Would journalism please hold still!
Why did we ever imagine that we knew what journalism is? Why do so many people speak as if there was this Thing called Journalism that has only recently been called into question? A volume of papers devoted to ‘rethinking journalism’ understandably assumes that this is an especially appropriate moment for reconsideration, that journalism stands at a time of epochal change, and that there are grounds for concern that some of the elements of change do not bode well for journalism or for some valued features of society and politics that journalism is said to support – notably, democracy. I agree with these premises, but I worry that they may seem to imply that we know what journalism was, at least up until yesterday or the day before yesterday. It was as recently as 2005 that Svennik Hoyer and Horst Pottker put together their
useful book, The Diﬀusion of the News Paradigm. Their contributors (including me) wrote about the establishment, ﬁrst in the United States, of ‘the news paradigm’ that during the past century spread to Europe and has been accepted as the leading model of how professional journalists should report the news. The diﬀusion of this news paradigm is what Marcel Broersma calls in his paper for this volume the ‘long-term project of professionalization’, and he borrows from Hoyer and Pottker the notion of a journalistic ‘paradigm.’ For Hoyer, that paradigm consists of the central use of interviewing as a news-gathering technique, the use of an inverted-pyramid presentational structure in news stories, and the premise of ‘objectivity’ as the reporter’s moral and literary stance. (Hoyer and Nonseid, 2005: 124) The acceptance of this model in European journalism was slow and uneven: ‘Gradual developments over several decades seem to be the normal conditions in news journalism’ Hoyer and Nonseid (2005: 11, 134) concluded in their chapter on Norway. Slow, uneven, but in the end triumphant. Hoyer and Nonseid report on a Swedish study by Inger Lindstedt in which
she examines Swedish news textbooks from 1917 to 1996 and ﬁnds the texts rejecting this news paradigm before the Second World War. They referred to the
inverted-pyramid presentation of news as ‘American’ as late as 1953. By 1981 it was called either ‘international’ or even, by then, ‘traditional.’ In less than thirty years, ‘American’ had become ‘traditional’ and ‘the news paradigm’ had taken on the air of inevitability that ‘traditional’ signiﬁes (Hoyer and Nonseid, 2005: 135). In an important paper, ‘Visual Strategies: Dutch Newspaper Design Between Text
and Image 1900-2000,’ Marcel Broersma focuses on the changing visual look of the Dutch newspaper front page from 1900 to 2000. In the beginning, the leading Dutch newspapers were arranged in what Broersma calls a ‘vertical’ format. The pages were nothing but grey – no illustrations, no photographs, nothing one could really call a headline. The ﬁrst story began at the top of the left-hand column. If it ﬁnished midcolumn, a short line would separate it from the next story that followed in the same column. Perhaps that story ran about two columns. It would go from the lower half of column one up to the top of column two, down to the bottom, up to the top of column three and ﬁnish somewhere in the middle of that column. The next story, after a short line, would then begin in the lower portion of column three. And so forth. What’s missing from this? Nothing much – just editors and readers! No one was
exercising any sort of editorial judgment and no one was making any eﬀort to market the news to readers. The front page that became familiar to American readers in the last decades of the nineteenth century and British readers by about 1920 was unknown to Dutch newspaper consumers for decades thereafter. The Anglo-American front-page distinguishes more important from less important stories by page placement, headline font size, number of columns the headline spans, sidebars, and so forth. This marks the signiﬁcance of the item, in the eyes of the editors, and oﬀers guideposts to readers about what they are likely to ﬁnd most important, interesting and gripping to read. It is a visual mapping of journalistic news values. The Dutch newspapers increasingly adopted these Anglo-American conventions
only after 1945. And then Broersma oﬀers a riveting sentence: ‘Journalists were no longer expected merely to record happenings but to extract the news from an event.’ He adds, ‘Readers were no longer left to draw their own conclusions; the journalist now told them what the most important information was’ (Broersma, 2007b: 187). The Dutch can be said to have invented journalism in the West. The Dutch ‘coranto’ was the root form of journalism in the 1600s. Dutch newspapers were by no means isolated or provincial. But Dutch journalists did not presume to tell readers what the most important information was; until at least 1945 they typically oﬀered a chronicle of events without extracting the news from it. In the original home of newspaper journalism, not until after 1945 was there anything that looked like what we have come to accept as modern journalism. The recency of recognizably contemporary journalism can be seen also in Britain,
where there was nothing that read like modern journalism until about 1920. This is the persuasive argument of Donald Matheson’s study of British news discourse – as he puts it, the birth of news discourse in Britain, between 1880 and 1930. It is not, in his view, that there was no such thing as news in newspapers in 1880. There were newspapers. There were even reporters. But the model of what a newspaper did in
1880 was that it served as ‘a collection of raw information’ and what it typically had become by 1930 is ‘a form of knowledge in itself, not dependent on other discourses to be able to make statements about the world’ (Matheson, 2000: 559). The Victorian newspaper was ‘a medley of various public styles, voices and types of text’ in the late nineteenth century. It is not until around 1920 that one can recognize that ‘a journalistic discourse has emerged, which allows the news to subsume these various voices under a universal, standard voice’ (Matheson, 2000: 564). Both Broersma on the visuality of the front page (in the Netherlands) and
Matheson on the verbal discourse of the front page (in Britain) locate the emergence of our contemporary sort of journalism in the twentieth century and not before. And this is not, it seems to me, just a matter of changing fashion in artistic or literary presentation. We can see vast changes in formal style in, say, the novel over the past several centuries, but one has little doubt that Charles Dickens in the 1850s and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s and John Updike in 2000, or Jane Austen in the 1820s and Virginia Woolf in the early 1900s and Margaret Atwood today could all plausibly, in one’s imagination, have sat together on the same television talk show to discuss ‘the novel’ and they would have understood one another as engaged in essentially the same project. This seems much less likely – basically impossible – with journalists of 1820 and 1850 and journalists of 1920 and 1950 and today. The journalism that we know – despite its many variations and the sometimes radical changes it is undergoing today online – understands that it is oﬀering some sort of knowledge in itself, however vaguely deﬁned it may be. Somewhere between roughly 1920 and roughly 1950 the voice of contemporary
journalism took hold. The Americans may claim credit for having got there a touch earlier with the technique of interviewing giving shape to US journalism by the 1880s and 1890s and the summary lead and inverted-pyramid form oﬀering a common vantage for asserting the authority of journalistic discourse by around 1910. But nineteenth-century American journalism, until the last two decades of the nineteenth century, was frequently quite a lot like the ‘Victorian’ journalism that Matheson describes as dominating the entire Victorian era in Britain. Much is changing today, and changing quickly, but it is not changing from a set-
tled, static set of practices. That already happened, inside the news paradigm, particularly in the 1970s. In the United States, this was provoked by the Vietnam war and capped by Watergate, but it was also encouraged by a huge expansion of higher education and the centrality there of a ‘critical’ or even ‘adversary’ culture, and a broad rebellion – around the world – against ‘the Establishment.’ Journalism became less comfortable with its role as part of the Establishment and began to identify less with a political insider status that had begun to be embarrassing, and more with its outsider ‘watchdog’ role. When media scholar Daniel Hallin coined the phrase ‘high modernism’ to name the period of American journalism ascendant from the Second World War to the early years of the Vietnam war, what caught his eye, in an interview with the well-known war correspondent Peter Arnett – who staunchly defended an unbending allegiance to objective reporting – was ‘the absence of a sense of doubt or contradiction’ (Hallin, 1994: 170).