How the Past Saw the Present

The future of journalism has always been on journalism’s mind

CJR knew about the iPad a good fifteen years before there was an iPad to know about. In a 1995 column, Stephen Isaacs reported on “the tablet,” a notional device dreamed up by the Knight Ridder innovation guru Roger Fidler and based on the recognition that, with the coming of the web, “ordinary folks now have the exciting capability of tracking down original sources via their own computers.” Fidler’s device would be “a letter-sized, slender (inch-thick), two-pound portable electronic ‘tablet’ ”; it would “combine both the look of a newspaper’s packaging” as well as consumers’ “perceived need for a mediator.” Users would be “constantly downloading new stuff, much in the same formats with which they are currently familiar,” and would use touch-screen technology to select stories—text, audio, video—and dive into more and more detail, “all stored in ample but tiny memory cards inserted in the machine.” The tablet would, Fidler figured, “eventually supplant our favorite newspaper, radio station, television newscast, magazine, even our Rolodex.”

Even our Rolodex! It’s worth repeating, though: a 1995 column. Nineteen-ninety-five, the year Larry first met Sergey. The year before The New York Times launched, its sparse little “Web-site.” The year when getting a cd-rom from America Online in the mail was still cause for excitement, when we forgave our modems their crackles and squeals because their noise carried, implicitly, the promise of connection.

Writing about journalism has always meant, to some extent, writing about the future of journalism. Reporters are, constitutionally, restless. We want to know what’s coming next, particularly when it affects us and our ability to do good work. And that has been true, of course, even prior to our present moment. But it’s been particularly true for CJR, which is—it can’t help it—a locus for professional anxiety and diligent navel-gazery.

I recently read through an imposing stack of future-of-news articles from fifty years’ worth of CJR’s media reporting. It was exhausting. But it was also exhilarating. And it revealed a fascinating range of reactions to The Future, the mother of all beats. There was the quaint (1993: “Former Senator Gore’s High Performance Computing Act is transforming the Internet into a grand national research and education network. . . .”); the breathless (1996: “Every boldfaced word or phrase in the piece indicates an Internet site you can experience yourself by linking to it. Just click.”); the amusing (1983: “Research reports and consultants variously estimate that by the year 2000 from 7 to 40 percent of the population will be using some form of videotex.”); the ominous (1984: “Even with secret log-on passwords, personal files may not be secure.”).

And the range makes sense: one of the responsibilities of a magazine of ideas, after all, is to see around corners—to give readers and change-makers and industry leaders a taste of the world not just as it is, but as it will be. And the future is anything but predictable. It is promising and frightening and beguiling and frustrating—often all at the same time.

But what’s striking about all the CJR stories—stacked, edges frayed, on my coffee table—is how intimately familiar they all seem. They are voices from the past that are eerily, wonderfully, at home in the present. Who is a journalist? they ask. How will new technologies affect that? Will those technologies undermine our ability to do our jobs, or improve it? How do we better connect with our audiences? How can we ensure that informational substance wins out over sensational drivel? How can we make reporting more profitable? Can we sell more and better ads? Are financial concerns compromising our ability to do journalism at the highest level? Should we consider government intervention to help support our work? Is that what the Founders would have wanted? Should we care anymore what the Founders would have wanted?

Et cetera.

There’s a comfort to all this, a sense that what we’re experiencing now, at this moment in journalism—the tremors, the crumbles, the seismic shifts—has all been experienced before. Even in a world that finds tablet computers ubiquitous rather than imaginary, even in a world that finds machines and formulas (robots, algorithms, cyborgs) taking over tasks once done by humans, even in a world that finds us, somehow, gleefully celebrating the takeover . . . journalism is still journalism. The news, as an industry and an institution, has always faced challenges—challenges both unique to the times and common to the craft—and it’s always found a way to persevere. Changed, maybe—evolved—but intact all the same.

“The dream of all journalists and conscientious owners has been to free the American newspaper from being mostly a factory,” Ben Bagdikian wrote in 1973. “That liberation has now begun.” But that liberation, courtesy of new technology, would also transform the industry from the outside in. And digital technologies, though the newest of the lot, have been the most revolutionary of all. “Computers are driving a change far larger than computer-assisted reporting, or paint programs, or digital photography,” Katherine Fulton declared in 1993. “The economic infrastructure of whole industries is going to change, and journalism along with it.” She quoted Stewart Brand: “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

The Hyphen Index

When CJR began telling the story of the digital world and its impact on journalism, it did so—like most of its fellow publications—with a copious amount of hyphens. On-line. Data-base. Multi-media. Log-in. E-mail. The hyphen wasn’t just punctuation; it was also a representation of newness, of exoticness, of the semi-awkwardness of disparate things being joined together. (“E-mail,” at least at first, was an extremely strange concept.) Though the hyphens seem quaint today, they’re a good reminder of the tentative way in which new technologies insert themselves into our language and our lives. We resist them. And then we ease them in gradually, sometimes grudgingly.

But if the Hyphen Index is a measure of a technology’s newness, the story of journalism’s evolution through CJR’s pages is in many ways the story of the hyphen’s dissolution. It’s a story of exoticism becoming ubiquity, of divisions resolving themselves, finally and perhaps inevitably, in convergence. Today, in late 2011, we talk about the online world, about database journalism and the promise of multimedia. Our talk of these technologies is no longer tentative; in fact, it is often banal, commonplace. The hybrids have become whole.

And those shifts—from the latent to the present, from the separate to the coherent—are themselves convenient metaphors for the broader trends in journalism as they’ve played out in CJR’s pages. Those pages have seen journalists come to connect with, understand, and serve their audiences in ways that were never before possible. They’ve seen the line between professional journalism and amateur fade in the hot light of shared interest and collaboration. They’ve seen the concept of the “news story” itself take new shapes with the advent of new tools.

They’ve seen the opposite movement, too, of course: the unbundling of the news form, the movement to define journalism against other forms of information, the disentangling of content from the revenue streams that sustained it, the dissolution of formerly solid business models. But CJR has generally adopted the long view. And the long view suggests that, while we may live in a time of deep disruption, the tremors are temporary. The ground will stop shaking, because it always does. And journalism will continue to be what it’s always been: a way for people to learn and participate and, finally, come together.

The Omnipresent Audience

Perhaps the biggest transformation involves the compact that journalism is forging with the people it serves. In 1977, in a note quoted by Fergus Bordewich, Springfield Newspapers’ Dale Freeman described that compact like so: “We can be breezy in a responsible manner. We can be shallow (hell, we are!) as well as deep. We can be both lady and a lady of the evening. And, above all, we can shinny down from our pedestals and stop being so by God arrogant.” Reaching readers on their level, Bordewich went on to note, often took the form of talking down to them: “The news must be ‘simplified’ for the reader who is too impatient to think about the often subtle unfolding of events; the news must be ‘personalized’ for the reader who is bored or alienated by the process of politics and world affairs.” Though many news editors profess their desire to produce more public-interest news coverage, “they are not talking about improving it: many are, in fact, cutting it back. Editors are not talking about better-written news, they are talking about ‘breezier’ news. Many papers are becoming so breezy you can hear the whistling through the holes where the news might have been.”

The rise of infotainment was in large part, of course, a response to the physical and psychic ubiquity of television. And the web, for its part, engendered a similar convergence of the Serious and the Silly—and encouraged, at the same time, the kind of ambient attention that has been TV’s hallmark. Writing in 1996, Todd Oppenheimer, then an associate editor at the new Newsweek Interactive, compared online audiences to crowds on a street. Of the web and its denizens, he wrote: “Its audience is a restless bunch. Grabbing them, let alone holding their attention, requires one to reach out with much, much more. This is no world for docile publishers. This is street journalism.”

Bordewich was talking about ad hoc interest, the kind of hit-and-run engagement that is both a bane and a boon to the business of online publishing. But he was also describing the way the web shapes social interactions. Oppenheimer talked of the potential offered by interactivity—the new insights, the new relationships—but he also discussed the “on-line” audience with just a hint of disdain. He talked of web communities’ penchant for typos and interpersonal vitriol and communicative frenzy, characteristics that are now so common as to be matters of cliché. “In chat,” he wrote, “those who are on-line at the same time (called ‘real-time’ in cyber-jargon) can type to us, or to each other, no matter where they’re located. As the ‘conversation’ proceeds, everyone’s messages scroll madly across your screen.”

Compare that to today’s conventional wisdom, which holds that conversation is key to a whole range of journalistic values: engagement, interactivity, community. CJR foreshadowed that, too. As Katherine Fulton put it in a 1996 article, “Content is people, as well as information, and new media change the equation. For all the talk of interactivity, I find very few journalists who really understand its import.”

Fulton quoted Melinda McAdams, who had helped in the formation of The Washington Post’s online news service: “A journalist with little on-line experience tends to think in terms of stories, news value, public service, and things that are good to read. But a person with a lot of on-line experience thinks more about connections, organization, movement with and among sets of information, and communication among different people.”

What Fulton saw was the increasing—and increasingly pivotal—role that community would play in the previously product-driven work of news reporting. The phrase “content is people” recognizes that journalism can’t be, fundamentally, a product when it is also, fundamentally, a relationship. “The newspaper’s approach to news has to change in order to be successful in transmitting information electronically,” CompuServe’s Richard Baker told Doug Underwood in 1992. “Newspapers and magazines have to embrace the concept of sharing the creation of the news.” They’ve done so, tentatively. Increasingly, journalism-as-product and journalism-as-process are finding ways to coexist under the same news brand, within the same journalistic framework. Journalism in the late twentieth century began to revisit its coffee-house roots, convening communities and conversations that can play out regardless of geographic and temporal divisions.

“Where can people listen to each other?” Fulton asked in 1996. “Where can they be heard? Where can they meet new people? The answer to those questions could turn out to be as important a factor in the long-term survival of some journalism institutions as the quality of their information.”

The More Things Change . . .

It’s remarkable how enduring these questions have proven. And remarkable, too, how much of CJR’s wisdom from the 1960s and beyond holds up today. “There may be a contradiction between the newspaper’s role as a business and its role as a medium charged with informing the public.” (Lawrence Pinkham, 1961.) “The craft of journalism is losing its old-time meaning. The ‘communicator’ with broader skills and knowledge may be the man of the future.” (Edward McSweeney, 1966.) “Nothing on the horizon indicates that the trend toward concentration of power in the news business and the mixing of news with other enterprises will diminish.” (Ben Bagdikian, 1977.) “The newsweeklies: Is the species doomed?” (Bruce Porter, 1989.) “As the explosion of information continues, there will be even more need for highly skilled journalists to root through it, filter out what’s important, and help put it into perspective.” (Doug Underwood, 1992.) “There’s an awful lot of junk on the Internet, and it’s very difficult separating the wheat from the chaff.” (Joe Burgess, 1993.) “Strip away some of the more profitable or popular items under this current umbrella, and you could strip away the means of paying for serious reporting aimed at mass audiences. . . . Classified ads, that huge profit center for every newspaper, are particularly vulnerable.” (Katherine Fulton, 1996.)

The concerns about journalism’s path, too, remain relevant. And not just the many involving Rupert Murdoch. The admonitions take familiar shapes. In CJR’s inaugural issue, Lawrence Pinkham reviewed a book titled, provocatively for the time, The Fading American Newspaper. “The main theme,” Pinkham wrote, “running erratically through the book, is that American newspapers, faced with the double necessity of staying in business and staying in journalism, have placed the demands of the cash register ahead of informing the public, and, as a result, have lost much of their reason for existence.”

Sounds familiar, right? There’s a plus ça change quality to many of the concerns articulated about journalism’s future, which is both frustrating—can’t we figure things out already?—and reassuring. The challenges that journalists historically have faced may vary in their form, but not, for the most part, in their function. For fifty years, we’ve been asking ourselves: Where is the line between honest analysis and dispassionate objectivity? How does amateur expertise affect professional journalism? How (and to what extent) do we ensure that journalism has, ultimately, real-world impact? How, if at all, should the industry adapt to changing technologies? A 1976 piece on the influence of cable TV quoted a report by the nonpartisan Committee for Economic Development: “If the move from scarcity to abundance in communications does not guarantee better or more complete information, if it only guarantees more, then it may well serve no constructive purpose.” A 1991 article on the new ubiquity of camcorders wonders what the empowerment of amateur videographers will mean for professional journalists. An article from the next year, on “newspapers’ identity crisis,” finds a Knight Ridder executive making a still-familiar observation about the future of print: “I don’t see print disappearing. But I see it taking a different form.” (He adds, ominously, presciently: “I’m not convinced the majority of newspaper companies will be in business in the next century.”)

And then there are the predictions—framed not as predictions at all, but as future-oriented declarations of fact. The kind of declarations that make you think, in retrospect, “How did they know that?” There’s, again, the iPad thing. There’s Ronald Kriss, in 1976, discussing the upcoming “ ‘wired nation’—a universal medium that would not only carry greatly expanded educational, cultural, and civic programming but would permit two-way communication with its audience and bring into being dial-a-libraries, facsimile newspapers, remote-controlled shopping, data transmission, banking by wire, electronic mail delivery, and instant national referenda.” There’s Dwight Morris declaring, in 1988, that “computer-assisted journalism is the new future of this business.” There’s our friend Roger Fidler, who, the author of a 1989 article suggested, “can see the day coming when large newspapers will have to develop a market niche to give them strong followings.” There’s Doug Underwood remarking, in 1992, that “as newspapers join the electronic competition, newspaper journalists are likely to find themselves ever more subject to the forces of technological change, the demands of perpetually updating the news for electronic services, and the pressure to think of their work in marketing terms.” There’s Dominique Wolton observing, in 1979, that “there is an increasing risk that journalistic work devoted to the coverage of general information will become less significant, and that the number of reporters covering such news will decline.” And then saying that “the failure to come to grips with a shift in the idea and distribution of information exposes newspapers to the risk of becoming an elite medium, leaving the electronic media to cater to the information tastes of the mass audience.” There’s Paul Saffo declaring, in 1996, that “the future belongs to neither the conduit nor the content players, but to those who control the filtering, searching, and sense-making tools we will rely on to navigate through the expanses of cyberspace.”

And: there are the doubts about the new mediums and new tools that news reporting has at its disposal, tools that expand—and, so, implicitly change—the craft of journalism, like computer-assisted reporting. Steve Weinberg’s 1982 profile of early car journalists quotes a colleague of Chicago Sun-Times reporter Thomas J. Moore: “Our economy is falling apart and here’s Moore playing with his expensive toy. He’s a smart guy and a good reporter who should be on the street, using his sources.”

The large dailies, Fidler told Doug Underwood, have been “arrogant about the future. They’ve looked at the technology with skepticism. But I think that’s a mistake. There’s a real threat there.” Jon Katz followed up in a 1992 piece about TV’s continuing effects on journalism: “The news media persist—at their peril—in covering this revolution as an amalgam of toys, or as more bad habits for kids. It is, in fact, a new culture of information, profoundly reshaping the leisure time and information habits of tens of millions of Americans.”

What Is a Journalist? (Parts 1-215)

The predictions about journalism’s future—and the declarations about its
current, transient state—lend themselves well to perhaps the most common questions in CJR’s coverage: What is a journalist? And what, indeed, is journalism? (Or, better, as Neil Postman would put it: “What is the problem to which the profession of journalism is the solution?”) Those questions lend themselves to pretty much any discussion of journalism’s future. “A journalist, as defined by the dictionary, is ‘one whose business it is to write for a public journal,’ ” Edward McSweeney wrote in 1966. “In the commonly accepted meaning, a journalist is a working professional whose primary concern is with words. But now as the graphic arts combine with electrical and audio-visual devices, publishing is expanding into new media of communication. . . .His primary activity will be to deal with meaning, whatever the symbols or methods of conveyance. He will be obliged to become master of multiple disciplines.”

It’s a sentiment that, obviously, reverberates—and only partially because journalists, born storytellers, often love nothing more than to tell their own stories. (“Never in my twenty-five years in this business,” Hearst’s Frank Benack put it, “have newspaper executives been as introspective about the ‘product’ as they are today.” He said that in 1976. Had he said it each year since then, it would only have grown more accurate.)

But what CJR’s coverage makes clear is that journalism’s existential questions are, for all their ubiquity, largely irrelevant. Content may be people, as Katherine Fulton had it; but so, really, is journalism. As long as there are people who define themselves as journalists, there will be journalism. The new tools available to its practice may “have the potential for democratizing the industry,” Paul Brainerd remarked in 1989. “But they are just tools. And it really depends on the people and their use of the tools.” Whatever the forms it takes, and whatever the technologies that take it there, journalism is a group endeavor. As Knight Ridder’s Bill Baker had it: “There are things about a newspaper that are attuned to the human spirit. And it’ll be there forever.” 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.