The history of journalism, inclusively defined, encompasses the history of news and news media, including, among other things, the history of print, broadcast, and computer technology; of news work, news routines, and news workers; and of news organizations, including newspapers and other media outlets as well as wire services and feature syndicates. Defined more narrowly, the history of journalism refers to the emergence of a set of values and explanations that discipline, regulate, and justify news practices. Journalisms are socially constructed, and appear in different guises at different times in different national cultures in reference to different media. The history of journalism examines their construction in national and international settings, as well as anticipating their future prospects.
Journalism As Historical Construct
Commentators on political discourse began to apply the term “journalism” to some of the content of newspapers in the early nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, journalism came to refer to a specific kind of reportage in the various national cultures of the modern west. A form of the word “journalist” appears first describing the highly opinionated and politicized newspaper writers of post-revolutionary France. The word then appeared in English news reports but continued to refer to French essayists. It was subsequently applied to English and US essayists, but continued to refer to opinion writing until the second half of the century. Then it began to be applied to news-gathering practices, which were becoming increasingly routinized.
This capsule history of the word underscores the fact that journalisms tend to exist within national systems, even though the history of journalism is really an international one. Printed newspapers first appeared in Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century. They were a late feature of the socalled printing revolution, the long set of transformations that scholars like Elizabeth Eisenstein (1980) argue the invention of the printing press inaugurated and intensified. Among other things, these scholars assert that the ability of the printing press to mass produce ephemera helped standardize vernacular languages and create national publics. Benedict Anderson (1991) argues that a particular variant, print capitalism, was essential to the rise of modern nationalism.
Early newspapers responded to religious and economic concerns. Most governments, anxious to keep public affairs out of the hands of ordinary people, created systems of censorship and tried to suppress political news. But practicalities made this difficult. Recurring periods of intra-elite conflict produced breakdowns in censorship systems, as when, for instance, the English Printing Act lapsed in 1695 because dueling parties in Parliament were unable to reach agreement on appropriate measures (Siebert 1952). The division of Europe into many warring jurisdictions meant that neighboring countries could host publications: the first Englishlanguage newspapers appeared in Amsterdam, and Swiss publishers readily served readers in France (Darnton 1979).
As censorship systems failed, the various nations of western Europe and North America developed what Jürgen Habermas (1989) has described as a bourgeois public sphere. In this formulation, such a public sphere appeared as a space between civil society and the state and worked both as a buffer zone, preventing state interference in private life, and as a steering mechanism, allowing citizens to deliberate in an uncoerced manner to form public opinion, which would then guide the governing process. Scholars disagree on most aspects of Habermas’s formulation, but it seems clear that by the beginning of the nineteenth century in the modern west the major function of the press was its involvement in governance.
The newspaper became a key part of a system for representing public opinion. At first, opinion pieces in newspapers maintained a careful decorum, including the use of pseudonyms and the maintenance of an appearance of personal disinterest, meant to give the impression of rational deliberation. The most famous example of this was the publication of the Federalist Papers, co-authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay but published pseudonymously over the name of Publius, arguing in favor of the ratification of the US Constitution in an apparently neutral and dispassionate manner. This decorum was always somewhat deceptive, and in some political situations, including the factional politics of the early United States, wore thin quickly. Shortly into the nineteenth century, a frankly partisan model of newspaper politics prevailed in western Europe and North America. It was this style of newspapering that occasioned the first use of the word journalism.
Although it is hard to generalize across national media systems, journalism seems to have a shared history in gross terms in the modern west. In most national histories, there was first a transition from opinion to factual observation, followed by a split between correspondence and reporting, followed by the emergence of a professional journalism centered on objective expert reportage. And, in most countries, this history was complicated by the emergence of pictorial journalism, followed by broadcasting. What distinguishes these national histories, however, is the different experiences with censorship and other forms of media regulation, as well as the differing states of political development. In the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the west exported its models of journalism to other regions of the world.
The shift in the meaning of journalism from opinion to fact came about in the context of the emergence of a mass daily press. This shift centered on the British Isles and North America. The United States was an early leader in newspaper circulation because it avoided censorship and taxes on knowledge, as well as because of positive Federal postal policies and a national commitment to create a media system that would allow for the representation of a dispersed and diverse citizenry as a unified public. By the 1820s, the United States had a partisan press system with a high popular readership. In the 1830s, cheap daily newspapers, or penny papers, began to circulate in urban centers; at the same time, the content of all newspapers shifted toward the sorts of eventoriented news that one associates with the modern concept of journalism. In Great Britain the growth of a popular press was delayed by the various stamp taxes on newspapers, which were finally repealed in 1851. The adoption of new production and transmission technologies furthered the growth of news audiences. Beginning as early as the 1810s but taking off in the 1830s, printing presses adopted first steam power, then rotary cylinder plates, followed by stereotyping, and finally linotype typesetting in the 1880s. And, beginning in the late 1840s, the telegraph enhanced the commoditization of news and the growth of wire services and press agencies. Jean Chalaby (2001) has argued that it was only at the moment of industrialization that the figure of the journalist emerged in something like its modern form.
In earlier newspaper systems, news gathering had been done by correspondents, a term for letter-writers who dispatched reports from distant places. Correspondents were often amateurs, sometimes paid, sometimes under contract to a single news medium but often also contributing to many. Correspondents’ reports had a personal voice to them, though they were often written over a pseudonym or a set of initials. Readers expected that a correspondent’s observations would be inflected by strongly expressed attitudes.
As newspapers became more commoditized – that is, as they began to think of themselves and their content more as items sold to consumers than as interventions in public life – they began to hire reporters (Baldasty 1991). Reporters were meant to faithfully record facts: to transcribe speeches, to present minutes of meetings, to compile shipping lists and current prices, to relate police court proceedings. Early penny papers, for instance, often emphasized crime news. In a typical late-nineteenth century newspaper, reporters worked for city editors whose aim was to make the flow of news copy rational and predictable – and often sensational. In most western countries, the late nineteenth century saw controversies over yellow journalism. Journalism historians often trace this term to Richard Felton Outcault’s cartoon strip “The Yellow Kid,” which appeared in both Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, the two most famous of the US yellow dailies. A more international pedigree for the term may reside in the quick discoloration of the cheap pulp newsprint these papers were printed on, or might refer even further back to the color of the paper bindings of earlier sensational cheap books devoted to crime and adventure. In some languages, crime novels are still referred to as yellows.
Industrialized news practices came into conflict with the established norms and values for public communication. Industrializing newspapers adopted a set of norms that distinguished between their high-value or sacred mission and their more profane work of earning success in a competitive marketplace. In most western nations, the sacred mission of the press was to create an informed public that could contribute to its own governance in a constitutional state – usually but not always democratic in some measure. But the profane work of the news seemed to produce a misinformed public whose tastes and intellect had been affected by sensationalism. And the competitive marketplace seemed to favor greedy and increasingly monopolistic industrialists with a political agenda of their own.
The modern notion of journalism mediates between the sacred and profane work of the press and applies to an occupational structure that merges the work of the correspondent and the reporter. In Anglo-American history, the key term in this journalism has been objectivity. Objective journalists are expert professionals, who are always aware of their own subjectivity – like the correspondent – but police it, separating their own values from impersonal reports. Michael Schudson (1978) has described this form of objectivity as arising from a dialectic of naïve empiricism and radical subjectivism. A similar dialectic is evident in the rise of pictorial journalism. Raw material for illustrations came from a variety of empiricist techniques, including photography and sketch artistry, which seemed to promise fidelity to an objective reality. Master engravers then turned these observations into lucid and often interpretive visual reports.
A tribe of indicators can trace the rise of professional journalism in the west. Canons of journalism ethics began to appear at the beginning of the twentieth century, along with professional associations and schools of journalism. The forms of professional journalism – the byline, the inverted pyramid form and summary lead (which counterintuitively tells stories from end to beginning rather than from beginning to end), and the habit of balancing and sourcing – became familiar around the same time. The excesses of World War I intensified the drive for professionalization inside and outside of the news industry.
Professionalization coincided with the invention of journalism history as a scholarly activity. There had been a tradition of anecdotal and autobiographical histories of printers and other newspaper entrepreneurs since the beginning of the nineteenth century, but professional journalism education called for histories that emphasized the progressive development of standards, tied in with a genealogy of press autonomy from public and private power.
By the 1920s an alternative model of professionalism had appeared, first in the Soviet Union, then in other anti-capitalist states. In the most important cases – the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China – the creation of a statist professional journalism followed a long history of attempts by bourgeois journalism to overcome government censorship. When revolutions inspired by Marxist-Leninist philosophies overthrew authoritarian states in Russia and China, they adopted some notions of bourgeois professionalism, wedded them to vanguardism, and institutionalized the resulting construct in state monopoly institutions. Among the adopted elements were a claim of independence for journalists, a rhetorical commitment to serving ordinary people, and an adversarial mission mutated into the concept of self-criticism. A bright line separated journalists, trained and certified as professionals, from ordinary citizens.
Or at least this was the ideology or theory of communist journalism. In practice, the journalism of communist societies rarely achieved the professional autonomy called for in theory. At best, such journalism achieved some standing as an agency of independent but loyal criticism. At worst, it functioned as a fully dependent propaganda wing of the party and state, a role in no way justified by Marxist philosophy. Such practice led critics to compare communist journalism with fascist totalitarian media systems in Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, regimes that dictated advancing the interests of the state as the role for journalism, with only incidental regard to accuracy and completeness.
In the capitalist countries and elsewhere in the world, other alternative forms of journalism had appeared. Usually alternative journalisms were tied to a group within the larger society, whether based on some aspect of identity (gender, race, ethnicity, class) or on the advocacy of a particular position. General interest news media tended to look down upon these alternative journalisms in the same way that they looked down upon sensationalism – as nonprofessional and potentially pernicious.
Globally, the twentieth century saw the rise of broadcast journalism. In some countries, particularly in North America, broadcast media, although state-licensed, were privately owned; in others, there were monopolistic national broadcast authorities. In either case, broadcasting seemed to intensify the process of professionalization. The paradigm case might be the BBC, with its high degree of independence and autonomy. But in other cases (such as Italy) state broadcasting was allotted along party lines.
By the end of World War II, the modern notion of journalism had taken root in most of the world. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the report of the MacBride Commission enshrined freedom of the press as an international value, though these formulations were subject to varying interpretations. Many observers questioned the relationship between journalism and the supposed free market that had become a staple of western and especially US formulations.
Forms of news considered distinctive to the Anglo-American tradition continued to spread in the late twentieth century. Investigative journalism spread to Latin America, for instance (Waisbord 2000). The retreat of state-supported broadcast authorities in Europe brought the introduction of more commercial television news programming. The collapse of the Soviet bloc sparked a wave of commercial media ventures in eastern Europe, often alongside a revitalization of partisan journalism.
Meanwhile, within the west, the end of the twentieth century saw the erosion of what Dan Hallin (1994) has called the “high modernism of journalism.” The decline of the Cold War as a news frame, the rise of ethnic and racial diversity within and among countries, the feminist movement, and the renewed philosophical questioning of the value of objectivity undermined the credibility of journalism as an institution. The same trends occurred in the media environment itself, with the rise of the 24-hour television news service, of new so-called personal media like talk radio and the blogosphere, of the tabloid form and a hybrid journalism, especially in the Scandinavian countries, and of a new form of partisan media power associated with broadcast entrepreneurs like Silvio Berlusconi and Rupert Murdoch. With the erosion of the high modern moment came calls to rethink the role of the press as an institution within the governing process, on the one hand, and calls for a new citizen journalism or public journalism on the other.
News practices are always in flux, and the journalisms that explain and govern them must therefore be continually reinvented. Journalisms come a beat after the news revolutions they regulate.
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