News workers are those engaged in the production of the written, visual, or audio texts designated as news and information appearing in print media and on broadcast and cable television, radio, and the Internet. These workers assign, report, research, write, and edit reports as well as produce and assemble visual images and the graphic forms for news and information. News workers also include senior editors, news directors, and others who manage these functions.
As an occupational category, news work does not usually include those engaged in any manufacturing, distribution, or advertising functions (such as press operators, broadcast engineers, or sales representatives). Although larger than that of journalist, the category includes only a small fraction of the workforce in communication industries. The United States, for example, had about 1.5 million workers in those industries (including telephony) at the turn of the twenty-first century. By one estimate, however, fewer than 120,000 were full-time editorial workers in mainstream media, about 50 percent in daily newspapers and somewhat less than 20 percent in television news. In China, by contrast, full-time editorial workers numbered about 87,000, distributed across the media in similar percentages. By comparison, approximately 30,000 people are so employed in Germany and 15,000 in the United Kingdom (Weaver 1998). Clearly news workers have a social and political importance disproportionate to their small numbers relative to the whole workforce.
The tasks of news workers as well as the differentiation of news work from other communication-related occupations, like most work since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century, reflects an evolving division of labor (Hardt & Brennan 1995). The occupation of printer evolved into that of newspaper editor-publisher, with the tasks of information gathering folded into the day’s work. With expanding commerce, increasing literacy, and developing print technology in the nineteenth century, these tasks divided as newspapers grew in size and circulation. To meet the growing need for capital, publishers became financiers while editors became managers of content production. With the arrival of the telephone and the typewriter, the production of news stories separated, at least for a time, into reporting, i.e., gathering information, and rewriting that information into story form. Through the twentieth century, reporting became more specialized as the beat system emerged to engage a more complex social and political order. In broadcasting, editors evolved into news directors and reporters into producers and correspondents. But with the emergence of independent journalism on the Internet, these functions sometimes merged once again.
As in other occupations, the differentiation of news work accompanied an increased routinization of its tasks. For journalists whose job is to quickly generate news of broad public interest, these routines are more intellectual than mechanical. The summary lead (or lede) emerged late in the nineteenth century along with the emphasis on the 5Ws formula – the most basic elements of contemporary news stories: who, what, when, where, and why (or how) – as essential features of news. In the early twentieth century, these practices along with others, such as reporting alternative positions on controversial issues and citing official sources, converged into the now globally ascendant and much criticized conventions of journalistic objectivity. While granting news workers some autonomy to deal with situations that deviate from the completely routine, news organizations retain substantial control of these workers through the inculcation of occupational norms that promote efficient news production. Journalists claim professional status based on routine capabilities, including accuracy, meeting deadlines, presentation style, and shared news values, noted an observer of journalism in the United Kingdom (Elliot 1977).
These competencies serve organizational purposes as well, and so professional status is as valued by executives as by workers. A study of television newsrooms, for example, found news workers consumed with a competitive ethos in which not getting beaten by the competition is the basic measure of performance. This ethos gives news workers a standard of accomplishment, but also serves organizational interests in competing for ratings (Ehrlich 1995).
The features of professions (such as law or medicine) attributable to journalism – command of specialized knowledge, commitment to performance standards, and the like – are also organizational strategies for accomplishing the work at hand. This understanding renders suspect any claims for news work as one of the professions. Under these circumstances, unionization of news workers has a long history and is now common around the world. This is not to say, however, that news workers are indifferent to the call of public service, but their conception of it varies around the world. Surveys indicate, for example, that large majorities of journalists in the United Kingdom (88 percent) and United States (67 percent) rate investigating the claims of government as important to their mission (Weaver 1998). Journalists in China, although spared that question, did report that explaining government regulations and party policies was important.
Such differences in news workers’ conceptions of their socio-political role do not map neatly onto cultural or political differences, however. American journalists did not rate their role as adversary to business nearly as highly as did their British counterparts (14 versus 45 percent), who in turn rated it less highly than did Brazilian journalists (53 percent). The most common element in the self-conceptions of news workers around the globe is simply the importance of getting timely information to the public. Even after two centuries of constant social, technological, and organizational change, timeliness remains the core definition of news work.
- Ehrlich, M. (1995). The competitive ethos in television newswork. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 12(2), 196–212.
- Elliott, P. (1977). Media organizations and occupations: An overview. In J. Curran, M. Gurevitch, & J. Woollacott (eds.), Mass communication and society. London: Edward Arnold, pp. 142–173.
- Hardt, H., & Brennan, B. (eds.) (1995). Newsworkers: Toward a history of the rank and file. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Weaver, D. H. (ed.) (1998). The global journalist: News people around the world. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Weaver, D. H., Beam, R. A., Brownlee, B. J., Voakes, P. S., & Wilhoit, G. C. (2007). The American journalist in the 21st century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.