Blogs Are Old News: A Brief History of American Journalism – Part One

Five years ago, when I taught Journalism, my syllabus was set. We began with a brief discussion of colonial gazettes, then focused on objective news. Until recently I hadn’t connected those two dots – how American news writing evolved from opinionated essays to what is now considered fair and accurate reporting. This connection turns out to be an interesting story that might shed some light on the future of Journalism.

What is “objective” news? Any definition should include the tasks of checking facts and showing several points of view. For instance, if you were writing about lawmakers wishing to increase taxes, you would need to speak with  both those for and those against. You would also interview the citizens affected and back up (or disprove) all opinion with facts. Finally, you would confirm any data you present via two or more knowledgeable sources.

That’s a lot of work. Yet most highly-respected news organizations follow this model, from The New York Times to National Public Radio. Except bloggers. You may be surprised to learn how many respected bloggers there are (for instance, those who write for Slate, Salon and The Huffington Post). Despite the value of objective reporting, there is a much older tradition of citizen journalism in this country that deserves consideration.

First American Newspaper

First American Newspaper

The first newspaper published in our colonies (Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick [sic]) appeared on September 25, 1690. Boston-based printer, Richard Pierce and editor Benjamin Harris intended to produce monthly editions. Yet after just one issue, British authorities shut it down. The periodical consisted of four pages, only three of which bore news. They left the fourth page blank, intending that stories would be added by citizen journalists as the publication passed from hand to hand. Printed articles include: one about a grieving widower who hanged himself, some gossip about the French royal family, and criticism of treatment by the British-allied Iroquois of their French captives. Authorities closed the paper as the publishers had not paid a tax and had slurred the treatment of French prisoners.

We’ve all heard about colonial pamphleteers like Thomas Paine (who wrote an argument for independence titled Common Sense) and Benjamin Franklin (whose publications included Poor Richard’s Almanac, The Pennsylvania Gazette as well as the first German language newspaper in America – Die Philadelphische Zeitung). Yet there were many others as well, like Isaiah Thomas (The Massachusetts Spy), William Parks (The Virginia Gazette), and the man who gave Benjamin his journalistic start – brother James Franklin.

Printing shop, Colonial Williamsburg (wiki)

Printing shop, Colonial Williamsburg (wiki)

All these printer/publishers had certain policies in common: intense coverage of neighborhood events (now known as hyperlocal reporting – more about this in Part Two) and the inclusion of essays stating personal opinions. To readers who prefer objective news, that kind of reporting sounds myopic at best and at worst, misleading. Yet broadsheets served as rallies for the Revolution. After independence, they worked like online message-boards where citizens could air their notions of ideal government.

Ever heard of the “Fourth Estate”? This term was coined by Edmund Burke. In a 1787 speech to the British House of Commons, Burke said there were three estates in Parliament, “…but in the Reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” (Italics mine.) Most Americans would agree: there is something about being observed and divulged that improves human behavior. Journalism provides a crucial means of regulating those who wield power.

Yet apart from including actual facts, can reporting be objective? Which news should be reported, and which ignored? How many opinions does it take to present The Truth? Should we include the poor? Political minorities? What of those who cannot vote?

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, [all] Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.” With its emphasis on airing all opinions before the public, Franklin’s belief sounds democratic in the Aristotelian sense: all opinions are valuable. Airing them (as ideally happens in Congressional debate) puts citizens in the best position to determine the course of state. Messy? Yes, but effective.

Muirhead Automatic Telegraph Syphon Receiver (wiki)

Muirhead Automatic Telegraph Syphon Receiver (wiki)

Objective journalism as we know it did not appear all at once. Well into the 1830s, newspapers served to publicize the political opinion of parties like the Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans and the Tolerationists. Commercial telegraphs helped to change all that. In 1846 a group of New York newspapers founded the Associated Press with the idea of sharing expenses for news-gathering (via telegraph) from out west. Since each paper had a different readership, writers were discouraged from giving their articles a political slant.

Authentication remained less important. In the late 1800s, publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer helped popularize the concept of “investigative” or “muckraking” journalism – where reporters went undercover for periods of time to observe and record the unseemly practices of politicians, businessmen and other powerbrokers. Yet journalists were encouraged to bend (or omit) certain facts in support of a wider agenda – to sell as many papers as possible.

Yellow journalism at work in Joseph Pulitzer's The World (wiki)

Yellow journalism at work in Joseph Pulitzer’s The World (wiki)

At the height of competition between Pulitzer and Hearst (1895-98), the facts were often abandoned altogether. A classic example is Hearst’s unproven insistence that on February 15, 1898 Spain blew up the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. His paper’s battle cry – “Remember the Maine. To hell with Spain.” – helped drive this country into the Spanish American War. Such “Yellow” or “sensational” journalism – with its screaming headlines and unverified tales – can still be found at your local grocery checkout counter.

Fact-checking didn’t really count until after World War I. According to sociologist Michael Schudson,  war taught us that believing something did not make it so. He wrote, “Journalists’ …experience of propaganda during the war and public relations thereafter convinced them that the world they reported was one that interested parties had constructed for them to report.” The ideals of objective reporting arose in reaction to this.

Today’s pundits openly grieve the death of newspapers and objective reporting. They have a point: newspaper ad revenue (including digital) fell 60% from 2003 to 2013. Subscriptions, the other major source of income, have declined by 10.3% since 2008. Roughly 15,000 full-time reporting and editing jobs disappeared between 2006 and 2009, and the trend continues with a predicted loss of 7200 more reporters/editors between 2012 and 2022.

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant play newspaper reporters in His Girl Friday (wiki).

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant play newspaper reporters in His Girl Friday (wiki).

As a result, one particular area of journalism has taken a big hit: the coverage of local (city/county) government. What happens when no one reports on elected officials? In Georgia at least, the answer has been corruption, embezzlement and the resulting decay of services. (More about this in Part Two.)

So here we are, with two distinct strains in American Journalism. One, blogging, is opinion-based and can be near-sighted (say, a story about zoning on your neighborhood webpage that omits the opinions of local commissioners). The other, so-called objective reporting, languishes from lack of financial support. How did this happen, and what happens next? In Part Two of this history, I will describe the state of modern Journalism and attempt to answer those questions.


Meanwhile, a query for you – What kind of journalism do you prefer and how do you consume it?

6 thoughts on “Blogs Are Old News: A Brief History of American Journalism – Part One

  1. What a great, informative post! Brought back 8th grade vocabulary words (“muckraking” was a favorite) and brought in new stuff (B Franklin ran a German newspaper?!). And thank you thank you for imaging My Girl Friday! Smart pick ❤ Almost all of my news comes from NPR while I drive. Years ago I grew tired of the Great Sift, and started costing, and Slate got terrible… NPR was the only news aggregator that I could stomach. I also used to start my mornings with LeMonde to not feel so "American Insular," but for me just starting the day with news was a bad idea – it closed my focus too much.

  2. Yes, these are interesting times for journalists. Even as we speak, the way news gets reported is changing. Speaking of NPR, “On the Media” did a wonderful piece (called “Dead Beats”) about the kind of news that no longer gets reported. LeMonde? Wow. Kudos to you for the inclusive worldview. I agree the news can be quite depressing – especially when the rule is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Actually, I think the real term is “lede,” but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation. Thanks for your kind words.

    • Huffington and NPR provide great examples of “objective” news. After recent events in France (re: Charlie Hebdo) it seems that comedy can be political, too. See second half of this series, for the good (vs. depressing) news.

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