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Posted June 12, 2003

What Changed in Journalism During the 20th Century?

John McManus interviewed journalism historian Thomas C. Leonard, librarian of the University of California and professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Today marks part 1 of a 4-part series.

From reporting for everyone in the community
to reporting for those advertisers value most

What are the biggest trends you see in 20th century journalism?

The first thing that comes to mind is the change in format and means of diffusion, electronic and all that. But there’s something more important that’s happened.

Although there certainly were elite magazines and newspapers, the media a century ago was much more a media that aimed to gather up very broad audiences. And particularly for publishers to think there was a great future in going what we might call “down-market”: for ordinary Americans, in the sense of workers in the cities and farmers in the countryside.

[Now] the common sense is to look at a niche market, and especially to look for the affluent; it’s sort of a synergy. [Manufacturers] make products that are focused on narrower parts of the buying public, and publications bring news and ads to smaller parts of the buying public.

We can, of course, think of exceptions to this. TV Guide and Reader’s Digest are interested in broad audiences. Inthat sense they’re characteristic of early 20th century magazines. But you’re going to find that there aren’t many of the common-denominator publications around.

The early democracy of broadcast

The second part of the big difference has to do with the technology and the underlying ways information gets out. The initial coming of radio in the 1920s, and television in the late ’40s and ’50s, reinforced this earlier idea that large audiences were best.

The signal feature of broadcasting was that, at least within the perimeter of the broadcast signal, there were no additional costs for reaching everyone. The people who broadcast naturally thought that a very large audience was the way to enhance their prestige, to count more in their community, and as a business matter, to sell goods that advertisers wanted to sell.

The television audience splinters with the arrival of cable

Again, with the coming of cable television, with the marginalization of radio as a mass medium, that isn’t quite the way people look at it anymore. They’re quite happy to have their share of an affluent spending public.

Now, that’s a little bit too simple, because advertisers want not only people with the money to buy their products, but the mental habits to buy their products. That translates in news media and entertainment media to thinking that you want younger people. Because the rule — and I’m not sure how well this is buttressed by research, but what people in the business believe — is that it is young people who are making life-long decisions about consumer habits.

Advertiser-driven news

If you want to sell toothpaste, a make of automobiles, a fashion label, the conventional wisdom is that younger people in the market are more interested in making a decision in that matter. And that it is more valuable to convert them to brand loyalty than to bother with somebody at the ripe old age of 60, who is harder to persuade it’s thought, and in any case, doesn’t have as many years left in them in as a consumer.

That sounds like business rather than journalism logic in both regards. The primary revenues are based on advertising rather than subscribers. As competition has increased, niches become a more sensible strategy, since those are the places that advertisers are trying to reach.

Yeah, I think that is the sort of hard economic logic that’s taking place. Now coming against that, of course, there are other reasons, other things that motivate publishers or journalists to get up in the morning and do their job. People want to have influence in their community. They want to have prestige. They may well have political objectives.

That — you might call it raw emotion or ambition — can be a factor both for good and for bad journalism.

There certainly have been people in journalism in the early 20th century who were in it to have a political future as much as they were in it to make money. William Randolph Hearst would be an example of that. And similarly today, when we see the acquisitions of a Rupert Murdoch or some other media tycoon, we’re seeing people who not only want to maximize their profits, but who are trying to get across ideas they consider to be very important.

Next: How the ethical practices of journalists changed during the 20th century.

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