Sandi Aung, Matthew Derrick, Dana Diehl,
and Alison Enzinna
March 22, 2012
News in America: An Evolving Industry
The earliest ancestors of what we call the modern newspaper originated in Venice, Italy during the 16th century. These handwritten papers, which focused on war and politics, were known as gazette or avisi and were in weekly circulation throughout the country. They represented the first organized, printed exchange of news and would evolve into a communication medium with the power to change our perception of the world. Weekly newspapers cropped up in Basel, Frankfort, Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin, and Amsterdam in the early 1600s. It was not until 1621, more than 55 years after the first recorded avisi in Venice, that England produced its first printed newspaper, called “Corante, or weekely newes” (Stephens).
The newspapers of England typically appeared in two formats, the first following that of the Dutch papers which crammed the news on two to four pages, while the other followed the style of the German papers, which took the form of a pamphlet and spread the news on an eight to twenty-four page spread. Regardless of the format, the early English papers provided a focus on short articles, as well as classifieds (Stephens). They covered primarily local, political events.
The next seventy years of newsprint saw a shift in the content covered. National news struck an interest with the readers following the outbreak of the British Civil War. Newspapers editors began to understand the freedom they possessed to report the occurrences of key political figures and events. These early English newspapers were the first to use modern news features such as illustrated advertisements and headlines (Stephens). As papers became more aesthetically pleasing, they gained readership and power. The placement of headlines and the arrangement of articles allowed editors to potentially influence readers during major events such as the British Civil War.
Newspapers did not appear stateside until 1690. The first American newspapers appeared in the British colonies, specifically in Boston, and dedicated much of their printed space to stories involving local Indians or reports from London papers about English and European politics. The first successful American newspaper was the Boston News-Letter, which was produced by postmaster John Campbell and was the first paper to acquire a limited, yet continuous circulation (Barber).
By the start of the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts had become centers for American newspaper printing. The papers of the revolution sparked an interest in public opinion and served as a source of propaganda against the British. By the war’s end, there were forty-three newspapers in print. Freedom of the press was ratified into the Bill of Rights in 1791. By 1814, there were over 340 newspapers. These numbers continued to rise throughout the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War. According to the 1880 census, the number of American newspapers had risen to 11,314 (Barber). During these tumultuous times, newspapers were important tools for building patriotism.
The twentieth century newspaper continued its slew of successes until well into the 1940’s. Afternoon and evening editions of the paper were added to keep readers up to date with breaking news throughout the day. However, newspaper readership declined in the 1950’s when television news was introduced to the public. By the 90’s, afternoon and evening issues became a rarity. Also, readership of the papers that remained in print had drastically declined. Advertising within papers, though still profitable, had become an expensive, multi-million dollar business (Barber).
Throughout their evolution, newspapers have had a direct impact on readers. Reporters and editorial staff take into account the interests and needs of the entire society when constructing each edition. According to a senior staff member of the In Profile Daily, “power of the media can transform the whole society especially in the developing countries it can be used as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’” (Effects on Media). Newspapers have the ability to help their readers formulate their own opinions on important issues, while the journalists themselves retain an objective voice. Designers take into account the readers’ habits and psychology when they create the page layouts. Typically the most important stories appear at the top of the fold and headline sizes decrease as you read down the page (Harrower 29). In this way, newspaper editors and designers decide which articles are more or less important for readers, a process that can be seen as either helpful or limiting to the public.
News, more often than not, is focused on the negative events that occur in society, such as crimes, deaths, accidents, and natural disasters. An ethical question in the production of articles is how much of these events to include. For example, when a crime is committed, the inclusion of the accused’s name and the names of their family members may ruin their public reputation. Although the inclusion of such elements may be morally or ethically wrong, there is nothing illegal about it, and so many current-day newspapers don’t hesitate (Brooks 122). The newspaper has become a place for gossip. It reflects the public’s curiosity about the lives of people in their communities.
Newspapers also serve as an open forum for public opinion. A majority of newspapers in print include an entire spread of pages dedicated to letters to the editor and Q&As. Within these sections of the paper, the reader can choose to address faults they find with what is printed in the paper, or they may bring attention to things that were not covered. Newspapers invite readers to interact with them. However, editors can be selective about which letters they include (Brooks 89).
Currently, large chains of newspapers are buying out independent publications. Newspaper readership and publications continue to dwindle in the traditional format, as connoisseurs of news turn towards other media for their news. Because of this switch to other formats, the profit margins produced from advertising sales have also decreased (Stephens). As the need for printed news decreased, there became a need for a more visualized form of news (Barber). This visual came in the form of television news programming.
The 1940’s marked a shift in news media, as well as a shift in thought. Television first became popularized in the United States in April of 1939 at the World’s Fair in Queens, New York. Over the course of a year, twenty million people visited the fair and experienced the first American television broadcasts on televisions set up over the grounds. David Sarnoff, from Radio Corporation of America (RCA), made history as he looked into the cameras and told the crowds, “It is with this feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society” (qtd. in Conway 39). His image was beamed across the city to monitors in Manhattan, and the idea for television news in America blossomed (Conway 39).
The 1940’s were experimental years; news producers adjusted to the new medium and new technology. In 1940, three television leaders, Philco, RCA, and General Electric, pieced together the first television network to screen the presidential convention in Philadelphia. The picture quality was poor, but viewers claimed to watch because “the tension and restlessness kept building, until that explosive moment when the final votes that put Wendell Willkie over the top were recorded” (qtd. in Conway 43). The broadcast provided the drama and excitement that would later become important in television news.
The growth of regularly scheduled newscasts was gradual. In the earliest programs, reporters would simply read the newspaper in front of the camera. They would have only fifteen minutes of air time. These programs benefited from immediacy, but they did not take advantage of the new visual medium (Conway 59). The events of World War II pushed reporters to adapt, however. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, WCBW prepared a special broadcast, changing television news forever. The news producers realized they needed more than scripted words to explain the situation and reassure viewers. They interviewed experts and brought in visual aids such as photographs, maps, and even a can of lima beans to illustrate the number of planes involved in the attack (Conway 85). During World War II, television news became an important source of political and war information.
In 1951, CBS television news ran one to three times a week, and the number of television sets in homes measured in the thousands (Conway 284). By the 1990’s, ninety-eight percent of US homes had at least one television set, and many of those homes had cable television. The televisions were on for an average of seven hours a day. Today, there are over forty twenty-four hour news channels in the United States. This is in addition to local news programs. There are regular political comedy news programs, such as the Colbert Report the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as entertainment news. Quality and easy access have caused television to replace newspapers as a primary source of news over the past twenty years (Milburn and McGrail 614).
Television news programs have changed the way we react to and see the world. Psychologists Milburn and McGrail point out that “the advent of twenty-four-hour television news […] has eliminated the temporal borders in the news day, creating an informational environment in which there is always breaking news to produce, consume, and – for reporters and their subjects – react against” (54). Television has the power to show, rather than just tell. It has put us in the middle of wars, in the middle of presidential debates, and allowed us to experience the first moonwalk. National leaders become characters whose faces we are familiar with. Television news has made the world smaller, connecting us to and familiarizing us with local, as well as international proceedings.
However, there are disadvantages to TV news, as well. Michael Milburn and Anne McGrail argue that the techniques of television news can limit viewers’ perspective and knowledge of events and issues. They equate television news to a drama, driven by fiction-writing techniques: “conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning middle and an end” (614). Competitions with other news programs and the limitations of the visual medium have led television news away from an emphasis on public discourse and toward one of entertainment. Milburn and McGrail claim that the use of drama in television news has two important facets: the generation of emotional arousal and the use of underlying myths. Both of these facets can contribute to “simplification of thought,” because viewers experience emotion rather than objective truth (Milburn and McGrail 615).
Producers seek out stories that exploit the visual dimension of TV news. They want a great “action story.” This selective representation might lead to an oversimplification of world events. For political or international news, viewers are assumed to have little to no knowledge of the subjects at hand, but there is only limited time for explanation. Producers must condense information and put pictures on the screen that have instant meaning and emotional appeal (Milburn and McGrail 616). Milburn and McGrail quote Edward Epstein as saying, “an individual is recognizable as the representative of a larger group, and the emotion he engenders is expected to evoke a basic response in the audience. Thus a network news story about declining prices of farm commodities should be case in pictures of a single heartbroken farmer leaving his homestead in tears” (616). The audience will feel sympathetic toward the farmer, but they won’t understand why there are declining prices or how it affects their lives.
TV news allowed reporters, for the first time, to really show, rather than just tell. Yet, the audience remained passive receivers of the information. The public still searched for a medium that would make news more interactive. Such interactiveness was achieved when print and television news went viral, thanks to the creation of the Internet.
One of the initial reasons print news moved online was the high cost of printing and distribution; text could be published online for almost nothing. At first, it was a gamble putting news online, because few people thought to turn to the Internet for information on current events. Yet, as the Internet became popularized and more easily accessible, the number of online readers jumped quickly. A study on online editions of web newspapers reported that they had increased from 745 sites in July of 1996 to 2,059 sites in 1997, only a year later (Li).
The first online news retained the traditional print layout, because publishers were aware of its readers’ hesitancy to change to a new platform. The Internet wasn’t as user friendly as it has come to be. Publishers had to ease people into the “laborious process involved in using the Internet editions in 2001” (Barnhurst). Even reporters had reservations about the new technology, specifically about the credibility and security of the e-mail system they used to send and receive information for their stories (Garrison 62). These reservations conflicted with the quickly growing benefits of online printing.
Web news changed with the growth of the Internet, leaving its traditional print layout to incorporate some of the features only available online. With the use of reader comment boxes and hyperlinks, online news evolved into a place where readers could communicate with reporters and each other. Hyperlinks were still rare in 2005, but “print publishers have moved only tentatively into the new technology,” wary of how it might affect their reputations (Barnhurst). Yet, with virtually unlimited space the editors and publishers of news articles began to add more news stories, incorporating pictures and links to external sites. News became a conversation between multiple sources and first and second-hand accounts.
These new capabilities also allowed publishers to “interrupt reading with multiple page clicks to generate revenue, a tactic much easier to ignore in print” (Althaus & Tewksbury 197). Editors could break a single news article over many online pages, adding advertisements and images to each page. Advertisements helped news sites pay for their print issues’ upkeep. In addition, the online medium allowed editors to publish different types of stories. A study on the differences between New York Times print and online editions found that the print edition exposed readers to a wider range of content than the internet editions. Yet, the online issues were more tailored to individual readers’ tastes. Despite this, it was discovered that, in general, both print and online readers showed the same level of political awareness (Althaus & Tewksbury 197-198).
As online news grew, people outside the sites’ staff began to dictate the types of stories printed online. Site managers could view how many people visited each article-page, and they posted stories to reflect their readers’ interests. For example, when people showed an interest in crime, “main pages became not only more extensive but also more full of information about accidents. Jobs stories became […] more buried, and the content tilted toward crime” (Barnhurst). The public became part of the news in other ways, as well. People worldwide were posting and sharing stories through social media sites. They formed message boards to discuss political and current events. News no longer existed in a bubble; much of “the online content […] originated not from that newspaper’s own staff but from external agencies” (Barnhurst). Online, news transformed into interactive medium.
There was fear that this “interactivity could […] make sites more commercial and journalists less accountable” (Singer & González-Velez 443). It’s more difficult to track the sources of articles found online, and the medium allows anyone to write about and contribute news to the online community. Readers are just as concerned about holding journalists, or at least companies they write for, responsible for the information they provide. The evolution of technology to incorporate the ease of the Internet into our everyday lives turns each person with a camera phone or a wireless connection into a journalist.
News isn’t something a person waits for anymore. It has become something that almost anyone in America can casually take part in, whether it involves posting or reposting on social media networks or commenting on articles from The Huffington Post or The New York Times. Washington Post’s executive editor Leonard Downie says that online, “all the feedback improves the journalism” (Barnhurt). Despite reporters’ original fears of invalid information, reputable websites now insure that journalists fact check their information; if they don’t, they run the risk an every-day man exposing the falsity of their story. It has helped that other web services, such as e-mail sites and search engines, began attaching themselves to web news, providing pages of articles sorted into categories for the casual observer. AOL and Yahoo e-mail pages provide direct links and blurbs for a number of news pages everyday. The most casual browser was suddenly exposed to new stories just by looking at their homepage.
Always competing in matters of usability and traffic, the other brand-recognized online news sights organized their content in similar styles. The Tribune was, in 2005, “front-loading its content to provide readers quick headlines and links to follow their topical interests.” As a result, the nature of stories posted online also changed, “A greater emphasis on first reports of events accompanied a loss: fewer stories followed up after a breaking story appeared. More stories appeared only electronically” (Barnhurt,). Publishers began to see their online editions as a way to draw attention to their print copies, giving the readers a taste of the newspaper or magazine’s style. Still, people didn’t stop interacting with news stories. Many in fact took to the Internet themselves and began reporting the news in the form of blogs.
Blogs are the most recent stage in the news production evolution. Over the past few years, they have become an integral part of online culture. People read them to keep up to date on current events, work or hobbies, and/or entertainment. Regardless of blogs’ current popularity, they have had a relatively short history, especially when compared with the history of the Internet itself (Chapman). It wasn’t until 1997 that the term “weblog” was introduced. The first known instance of a blog on a traditional news site was in 1998 when Jonathan Dube blogged Hurricane Bonnie for The Charlotte Observer. The term “weblog” was shortened to “blog” in 1999 by programmer Peter Merholz. Blogs gained widespread popularity in America with the launch of the first two starter platforms, ‘LiveJournal’ and ‘Blogger,’ in 2001. These starter platforms made it possible for even casual internet users to start their own pages and capitalized on the personal, immediate aspects of the medium.
Political blogs were some of the most popular early blogs. For example, “The Daily Dish,” launched in October 2000, covered recent events and gained readership in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Blogs provided the perfect vehicle for broadcasting editorial opinions and reaching out to readers and viewers. By 2001, “meta blogs”, which were blogs about blogging, established themselves as a major portion of the blog world. ‘WordPress,’ launched in 2003, has been the most used blogging tool to date due to its user-friendly design. Now, people with little or no web or design experience can start and personalize their own blog page.
Eight to ten years ago, blogs were close to becoming the primary point of communication for individuals online; however, with the rise of social media and social networking in the past five years, blogs have become only one portion of an individual’s online activity (Chapman). The blog medium is used for self-promotion and shared news and opinions of almost everything.
As the population of Internet users increased, television and print news and the digital media had to merge their fields. This triggered the birth of news blogs and the web became a virtual newsstand where readers came to browse and check out what was being offered. One way to measure the ascent of blogs is to assess how much attention is paid to them through other forms of media. The main reason blogs became so popular is that newspapers, magazines, and even television news drew attention to them (Perlmutter 65-66).
There are many up and downsides to the trend of news blogs and online media. As readers sample a website’s blogs, people in the news business have a chance to convert them into newsletter subscribers, app downloaders, or print subscribers to increase income (Romensco). One major advantage of blogs is that they are simple to create, meaning they open discussions to the online community of any social class, at any time and place. Since anyone can join the conversation and address their opinions, news blogs have served as an interactive, nonexclusive media in relation to newspapers and television news.
There are disadvantages to the nonexclusive nature of blogs. Because they are often maintained by individuals, they can include biased or inaccurate information that is harmful or misleading to users. Unlike chat rooms or official news corporations, blogs are unmediated and don’t always offer their sources. The benefit of this is that blogs provide students and interested parties an opportunity to interact with their peers. They create a forum for discussions that go beyond coursework to incorporate culture, politics, and other areas of personal exploration (Educause Learning Initiative). However, the information found on these blogs must be taken with a grain of salt.
It is not surprising given the popularity of the Internet that more and more people are wanting to become bloggers instead of flipping burgers or working in supermarkets. Because of this, there comes the ethical dilemma of whether it is more important to have a popular or credible blog. According to Albert Rolls in his book News Media, bloggers’ credibility, independence, and the reliability is more magnetized if those bloggers are journalists, because it increases reliability and quality of the source (Rolls 49-51).
Looking into the future with the technological advances, it may seem strange to imagine the blogging community as a force that would shape the informational environment in the same manner as corporate media. There comes the question of what will happen to democracy in the current media environment since the power is in the hands of publishers and bloggers. Media scholar Robert McChesney warns that the range of voices in policy debates will become constrained. The University of Chicago Law School’s Cass Sunstein worries that “the fragmentation of the Web is apt to result in the loss of the shared values and common culture that democracy requires” (Jenkins 180). As consumers, we experience these dual tensions. Turn on the TV, and it feels like the same programs are on all the channels; turn to the Web and it’s impossible to distinguish the good stuff from the noise (Jenkins 181). Bloggers respond to both extremes, expanding the range of perspectives and, if they’re clever, creating order form the informational chaos. They create a world where news doesn’t just belong to the reporters, but to everyone.
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