DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Covering America

History is concerned with the past. For the most part, journalism focuses on the present. So what would happen if you combined the 2 subjects? Well, you would probably come up with something like the new book by former Washington Post reporter and Boston University Professor Christopher Daly.

Daly appeared at the Library of Congress to discuss his engaging, comprehensive work entitled Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation's Journalism.

According to Daly, the history of American journalism can be divided into 5 periods, each of them signaled by a change in the business model for the dissemination of news. "It's important to understand news as a business," Daly said. "A change in the business model forces a change in journalism."

The five eras in Daly's breakdown are:
  • 1704 - 1830.   News becomes political
  • 1830 - 1900.   News becomes commercial
  • 1900 - 1970.   News becomes professional
  • 1970 - 2000.   News becomes conglomerate
  • 2000 - until ?  News becomes digital     
For the first 75 years or so of colonial existence, America really didn't have its own papers as such. However, Ben Franklin in Philadelphia and others from the printing field began producing broad sheets and pamphlets in the 1700s. "Franklin pissed some people off. They thought he was knocking the local clergy. So he came up with a defense of his trade Apologies for a Printer," Daly said. In his credo Franklin wrote that when "truth and error have free play, the former is always an over-match for the latter."

"Publishers thought they could serve the public by opening their pages to opposing arguments. This became the bedrock statement of philosophy for  American journalism," Daly said.

The lead up to the Revolutionary War created a wave of writers such as Thomas Paine who "were at the center of the idea of self-government." However, after the British were defeated, the idea of political attacks in papers only intensified. "Sadly, they went a little crazy. There was politics of personal destruction we haven't really seen again," Daly said.

As an example, Daly cited writer James Callendar who launched a series of vicious personal attacks on Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist ideas. He accused Hamilton of abscounding with money for personal gain. However, Hamilton said that actually he was having an affair with the wife of the man he was accused of  supporting financially, so the money was being used for blackmail, not personal gain. "I am a rake and therefore cannot be a swindler," Hamilton postulated. However, the damage had been done and Hamilton's bright political future was ruined by Callendar's written onslaught.

In 1833, New York publisher Benjamin Day, with his penny-paper The Sun, began redefining the meaning of newspaper success. "It became how many newspapers are you selling and how much money are you making doing that? Daly said.

"Day said his Sun shines for all, not just the literate, the elite, or a political party. Its goal was to reach everyone," Daly said. Of course, that meant his 1-cent a day product had to be interesting every day. Day is credited with hiring the 1st reporter George Wizner to find stories in New York and write about them. "Day proved that the oridnary life of ordinary people could be interesting to others.  He used sex, violence, and crime, of which there was no shortage in New York. It was a right idea, right place, right time," Daly said.

The Civil War propelled interest in news which became faster to deliver because of the telegraph and more visual because of the efforts of photographers like Matthew Brady. Later in the century, the battle for subscription supremacy between the papers of  Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph fostered Yellow Journalism (translation - fabricated news) and arguably to America's involvement in the Spanish-American War (War is tragic, but it is interesting). But it also brought many changes to newspapers which are still viewable today such as cartoons , women's pages, sports, and puzzles. "They tried all kinds of things. It was the test of the marketplace. If they (the new items) sold papers, they could stay. If not, they were out."

Between 1900 and the early 1970s, there was another shift as the news became more professional.  "News now served the public by presenting timely and useful information which had been verified. It became more responsible and serious, but sometimes it was duller," Daly said. "There was a move to elevate the position of journalism in the U.S."

Daly cited World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle's writing as "a masterpiece of the power of being there and the power of being a trained observer. News organizations (by now radio was involved and TV was soon to follow) began using their resources to raise their standards. They began to employ specialists. The high-water mark of this period came with the printing of the Pentagon Papers, the coverage of the Vietnam War, and the reporting on the Watergate  scandal.

Interestingly enough, the new success of newspapers made them attractive to bigger businesses. "There was a move from family-run operations to being part of larger and ever larger corporations," Daly said..

Today, Daly says news and related media are trying to find a business model that works in the digital age. "Not a lot of time has gone by and it's difficult to see with clarity. Everything has changed about our business. It will need to reinvent and adapt itself to changing times," he noted.

"I have better (reporting) tools in my pocket right now than at any time in history"' Daly said, showing his smart phone. "In the time I have been talking, you could have built your own website and been online by now. Indeed there is a future for journalism. It's just it's now online."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you want to see the future of journalism being practiced right now in the present, you might want to check out these 2 websites. The 1st is The Huffington Post., the internet only newspaper with news, blogs, video, and community. Then there is News 21, a journalism project prepared through the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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