil society and the state, the public sphere stipulated a particular kind of discourse. Citizens were authorized to address each other, and the state, in the public sphere, but were supposed to honour the nature of the space by bracketing off their private interests and validating their arguments on the basis of the common good. They were supposed to assume that their audience consisted of the entire body politic. In other words, they were supposed to speak as if they were nobody addressing everybody. These rules of discourse were repeatedly expressed by publicists as “impersonality” and “impartiality”, and by printers as being “open to all parties but influenced by none”, which would lead to republics governed by “rational liberty”. The cultural expectations of publicity in this bourgeois formation of the public sphere led to a flourishing of printed political discourse, often written over pseudonyms meant to convey a “republican” sensibility, like John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s “Cato”, or Alexander Hamilton’s and James Madison’s “Publius”. Meanwhile, in Britain, a popular literature had appeared outlining the etiquette of the public sphere. The most influential publications were Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Tatler and Spectator, which featured frequent essays on the manners of coffeehouse denizens and other “newsmongers”.

By the time of the French Revolution, the term “journalist” had begun to refer to someone whose profession was engaging in public debate in print about the affairs of the day. This usage did not emphasize the newsgathering function of the journalist. Instead, a journalist was a controversialist, engaged in what had become a perpetual battle over the formation and representation of public opinion.

3The news and mass democracy

It is a commonplace that democracy requires an informed citizenry, and that therefore a free and vibrant press is essential. Historically, the development of press freedom was more complicated. There is now a canon of texts in political theory that seems to provide a consistent and noble genealogy of thinking about the relationship between a free press and progressive governance. This genealogy was constructed after the fact, and on closer examination the texts in it have interesting and often troubling wrinkles (Peters 2005).

The first ancestor in this genealogy is usually John Milton, whose Areopagitica (1644) is remembered as the first mature argument for freedom of the press. Critics have pointed out that he excluded large areas of discourse from his arena of freedom, including “Popery, and open superstition”, or in other words those opposed to his own political movement. He wanted a clash of ideas, but among a convivial circle that included only “neighboring differences, or indifferences”. Although he professed that Truth will always defeat falsehood in a “free and open encounter”, it appears that his criteria for a “free and open encounter” were expansive: among other things, he expected a well educated citizenry already unified by civil and religious values.

Thomas Jefferson, another of the canonized thinkers, also shows important nuances on closer examination. He famously preferred “newspapers without government” to “government without newspapers”, but qualified that position by stipulating that the press must actually be read by everyone, and everyone must be capable of critically understanding it. His attitude toward the actually existing press was often hostile, and in his second inaugural address he explicitly encouraged his allies to prosecute printers under state laws against seditious libel.

Neither Milton nor Jefferson imagined the press as an industry, described freedom of expression with the metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas”, or used the term “journalism”. Instead, press commentary into the 19th century retained a vocabulary rooted in a demure model of public discourse, contrasting true liberty with “licentiousness” (Levy 1985).

In the United States, the normative impulse of public sphere discourse prompted significant investment in press infrastructure. This investment took a number of forms. One was the postal system, the largest initiative of the national government, which subsidized newspapers with reduced postage and free exchange among printer/editors, promoting the formation of open-ended networks, national in scope, often with a partisan or reformist identity (John 1995; McChesney & Nichols 2010). State and federal governments also subsidized newspapers by printing laws and official actions at advertising rates.

Public subsidy let the press expand more rapidly and universally than markets would have allowed. By the second decade of the 19th century, most localities had at least one newspaper, and many had two or more. The abundance of newspapers invited party alignments. A younger generation of printers had become politicized following the contested Presidential election of 1800 (Pasley 2002), and over the next two decades a mature system of permanent mass electoral party competition appeared. To an older generation, this seemed “licentious”, but partisans argued that organized competition was healthy.

Acceptance of mass electoral democracy was slower elsewhere. In Britain, although most forms of censorship had been abandoned by the 18th century, a series of taxes on paper and advertising raised the price of newspapers, making it very difficult to publish for a popular audience. Radical activists found ways to dodge these stamp taxes, but found themselves always vulnerable to arrest and prosecution (Hampton 2004). At the same time, Britain retained property requirements for voting longer than the US. As a result, the struggle for the franchise intersected with campaigns against “taxes on knowledge” to produce a more class-conscious popular politics than in the US.

Western countries seem to have had a common history of evolving relations between the press and politics. Countries experienced different paths to a partisan press, but almost all have experienced a period of partisan newspapering, and many continue to host media overtly or implicitly aligned with parties (Hallin & Mancini 2004). Likewise, all experience in some fashion a tension between commercialization and politicization.

The US is unusual among western countries in the weakness of its public media sector. Although it initially invested heavily in press development (McChesney & Nichols 2010), it failed to impose national control on the telegraph system, unlike most countries, in which the telegraph was assimilated into the postal system. And it also turned away from state development of broadcasting. The lack of a national radio/television authority has had a significant impact on the direction of professional journalism.

4Commercialism, the telegraph, and news as a commodity

Printing in western countries was market-oriented, in part, from its origin. But market concerns were always balanced by other sources of support – patronage from church and state, support from parties and wealthy sponsors, and service to a community of readers. This array of support, coupled with technological limits to the scale of production, meant that printers could meaningfully claim some independence from market forces. Beginning in Britain, then accelerating in the US, commercialization began to exert more pull over the craft. This is most evident in the rise of advertising as a source of revenue.

Advertising affected every aspect of the typical newspaper. Visual innovations – headlines, white space, illustration – appeared in advertising matter first and then were adopted by other content areas. Perhaps the most important effect of advertising was in introducing economies of scale in newspaper production. These came in several forms. One was in circulation. Subscription revenue increased arithmetically with circulation, but the increase in advertising revenue could be geometrical: doubling circulation could quadruple advertising income, especially in markets with more than two competing newspapers. The pursuit of advertising revenue therefore encouraged the adoption of new tools of production: steam- and then electric-powered presses, new graphic tools like lithography and photoengraving, colour printing. The mounting expense of the equipment introduced another economy of scale, and eventually a pull toward monopoly in local markets.

An entirely different sort of commercialization appeared in the commoditization of news. Initially, news was gathered from written and printed sources delivered by post or by personal contact. Once printed, such news was public, and was freely copied by other newspapers. Because a newspaper’s political significance was measured by the frequency with which other newspapers copied its material, printers made every effort to share their copy. Only after advertising revenue came to dominate the business model did newspapers try to assert copyright in their content (Brauneis 2009). Copyright claims depended on an assertion of enterprise in newsgathering. This became credible only when newspapers began to systematically invest in reporting staffs, which occurred in the middle third of the 19th century in the US and Britain. Still, it was difficult to maintain ownership over news once published.

The most important tool for asserting ownership in news was the telegraph. Historians of news usually understand the telegraph as accelerating the flow of news. This is certainly true, although telegraphy did not achieve the “annihilation of space and time” that its boosters envisioned. It also allowed for news flow to be controlled. Telegraphy led directly to the rise of news agencies as wholesalers, and a handful of them became national and regional monopolies, especially Reuters, Havas, and the Associated Press. The rise of the Associated Press is especially instructive, as it leveraged control over telegraphic transmission of European news into a collusive arrangement with Western Union, the company that dominated ownership of telegraph wires, and a monopolistic position in the transmission of national news. Telegraphic infrastructure also served to regularize flows of information from sources such as stock markets, governments, and sports leagues, with important consequences for the structure of investing, for instance (Carey 1983; Blondheim 1994).

Commoditizing news shifted the balance among the various roles of the press and also encouraged market concentration. The core of a newspaper had become discussions of national politics. With increasing investment in news, this element came to occupy a smaller, though still central, piece of real estate, sandwiched between telegraphic news and the items produced by reporters in the city room. As wholesale news from wire services and reported items from the newspaper’s own staff became more important, an outsized competitive advantage accrued to the newspaper with the most resources; this competitive advantage was then multiplied in advertising revenue. Newspapers became big business.

Commercialization led directly to industrialization, then. The news industry took its place among other manufacturing industries. It also fell subject to the criticisms directed at, say, the railroad industry – of using monopoly power to exploit ordinary people and wield undue influence over the government and its personnel. Critics also saw similarities to the abuses of the meatpacking industry, and warned that news might be morally unfit for human consumption.

5Private power, public criticism, and the birth of journalism

Industrializing newspapers developed a complex and efficient division of labour. On the most basic level, they divided content production from mechanical production (typesetting, presswork, delivery) and management (circulation and advertising sales). As news organizations grew in scale, they also divided content production into different editorial stools and repertorial beats. One editor handled general telegraphic news, for instance, while another handled business news, especially market reports. A city editor ran the main newsroom, directing reporters out into the world to scavenge for information from sources routine (criminal courts, City Hall) and extraordinary, while correspondents positioned abroad sent copy (first by mail, then by telegraph) to other editors. And a desk filled with copy editors interfaced between the newsroom and the composing room, where a foreman directed a crew of typesetters.

Among the many occupations involved, three would come to be called journalists: editors, reporters, and correspondents. These occupations had different genealogies and standards. Editors descended in a fairly direct line from the party editors of earlier newspapers, and were held to a standard of manly independence. Reporters were fact gatherers and stenographers – a common task was to transcribe important speeches and sermons – and were held to a standard of accuracy. Correspondents were, as the name implies, letter writers from abroad, and were expected to provide vivid accounts of exotic or dramatic scenes. Reporters were supposed to be terse; correspondents and editors were allowed to be colourful, fulsome, and even verbose. Each occupation had its own grievances. Reporters were especially aggrieved, many of them being paid by the line or the column inch, and thus in constant peril of having their income edited below subsistence (Smythe 1980; Solomon 1995). Reporters also aspired to having the kind of voice that correspondents and some editors enjoyed.

One kind of news that merged the voice of the correspondent with the fact gathering practices of the reporter was illustrated news. Around the middle of the 19th century, illustrated newspapers, usually weekly and usually national in circulation, appeared in all the western countries. They shared similar tools and techniques, and their personnel also moved from country to country (Brown 2002; Martin 2006). The history of modern news is always transnational, but the lines of influence are most visible in the case of illustrated news. In terms of philosophy, illustrated news differed strikingly from verbal reporting, which aimed for stenographic accuracy. Instead, a news illustration was supposed to be a kind of prosthetic memory (Lury 1998) of a public event. In terms of process, the published images were collaborations, crafted by master illustrators out of details drawn by sketch artists on the scene, and then carved into woodblocks by teams of engravers. The great innovator Frank Leslie explained that his paper’s illustrations were the mental image one would have retained had one actually witnessed the event (Barnhurst & Nerone 2001, ch. 4). This philosophy seems to anticipate the mid-20th-century notion of objectivity, which also might be thought of as a synthesis of reporting and correspondence.

The occupational frustrations and ambitions of reporters intersected with public criticism of the moral quality and political power of the press. Criticism of the moral quality of the press had much to do with the ways in which reporters invaded private life to produce compelling stories. Crime, sex, and sexual crimes were reliable news topics, dating from the earliest forms of printed news. Industrializing newspapers produced more of this news, and worse yet, more of it was true. To the guardians of public morality, this steady flow of turpitude threatened the general culture. Ironically, the flood of so-called “yellow journalism” in the closing decades of the 19th century was itself hyper-moralistic. In Britain, the most famous example was William T. Stead’s exposé of child prostitution in his sensational series “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, which ran in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 and was then copied throughout the English-speaking world (Brake, King & Mussell 2012). Stead was in turn inspired by the “new journalism” of Pulitzer and Hearst in the US. Their circulation war in New York in the 1890s would mark the climax of yellow journalism (Campbell 2001). The upper classes especially complained; the right of privacy was invented in response to intrusions by newsmongers (Warren & Brandeis 1890; Gajda 2009).

If privacy concerns were upscale, they were balanced by a more populist critique of the power of news barons. In the US, Gilded Age politics produced a rush of controversies over corruption. Jay Gould, a railroad financier and one of the most notorious of the era’s “robber barons”, also bought newspapers like the New York World and at one point gained ownership of Western Union (John 2010); William Randolph Hearst, whose family’s fortune came from mining, built a chain of creatively financed newspapers with its own wire service and features syndicate, and mobilized it to promote his own political ambitions, winning a seat in the House of Representatives and coming close to securing the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. The term Press Baron is more properly associated with British newspaper magnates, who became literal barons, most famously Alfred Harmsworth, who became Viscount Northcliffe, and his younger brother Harold, who became Viscount Rothermere. Suspicions of the motives and power of the press barons came to a head in the years bracketing the First World War. In the US, anxieties about secret ownership of newspapers climaxed with the passage of the federal Truth in Publishing Act of 1912 (Lawson 1993) and the publication of muckraking exposés of the news business by Will Irwin (1911) and Upton Sinclair (1920).

The initial response to the combination of upscale and populist press criticism was for news personnel to try to elevate the moral quality of “journalism”, which came to be used as a covering term for editors, reporters, and correspondents. Journalism remained vague as a term. Commentators tended to agree that it required a “nose for news” (Vos & Finneman 2016), though they were not in agreement on whether that skill was innate or teachable. Most commentators also agreed that good journalists behaved like gentlemen, though the boundaries of gentlemanly behavior were also ill-defined, other than the fact that gentlemen were men. Even though women had established themselves as competent newsgatherers, editors, and typographers, most of the occupations in the news business remained gendered male (Tusan 2005).

Press clubs constituted one battleground for the attempt to enforce genteel behavior. Most significant cities had a press club by the end of the 19th century. These mostly male preserves fostered a sense of community, not just among journalists but also between journalists and newsmakers, who often became members. Over the next generation, these organizations began to police behaviour, determined to elevate the profession by eliminating drunkenness and brawling and by limiting opportunities for the politically connected to compromise the integrity of newsmen.

A more public tactic was education. College courses and then degree programmes in journalism appeared in the various western countries in the final third of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, the first schools of journalism in universities appeared, with the University of Missouri’s J-school claiming to have been the first, established in 1908. In the US, journalism schools were established mostly in the large land-grant institutions of the midwest, south, and west; Joseph Pulitzer’s attempts to endow a school of journalism in Ivy-League Columbia University, though ultimately successful, were met with scorn and resistance at first (Boylan 2005). In many cases, including the founding of the college of journalism at the University of Illinois, the state publishers’ association was a key instigator, recognizing the importance of higher education in enhancing the respectability of the news industry (Carey 1978).

Journalism education required formulating some teachable core of practices and standards. This necessarily entailed marginalizing the importance of the “nose for news”, which was minimally teachable, in favour of a more formalized set of criteria, often organized around the “five w’s” (Folkerts 2014). Early textbooks emphasized terms like accuracy and neutrality, though the more sophisticated “objectivity” was more a creature of a second generation. Early J-schools also emphasized the importance of gentlemanly behaviour, even though women were present as both students and teachers.

J-schools were part of a more general professionalization project. By World War I, news organizations had begun crafting formal codes of ethics (Wilkins & Brennen 2004), which were meant both to regulate conduct and to announce to the public that journalists cared about correct behaviour. Rectitude was also important on the agenda of new professional organizations, which ranged from unions to more management-oriented groups, like the American Society of Newspaper Editors, or ASNE (Pratte 1995).

In the US, professionalization marked a turn away from other ways of elevating the occupation, especially organizing as a craft union. The mechanical workforce of US newspapers, especially the typographers, had been pioneers in labour organization, and would retain powerful unions until computerization fundamentally altered the nature of their work. Their International Typographical Union periodically tried to organize “news writers”, something that was considered important at a time when many of the editorial workers had enough experience in typesetting to scab during work actions. The professionalization project narrowed the path from the composing room to the newsroom, breaking the common culture between mechanical and editorial workers, and invited reporters and correspondents to think of their work as intellectual or knowledge-based, like medicine or law. When the depression of the 1930s imposed such hardship on US journalists that they formed the American Newspaper Guild (Leab 1970), a rift still remained with the ITU and other newspaper unions, so that publishers were able to play them off against each other in contract negotiations.

There was nothing inherent in journalism that retarded unionization. In other countries, particularly Italy and the Nordic countries, professionalization and unionization worked together. The variation in these histories testifies to the artificiality of journalism’s professional status. Any profession requires a monopoly on practice, often (as in the case of medicine) enforced by state licensing. Such a monopoly usually draws legitimacy from an arcane body of theoretical knowledge, like medical science. Journalism has never had such a science, and in most countries lacks a strict licensing process as well. But the occupation did come to exercise something like a monopoly over news production, not because of science but because of bottlenecks, like wires services and dominant local newspapers and later broadcasting.

As a result, the structure of journalism as a profession developed before its content, which was cobbled together after the fact. This isn’t unusual. Medicine professionalized before physicians knew much about germs, nutrition, and pharmaceuticals – in other words, well before it was a good idea to see a doctor if you were seriously ill.

What is more unusual about journalism as a profession is its lack of independence. In theory, practitioners in the classic professions, like medicine or the clergy, contain the means of production in their heads and hands, and therefore do not have to work for a company or an employer. They can draw their income directly from their clients or patients. Because the professionals hold knowledge, moreover, their clients are dependent on them. Journalists hold knowledge, but it is not theoretical in nature; one might argue that the public depends on journalists in the same way that patients depend on doctors, but in practice a journalist can serve the public usually only by working for a news organization, which can fire her or him at will. Journalists’ income depends not on the public, but on the employing news organization, which often derives the large majority of its revenue from advertisers.

But it became useful, even necessary, for publishers to cede more independence to news workers as a way of deflecting criticism of their increasing power. The professionalization project took off as a negotiated settlement between publishers and their workforce in the interest of staving off a public demanding more fundamental reform. Publishers announced that a “Chinese wall” separated the newsroom from the business offices of news organizations, while journalists came to embrace objectivity as a way of separating their professional work from their personal values and preferences (Schudson 1978).

6Journalism, World Wars, and the globe

In addition to being teachable, professional journalism is exportable. In the 20th century, a hegemonic version of western journalism spread to much of the world, augmenting or displacing other news practices.

The printing press had followed the path of European empires. Print in general and newspapers in particular appeared first as tools of the colonizers. Later, local nationalist elites adopted western newspaper formats, drawing symbolic power from their appropriation of the colonizers’ practices, but at the same time introducing variations (Judge 1996; Mittler 2004). Often these postcolonial newspapers would draw inspiration from counterhegemonic movements and ideas. The strategies of abolitionists or socialists often seem to have been more important to these creole newspapers than the practices of commercial newspapers.

At the same time, newsgathering enterprises from the European world extended outward. The wire services stretched into every corner of the globe, partly in service to colonial administration, and partly as a nervous system for globalizing capital. The wire services in particular carried outward the highly formalized style of western hegemonic journalism (Winseck & Pike 2007; Silberstein-Loeb 2014).

Often postcolonial newsworkers considered the adoption of Anglo-American styles of commercial journalism an important support for national advancement and modernization. Some made the pilgrimage to western J-schools. The University of Missouri’s Walter Williams was especially dedicated to J-school diplomacy (Farrar 1998). Students and visiting professionals from East Asia “seeded” J-schools in Japan and Hong Kong.

The globalization of western journalism ebbed and flowed with the world wars. News enterprises thrive on wars, which often spur infrastructural development (like extending telegraph wires), encourage technological development (like radio), and stimulate formal innovation (like illustrated news). The Crimean War is often credited with spurring the development of British news, as is the Civil War for the US. The 20th-century world wars were bigger and bloodier.

World War I produced the first really global propaganda war. The major powers involved all policed their own national media, controlling the information diet of their publics, and at the same time produced news designed to persuade world opinion and demoralize the enemies’ publics. This media warfare was made more compelling and alarming by the availability of visual media like photography and film, which were thought to have a more directly emotional impact than verbal texts. The effectiveness of propaganda challenged the model of a free press informing an intelligent citizenry that had become conventional in western democracies (Auerbach 2015). The most famous response in English was Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922), which examined the “pictures in our heads” as a “pseudoenvironment” that intervenes between actors and the real environment. The media necessarily add an element of distortion to the pictures in our heads, especially in commercial systems. Lippmann saw the need for expert intelligence bureaus to rectify the knowledge that would inform decision-making. He was sure that the press itself did not have the capacity to supply accurate knowledge.

The doubts voiced by Lippmann and others prompted a reformulation of US journalism by suggesting a content for the professionalization project. Journalists came to assume responsibility for explaining the world to readers who lacked the capacity to sort through the bombardment of conflicting images and ideas that modern means of mass communications produced. A long process of advancing expertise followed, with news content increasingly presenting fewer names, places, dates, and stories, while offering longer articles processing news into contextualized explanations (Barnhurst & Nerone 2001; Barnhurst 2016). Journalists gained an authoritative voice, represented by the byline, a feature adopted from “soft news” sections like arts coverage and syndicated columns, and which simultaneously announced authorship and promised that what was reported in the piece was what any other professional journalist would have reported. The term “objectivity” replaced older terms like “independence” and “neutrality”, signifying that the professional journalist was aware of one’s own subjectivity (Schudson 1978), and had undertaken to police it in the interest of pursuing an inter-subjectively verifiable truth. The journalist signalled objectivity by textual devices like attribution and balancing (Tuchman 1978). Professional journalism thus claimed an ethical mission of service to public intelligence.

This reformulation made a virtue out of bigness. Industrialization had shown that advancing production would lead to increasing scale in business, and muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens had shown that big business could not be trusted. Big business required big government as a countervailing power. But World War I and its aftermath showed that big government was willing to build a massive apparatus to distort public information and manipulate public opinion. So big government and big business both required big media as an additional countervailing power. This conclusion is evident in the nomenclature of the media sphere in the interwar years, which featured the term “objectivity”, and also the terms “mass media”, “mass communications”, and “marketplace of ideas” (Nerone 2015). Because mass media threatened competition in the media marketplace, it became necessary for objective journalism to create a virtual marketplace in which ideas could compete.

The rise of broadcasting after World War I might be seen as finalizing the notion of the politically independent professional journalist. Whether in the dominant national broadcast authorities that appeared in most countries – like RAI or the BBC – or in the commercial networks that appeared in the US, on-air journalism was under tremendous pressure to represent a consensus and to avoid political attachments. Partisanism would appear in broadcast news only after radio and then television overcame the scarcities that demanded impartiality. Meanwhile, broadcast journalists had acquired a distinctive aura. Ordinary people could identify on-air anchors and reporters for national and commercial networks, who became icons of news professionalism.

Hegemonic journalism was not unchallenged. Throughout its process of assembly, within any national news system, journalism was critiqued by class, ideological, gender, and racial outsiders, who developed alternative practices and standards. In the years between the world wars, similar geopolitical divisions appeared. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 brought the Communist Party to power in Russia, and in the following decades a Soviet style of vanguardist professional journalism was adopted by the socialist bloc and by some nationalist and revolutionary movements. In the midst of World War II, the Chinese Communist Party formulated principles for the operation of a revolutionary media system that continues to inform state practices (Huang 2016).

World War II saw a refinement of journalistic standards. The scepticism produced by World War I and the economic collapse of the 1930s encouraged movements in many western countries to impose responsibilities on news media. The fascist countries effectively controlled their media systems and demonstrated the usefulness of authoritarian direction in achieving political stability, economic growth, and social control. The war effort enticed experiments in media control among the anti-fascist bloc, and the alliance between the West and the USSR encouraged a relaxation of criticism of state-run journalism. But the media themselves insisted on their autonomy, and honed legal and theoretical arguments justifying private ownership without formal responsibilities. In the US, the publishing magnate Henry Luce funded a group of academics, chaired by University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, to examine the issue of freedom of the press. The resulting report (Commission on Freedom of the Press 1947) and accompanying documents outlined a liberal consensus that simultaneously pointed out the dangers of excessive power in private hands, enumerated the responsibilities of the media system to complex modern societies, and insisted that government interference in private media properties and markets be kept to a minimum. In essence, the Hutchins Commission endorsed the position of the dominant news organizations, that freedom of the press not only did not contradict private ownership but in fact required it. Similar reformulations occurred in other countries around the same time, the most prominent being the British Royal Commission on the Press (Curran & Seaton 2009).

This assertion of a necessary link between free-market capitalism and democratic freedom of expression seemed forced to much of the world and ridiculous to many. But the US and its allies, along with the world’s most powerful international news companies, such as the Associated Press, campaigned to make it the preferred reading of the right to press freedom that appeared in the evolving regime of international human rights (Blanchard 1986). The key document in this process was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrined the right to “freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. The precise meaning of this language was open for debate. Its vagueness delayed the formulation of enforceable conventions (Lebovic 2016) and invited a continuing global debate over specifics.

This debate took especially vivid form in the 1970s, in a campaign for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). A coalition of countries from the socialist bloc and the global south argued, among other things, that the Declaration endorsed a “right to communicate”, which went beyond the right to free expression recognized by liberalism, and included a right of access to the media system and a right to recognition by the world (MacBride 1980). Although this argument mirrored some of the abstract arguments of the Hutchins Commission, western countries and especially news organizations saw in it a spectre of censorship and restrictions on media businesses. A forceful response led to the withdrawal of Reagan’s US and Thatcher’s Britain from UNESCO, the organization in which the debate centred. Muzzling UNESCO ushered the NWICO debate into economic fora, particularly the GATT and then the WTO, where interpretations of freedom of expression became entangled with intellectual property issues and proposals for tariffs on “cultural goods”. The debate was off stage for a decade or two but then returned in the form of standards and procedures for global internet governance (Powers & Jablonski 2015).

7From “high modern” to “postmodern”

Dan Hallin (1992) has named the post-World War II era journalism’s “high modernism”. In most developed countries, a few national news organizations, staffed by professionalized journalists who were accorded significant autonomy, were able to assemble an authoritative account of the “news of the day” that stood in for informed public opinion. High modern journalism had the capacity to represent the public in two senses: standing in for the public in confrontations with the powerful, and depicting the public’s concerns and values by constructing a news agenda. In the US, the national media consisted of three broadcast networks, two or three news magazines, two wire services, and a handful of metropolitan daily newspapers. All were for-profit private companies. In most western countries, a similar array of national newspapers and magazines accompanied a dominant national broadcast authority.

High modern journalism exercised considerable power. One can cite many examples of enterprise journalism exposing corruption or injustice and sparking significant social and political change, like the “mani pulite” scandal in Italy, or revelations about birth defects resulting from thalidomide in Britain, or Watergate in the US. In most cases, heroic journalists depended on allies in parallel government investigations, but it is fair to argue that media exposure was crucial. High modern journalism might usefully be looked upon as an institution and part of the apparatus of governing (Cook 1998). In its everyday sorting of events into news and non-news, and its sorting of news into the spheres of deviance, consensus, and legitimate controversy (Hallin 1986), it enacted a powerful cultural consensus supporting the social and political order.

Even in the high modern moment, journalism had limits and vulnerabilities. Its attachment to political neutrality, or objectivity, or expertise, and its codependence with officialdom made it “hackable” by people like US Senator Joseph McCarthy (Bayley 1981; Alwood 2007). Its dependence on advertising for revenue, in most western countries, and the power of its ownership, which always had interests of their own, sometimes set boundaries to coverage and eroded public trust.

A gang of developments promised the end of the high modern moment by the 1990s. The cultural consensus that had informed and been enacted by journalism unravelled, beginning with the turbulence of the 1960s and accelerating with the rise of competing counterpublics (Warner 2002; Squires 2002) with incommensurable agendas and realities. Globalization hastened the proliferation of competing groups. It also exacerbated problems with the structure of media systems, promoting a wave of privatization and commercialization that undermined the national broadcast authorities and systems of public support that had been key parts of journalism’s infrastructure in most parts of the world. In the already commercialized US, the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine led to the rise of politicized talk radio, while supportive regulation nurtured cable television systems with 24-hour news channels, all of which seemed to old hands like a barbarian invasion. All of these trends accelerated with the rise of digital communications, allowing increased audience participation and offering individuals the capacity to construct their own “public sphericules” (Gitlin 2002).

Journalism tried in various ways to shore up its infrastructure. One set of initiatives involved public outreach, either in the form of “public journalism”, in which journalists invited citizens to help set the news agenda, or in public education campaigns, like the (largely ineffective) efforts of the Freedom Forum. In the US and elsewhere, public regard for journalists and journalism did not register these efforts, and fell to the point where political figures such as George W. Bush could comfortably dismiss the press as just another special interest. A different set of initiatives involved finding new business models. These have met with varying success. Some elite news media, like the New York Times, have found ways to monetize digital news, for instance, but the primary beneficiaries of the digital news market have been social media networks like Facebook and de-professionalized news organizations like Breitbart. The most successful prestige journalism organizations have been those supported by dedicated public funding, like the BBC, or hybrid subsidized/commercial ventures like Al Jazeera.

The success of Al Jazeera signalled a turn in the long road to a New World Information and Communication Order. Funded by Qatari royals, Al Jazeera has been one of the most successful and respected of the new global media. Its adoption of western professional standards has matched its aggressive move into the market of English-language news, and seemed to portend an end to the hegemony of the global north in the realm of information (Davis 2013). Its expansion from TV to the internet promised to blaze a trail for other media voices to reach a global audience, ranging from Russia’s quasi-governmental news channel RT and China’s CCTV to the left populist media supported by Latin American governments. None of these new voices has managed to join the ranks of Disney and Newscorp, however.

The internet, meanwhile, has become a new arena for hegemonic struggle as well as a new location of infrastructure bottlenecks. The US government took the initiative in creating a global system of internet governance, which happened to favour US companies, English-language content, and commercial development generally (DeNardis 2014; Powers & Jablonski 2015). Other parts of the world, especially China, which now has the world’s largest bloc of internet users, have pushed back. The next decade may witness a struggle in international arenas much like the NWICO campaign of the 1970s and 1980s. So far, the control of bottlenecks like software, search, and service by companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google has been maintained through a combination of network externalities, regulatory favour, and massive capitalization (McChesney 2013).

The hegemony of global internet giants cuts two ways for the history of journalism. On the one hand, the rise of Google and Facebook has meant the siphoning off of advertising revenue from news organizations like the New York Times. On the other hand, the internet giants may themselves adopt the responsibilities of journalistic gatekeepers. The aftermath of 2016’s Brexit and US Presidential campaigns, which spotlighted the dangers of de-professionalized news, prompted Google and Facebook to launch initiatives to limit the flow of “fake news”.

The 21 century, from 9/11 and the Iraq War to the election of President Trump, shows that the weakening of high modern journalism weakens in turn the ability of public opinion to operate as a regulative fiction (Nerone 2015). Journalism has been expected to represent the public as a universal supervising intelligence; the people who run things have been expected to behave as if the public was watching, and would punish them if they behaved dishonestly and corruptly. The confidence these expectations instilled allowed the west to deride the “banana republics” of the global south and the party-states of the socialist bloc, where the lack of an effective fourth estate allowed autocrats and kleptocrats to abuse their people with impunity. The power of the press as a fourth estate was always a fiction – it was a bad referee – but the belief in it did discourage misbehaviour. Now, sensing that there is no referee at all, the people who run things tell outright lies with no expectation of punishment. History suggests that a renovated journalism will find new supporting infrastructures with the sponsorship of the powers that control the bottlenecks.

Further reading

On printed news in the early modern era, Pettegree (2014) presents a broad and rich account. Raymond (2013) is especially good for tracing networks of transmission. On the history of the public sphere, Habermas (1989) remains indispensable. McChesney and Nichols (2010) offer a strong analysis of how norms later generations might think of as Habermasian drove government support for newspaper development in the US. On the similarities and differences among western media systems, Hallin and Mancini (2004) inspired considerable discussion and research. Blondheim (1994) and John (2010) cover the growth of telegraphic news in the US, and Silberstein-Loeb (2014) deals with the 20th-century wire services. On the formal aspects of news, see Barnhurst and Nerone (2001) and Barnhurst (2016). For differing arguments on the history of journalism as a set of norms and practices, see Schudson (1978), Chalaby (1998), and Nerone (2015). Folkerts (2014) and Josephi (2009) present histories of journalism education. Powers and Jablonski (2015) provide a critical account of contemporary struggles over global internet governance.


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