The Structure of Journalism

by Jack Rooney

Editor’s Note: It was my sincere hope to have this post done while it was still technically Monday, but rather predictably, life (read: The Observer) got in the way. I deeply apologize to you, Josh and people of #NDJED. I put the print deadline ahead of the blog deadline. Decisions, man. But I haven’t gone to sleep yet (obviously), so I am still considering this Monday. Respectfully, deal with it. 

This post requires a look at an incredible expanse of journalism history, beginning in the Jazz age and culminating in 1963 in the midst of the establishment of “big media.” Such a long period of history inevitably contains great social, cultural and political changes, among others, but this period of journalism history contains a number of structural changes to the news media, as well. Working chronologically, the first significant structural change in journalism might be considered the creation of an entirely new structure: the magazine. 

The magazine was nothing inherently new when Time launched in 1923, but Harry Luce and Brit Hadden did create something new with their venture. The Yale grads changed the structure of a certain type of news organization by decisively removing all barriers to circulation and coverage. Up until this point in journalistic history, newspapers and magazines limited themselves to the cities in which they published and typically geared their publication to a specific audience. Time sought to reverse this industry convention and appeal to as wide an audience as possible. And it worked. By 1928, the annual circulation reached nearly 300,000 and revenue eclipsed $1 million (p. 193).

In the same period, radio began its explosion into the American mainstream and became a force for news, through the advent of broadcasting. The federal government, however, under the direction of President Herbert Hoover, constructed the airwaves in a specific way so that the government could control and license the use of radio airwaves. The Radio Act of 1927 established the Federal Radio Commission (later the FCC) and forced structural changes upon the radio news industry. Nevertheless, the changes enacted by the Radio Act provided the groundwork for organizing and regulating this new medium, which would be replicated when television emerged as a mass medium. 

During the depression era (or “one horrible decade” as Daly put it) featured a key structural changes in the form of syndication. This “simple business arrangement” brought to a fuller reality Tocqueville’s concept of a newspaper implanting an idea in thousands of minds simultaneously. Not only did syndication provide for quality and easy content, it also gave select columnists a captive national audience. This concept has since been carried on to other media, and television and radio syndication have become arguably more influential than syndicated newspaper columnists. 

One of these widely syndicated columnists, Ernie Pyle, made his fame and ultimately lost his life in another government-implemented structural change: World War II. War coverage always presents a challenge to the news media to find the balance between comprehensive coverage that informs the public at home while also making sure they do not provide too much information to the enemy. Certainly government censors intervened in print and radio coverage both abroad and on the home front, but it was actually the media’s self-censorship that proved more restrictive. Journalists, as with most of the country, considered themselves “part of the team” during WWII, so naturally they were slow to criticize and slower to print something that would risk diminishing national morale. This change was obviously temporary, as the war eventually came to an end, but this mentality also extended to areas beyond military coverage. For example, journalists generally hid President Roosevelt’s health conditions, even as they deteriorated, for the sake of portraying him as a strong leader (p. 269). Ultimately, though, WWII proved beneficial for the news media as a whole, and reporting of World War II surpassed that of previous American wars (p. 284).

 In the post-war era, television came to the forefront of news media, led by an initially reluctant Edward R. Murrow, forging a path into an entirely new structure of news. Though the regulatory and corporate structure were already established for television (they used the same guidelines as radio), television still constituted a significant change in news culture and structure. Advertisers took on unprecedented power to control and influence content as ad revenue was the only source for TV. The Associated Press’s ever-increasing (or at least seemingly so) influence, and the development of “news cycles,” left the media vulnerable to people like Joseph McCarthy, who dominated the news with his absurd claims of rampant communism for the better part of five years (p. 296). Crusaders like Murrow, though, who were bold enough to fight back against the likes of McCarthy changed the entire tone of coverage and debate in the country, and ultimately set the stage for cable news and punditry a few decades later. 

Overall, this period of 43 years contained a world of difference for the news media. Starting in an era dominated by newspapers and radio, the news transformed through wars, both world and cold, regulations, and remarkable individuals and ended in a form much closer to what we know today, a 24-hour news cycle dominated by television coverage (though the internet has certainly made its claim in the past decade and a half). Tracing this history provides an insight into why the news is the way it is and how future changes can and will occur. It is up to us to recognize the patterns of history. 

Sorry again for the delay. 

Good night and good luck.