by R. Woodruff


Sources: Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory.  Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism.  Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspaper.  Erik Barnouw, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television.  Mitchell Stephens, A History of News: from the Drum to the Satellite.  Edwin and Michael Emery, The Press and America (4th ed.).



This brief history deals with how mass communication evolved, how storytelling by nearly everyone in society specialized into storytelling as a trade and eventually a profession, and how the increasing complexity and specialization of society created a need for information that people were willing to pay for.  The focus of this account is the newspaper, a relatively recent medium that nonetheless became the model of media designed for an audience that is more interested in information than entertainment and shaped the newer examples in broadcast and even Web sites.  But newspapers had many precursors and the job of "information producer" arrived at its present form through some twists and turns. A look at some of those twists and turns helps us understand why the producer, and the product, behave the way they do today.





Mass communication begins with an audience of more than one. The individual "communication model" is the dyad, or two-person exchange. It allows for a kind of intimacy that the mass audience model never approaches, even if the members of the dyad are having a fight.

            As soon as anyone begins to address an ``audience” – two or more people listening at the same time – mass communication is born, and the speaker has to choose words, language and structure that will achieve her or his purpose for all listeners.

            Why would two or more people hold still to listen to one speaker? Mitchell Stephens suggests that there is a human "thirst to know," but we don’t have to romanticize it. People need information to live:  Where is the food? Who is dangerous? What don’t I know that can hurt or help me? People who have that information get listened to – especially, we should note, if those people have reputations for reliable reporting.

            In preliterate societies the news producer was already special. In some societies the news producer was a rhapsode or griot or one of a thousand other names suggesting wisdom, experience and cultural memory.  Homer was one of the rhapsodes.  Griots memorized, recited and preserved the 12th-century epic of Mali, “Sundiata,” until it was finally written down in the 20th century. As recently as the early 20th century, researchers found the "Singer of Tales" still a main source of such cultural capital in the Balkan countries.

            Stephens suggests that the news values in preliterate societies, word of mouth, were similar to those of today, but when he says they included "proximity" we might think that’s a stretch. Getting "the local angle" into a story is the gesture made by a large media organization to assure a part of its audience that it hasn’t lost touch with the fine details of life in the total coverage area – The Washington Post covering Prince George’s County Council meetings.

            But the most elaborate communication networks in preliterate cultures were arranged to get news from afar.  After Shaka Zulu unified the Zulu nation, the news network was quite official.  Runners were employed by the king to take news from the throne to the people. "They were rarely channels of dissent," Stephens notes.

            And isolated communities thirsted for news from afar, especially if it could affect their safety. During the time of the Great Fear during the 1789 French Revolution, villages sent residents on missions to the nearest city to get news: "Was it true that the king’s forces were indiscriminately slaughtering peasants wherever they went?"

            When the written word entered the picture, the nature of the audience shifted slightly. The producer no longer was able to read the faces and body languages of the audience to know how to adjust the discourse. More guesswork was involved in crafting a message that would have maximum impact on a (perhaps) known but unseen group of people.

            Early writing as it appeared in ancient Sumer was pictographic and, we find, mostly involved with trade – keeping track of numbers of jars of oil, communicating to a factor on the other end of the caravan route what he might expect to find in the shipment. The audience was narrow.

            Where Sumerian writing was ideograms (cunieform), the people who became the Phoenicians created an alphabet in about 1500 B.C.E. and, at about the time 750 years later that the memorized-and-sung epics we call Homer’s were being written down, the Greeks added vowels to the trade alphabet.

            But the first identifiable news had to be left to the Romans. They had an empire that was large and lasted (unlike Alexander the Great’s) a long time. Information needed to travel the roads of the empire swiftly, so the mails were an imperial institution.





Roman rulers wanted to preserve at least the illusion of popular, democratic support and posted what were called the acta urbana (acts of the city) in public places. Sometimes, when daily, they were called acta diurna. They were propaganda, but they were not only read, it appears, but widely copied and sold to those who couldn’t or wouldn’t go to the public square to read them. Letters exchanged by prominent Roman citizens – especially those sent to exiles or those posted to remote areas of the empire – refer to the acta as having been enclosed with the letter to keep the homesick Roman up to date on events in the Eternal City. The first-century C.E. Roman historian Tacitus says they were widely read by soldiers and colonists serving in the empire’s far provinces.

            Though none of these documents have survived independently, the portrait of them appearing in other surviving Roman writings show some important advances in the direction of what we call  "news.", Though they began as straight propaganda about the wonderful works of the government, the copyists who reproduced and sold them appear to have added human interest stories and outright gossip to make them more salable. We think of hand-copying such documents as the slow, lifetime task of medieval monks but in fact, Stephens relates, Roman copyists working in teams were able to turn out a thousand copies of such a document in a very short time.

            The two early Chinese empires (beginning in the third century B.C.E. and then, after a hiatus, resuming in the seventh century C.E.) had an equally large territory to administer and sent out rather similar newsletters from the heart of the empire to provincial governors to keep them up on events. They included gossip, but do not seem to have slipped into the private sector as did the Roman acta urbana.  In a system called ti, the far-flung provinces maintained agents at the palace who sent these agents’ reports, or ti pao, out to the provincial governors whose eyes and ears they were at the heart of empire.

            During the latter Tang dynasty some of the ti pao were actually printed by block printing, rather than copied. But,  as Stephens points out, the ti pao were not for public consumption, but very much internal communication for the literate civil service class. Certainly the constraints on public literacy of an ideographic writing system – which still weighs down literacy in China today – kept the reading public small compared to that in Rome, where news was represented in an alphabet. Still, the court gazette in Peking – the hometown ti pao – probably holds some kind of record for continuous publication.  It lasted over 1,000 years, finally folding in 1911 as the empire collapsed.





After the Roman Empire fell in C.E. 476 and the formerly-conquered provinces of Europe and the Mediterranean began to form slowly into nations, literacy declined. Latin was the written language, used by an educated elite in the church, but few spoke it.  The need for news among the commercial classes, of course, never died, and as commerce flourished again  with the Renaissance, a lot of news passed back and forth in reports sent by agents to the entrepreneurial heads of trading houses. This, still, was not news for the masses; in fact it was more useful to the recipient if no one else knew the facts in the report (what sort of cargo was on the way to which ports, for instance, and when it might arrive). Factors and merchants in the West benefited greatly from these intelligence reports; the consumers had to take their chances.

            With the introduction of printing in the West around the 15th century C.E., a more public form of information called the "newsbook" appeared. Unlike newspapers, these pamphlets usually described only one thing – perhaps a king’s triumphal visit to another country – and were usually subsidized by the subject, for whose propaganda benefit it was produced – like today’s political advertising.

            Presses, unlike pen and ink, were expensive to own and hard to hide, so the powerful found it easy to control the printed product. Licensing and exclusive printing patents were used to keep the printers following the party line. As the newsbook evolved into pamphlets and "broadsides," the occasional subversive production frequently came from religious dissidents, but seldom more than once.

            Newsbooks, pamphlets and the like were one-shot products and often appealed to readers with outlandish reports of wonders – two-headed animals, or people.  Early versions of periodicals called corantos evolved along with the newsbooks; they came out more than once but irregularly, and often leaned heavily on commercial news to make themselves salable to those who had money – the merchant class.

            The next step was a printed product that came out regularly, so it wouldn’t have to re-introduce itself to an audience every time. That was the newspaper, the medium that built an audience (and vice versa).





The history of news media is basically the history of the development of a public definition of "news".  By that we mean that news, unlike literature, has an immediate audience of consumers who believe they know what they want and need. This audience has developed expectations and demands about news to which the news media have had to respond. So the media of mass communication -- as a storeful of products -- have developed in the mirror of what the public wants in its news.

            That public definition of news developed, until quite recently, along with the rise of newspapers. Most of our ideas about news (including what is done in radio, television and the emerging electronic infotechnologies) come from the history of newspapers.

            The first newspapers that appeared to be distinct from the commercial newsletters that preceded them appeared in England in the late 16th/early 17th century. The first English-language newspaper actually appeared in Holland, in the same month that the Mayflower landed at Plymouth in 1620. Only later waves of Massachusetts colonists would have seen newspapers printed in England for English readers. The first press in the American colonies was set up at Harvard College in 1638, two years after the college’s founding.

            Newspapers, like other media of mass communications, have these general components as set out by Denis McQuail: (1) a technology; (2) "the political, social, economic and cultural situation of a society", (3) a set of "activities, functions or needs" and (4) people, especially as they behave in groups.

            This completely sociological definition, which could apply just as well to the automobile, nevertheless lets us know that media evolved throughout their part of modern history in order to meet some need, usually connected with other parts of a developing market society. Media provide information about where and how to get things and how to cope with the requirements of life in society. As the society gets more "advanced" they become market tools, informing the public not only on where and how to get things but where and how to get them most cheaply; informing the public on the role of other big institutions, especially including government, in their daily lives.

            The first newspapers had as their features regularity, a price on the cover, multiple purposes including information and entertainment, and a "public or open character." Some were independently published and others were published by government and so had an "official word" character as well as the other features mentioned. The London Gazette,  founded in 1665 and generally accounted the first British newspaper, was reprinted in the colonies and coffee-houses imported copies of it and kept them on file for their patrons.

            The society in which these newspapers evolved was itself evolving: becoming more urbanized (easy distribution for newspapers) and more "commercial" (more goods exchanged for currency rather than made at home or bartered; hence more incentive to have good information on the part of the increasingly specialized producers and sellers, as well as for increasingly sophisticated consumers).





In the colonies, newspapers grew out of newsletters and in fact the first regularly appearing newspaper, in Boston and published by the postmaster of the commonwealth, was called the News-Letter (1704). It lasted over seventy years with a few lapses, but failed when it chose the wrong side in the Revolution. A competitor, the Boston Gazette, was later a famous Patriot organ and was printed by Benjamin Franklin's older brother James, with young Benjamin as apprentice (and anonymous columnist) in the shop.  James Franklin’s New England Courant, like many other colonial papers, reprinted literary work by British essayists, including those of Addison and Steele, mainstays of the home country’s The Spectator.

            According to Edwin and Michael Emery’s The Press and America, the Courant only lasted five years but James Franklin pioneered in an important way – publishing a newspaper that explicitly was not published “by the authority” of any government licensing agency and signaling an independent press.

            By 1735 Boston had five newspapers. Maryland was the fourth colony, after Pennsylvania and New York, to have a lasting newspaper. The Maryland Gazette was founded in Annapolis in 1727.

            Newspapers that were not controlled by government developed an independent stance that was often a thorn in the side of officials, and the history of newspapers in many countries was one of hard-won freedom through struggles with censorship. The conflict between commercial and/or popular success and political independence may have caused a temporary sorting-out of roles in the newspaper business that occurred in many countries, including the U.S.-- a division of the business into the political party press, the commercial "penny press," as it was called in this country and the

smaller but still highly important commercial newspapers, of which The Wall Street Journal is a survivor.

            Well before the Revolution, the 1734 trial of John Peter Zenger, printer of a New York newsheet, was a landmark for freedom of the press. Zenger was arrested and tried for "seditious libel" for attacking the authorities who, backed by the British Crown, ran New York. His lawyer argued that Zenger was innocent because his statements about the government, though harsh, were true. When the judge told him he couldn't argue that point, he turned to the jury and said he had to rely on them. The jury said "not guilty."

            By 1765 most newspapers were printed on larger sheets, 11 by 17 or about the size of tabloids today, and nearly all were published by printers who had many other jobs on their minds and didn't make a lot of their money as newspaper publishers. News was gathered from ship captains and most news stories began by citing the source-- a recently arrived ship-- before going on to the actual point of the story. Thus began the practice of establishing the credibility of information. Today's television news "establishing shot" is the direct descendant. Local news seems to have been downplayed in the colonial press because, as Mott says, "towns were so small that everybody knew what was going on".

            The growth of newspapers in the first years of the new nation was heavily on the political or "party press" side. At this time editors became important, because the press had moved beyond the unsystematic printing of whatever came across the printer's desk.

            Newspapers became troops in the political wars of the day. The conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the character of the new nation is reflected in several facts: Jefferson, although a libertarian who endorsed the free press in the abstract, nevertheless hated and felt hounded by the press of the day. Hamilton is revered as, among other things, the founder of one of the oldest papers, the New York Post. By 1800, New York had 11 newspapers. But even then, newspapers depending on commercial news outnumbered the purely political press.

            Despite the effects of the Zenger case, the early republic’s laws included prohibitions against "seditious libel," meaning writing critically about public officials and their conduct. Though the pro-government, anti-press law grew out of English common-law traditions, seditious libel was actually abolished in Britain in 1792 but the law didn’t expire of natural causes in liberated America until 1801. (Gillmor & Barron, Mass Communications Law).  Nevertheless, Mott says, the press enjoyed more freedom in post-revolutionary America than it had ever before anywhere in the world.  As in Britain, the press was more constrained by taxes than by laws against expression.





By 1830 the U.S. counted 650 weekly and 65 daily newspapers and the dailies had a total circulation of about 80,000; by 1840 there were 1,141 weeklies and 138 dailies, more than double in each category, but daily circulation had nearly quadrupled to around 300,000. The political press grew, as Michael Schudson, says, from "advertisers" to "heralds and suns"-- in other words, from purely commercial to outspokenly public, going by their names-- and the drop in price from about six cents to a "penny" reflected the fact that, political orientation aside, these papers no longer tried to pay their bills with the money they got from selling the copies, but tried for large circulation to get advertising.

            Nobody is sure why newspaper circulation during this period expanded much faster than population. Increased literacy, new cheaper printing methods and the growth of commercial advertising all had a part. But whatever the reason,  as Schudson points out, the readership of newspapers during this period expanded outside an educated, commercial elite: ". . . for the first time, the newspapers reflected not just politics or commerce but social life."  European observers from this point on in the nineteenth century expressed repeated astonishment at the wide readership and influence of the press in U.S. society, compared to their home countries.

            Nevertheless the period from Jefferson to Jackson-- about 1800 to 1830-- was called by Mott the "Dark Ages" because of the highly partisan stance of many newspapers, and the unparalleled "scurrility and vulgar attack on personal character" in which they engaged. The editor of a newspaper established specifically to be a pro-Jackson organ "could blister his opponent with a paragraph," said Mott.





In 1833 the first successful "penny paper," the New York Sun, began publication, and at least a dozen more penny dailies were started in the next five years. James Gordon Bennett, one of the best-known of the early publisher-editors of the penny press, established the notion that the personality of the editor was a big part of his paper, the New York Herald.  He wrote daily, in a variety of ways, that the newspaper was led by and reflected the opinions of the people, not elites-- another hallmark of what came to be known as the penny press.

            The penny dailies changed the idea of news. News was now local, it was sensational (with a heavy emphasis on crime and police reporting), and it had human interest. National news occasionally took to the fore; war correspondents became heroes during the Mexican War, though they still had to file their dispatches by pony express. Telegraph service began in 1844, two years before the war began, but spread slowly. In 1848 the Associated Press was formed to take advantage of quick transmission and cut deals for lower group telegraph rates.

            As the purely commercial newspapers and the more restrained party press began to decline, some of the penny papers evolved into what McQuail calls the high point and model of what we mean by the press, the "19th-century bourgeois newspaper". An early example was Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, often counted the most important antislavery voice in the years leading up to and including the Civil War. Other newspapers followed suit, seeking a "factual" news presentation and stressing their reliability.  Leading the change was printing technology, which pushed newspapers to excesses of self-congratulation. Multiple "decks" of headlines, usually praising the daily's speedy methods of acquiring news, filled up space until "it was only in the last quarter of the column that the reader began to find the facts of the story," Mott says. The size of pages, originally increased in England to beat the per-page tax, grew with the advent of high-speed cylinder presses until one paper published with pages measuring three by five feet. The news writing was often filled with air to match. But Greeley was not only a great antislavery crusader but also the inventor of the modern editorial page. As opinion and began to gravitate to this section, the news pages became more "professional."

            This "professionalism" is the theme of Michael Schudson's history of the U.S. press. It is signaled first in the post-Civil War marker that Mott lays down as "the triumph of the news principle," meaning that political partisanship (despite the incredibly divisive nature of the war) gave way to an emphasis on news. And it meant that the new hero would become the reporter, not the editor.

            Nevertheless it was well-known editors who accomplished the increase in overall influence of the press -- especially the big-city dailies -- after the defining national experience of the Civil War.  Charles A. Dana and the New York Sun led the way to a higher profile for both good and ill as the penny press got respectability and readership by adding functions of the commercial and opinion press.

            In his development of the "human interest" story as the key feature of the Sun, Dana established a fact- or at least reality-based journalism that de-emphasized the importance of "important" people and elevated the everyday lives or ordinary people to near-literary stature. If sometimes this meant realistic storytelling rather than actual facts,

well . . .

            Michael Schudson describes the public's need for such a connection in a rapidly urbanizing society in the terms that his fellow sociologists have advanced: community evolving into mass society. In mass society, the individual has more independence but paradoxically feels cut off from the comforting connections of the small town. "People came unstuck from the cake of custom, found chances to form individual personalities, and faced new possibilities of impersonality in the social relations of modern life," says Schudson.

            Mitchell Stephens suggests that the elements of news in oral, preliterate societies were similar to those used now in mass media, including "proximity" – the principle that the closer the news comes to home, the more important it was to the audience.

            This seems a little bit of stretch for convenience. In preliterate, village societies, most people already knew what was going on locally – the real interest was in getting news from far away that nevertheless might impact the local community.  By contrast, today’s big news organizations seek ``the local angle” on the news to reassure the audience that the news organization has not lost touch with the neighborhood. Proximity in news is almost a ritual gesture to validate the distant news organization as relevant to the individual in the audience.

            When news breaks down – as it did during the Great Fear in the agricultural provinces of France at the time of the 1789 Revolution – villages chose men to walk to the nearest large town and actively seek news to counter or confirm the rumors of indiscriminate slayings by the army that were convulsing the countryside.





Technology and economics made the mass-produced newspaper the right new form of "making connections" at the right historical time. Urbanization packed the potential audience closely together, making papers easy to distribute. And people packed together created new kinds of stories, with happy and unhappy endings.

            Newspapers in the post-war 19th century developed an establishment acceptance that resulted from several trends. There was an increasing emphasis on fact and reliability of news, in the news columns, and an increasing distinction between news pages and opinion pages. There was also an increase in the economic status of large newspaper companies and chains, which grew slowly in the late 19th century and then came to dominate the newspaper industry in the l930s. As newspapers and their owners became richer, they became more likely to be part of the establishment. A socialist like Greeley, who hired Karl Marx as a European correspondent for the Tribune, wouldn't fit in with the news moguls of the late nineteenth century, or today. Charles A. Dana, in his youth a radical Transcendentalist and member of the Brook Farm commune, became more and more conservative as his newspaper, The New York Sun, increased in wealth, circulation, and establishmentarian tone on the editorial page.

            Mott points out that the libel laws, usually based in state not federal rulings and varying from place to place, generally got less restrictive and intimidating as the end of the 19th century approached. Constraints on the press, especially in smaller and wilder venues, often harked back to Benjamin Franklin's half-serious suggestion that offending editors should be beaten up. At its worst, editors were persecuted and even executed for their ?radical? politics, like the anarchist editors hung in Chicago in the era of the Haymarket riots.





Nearly everything we know or believe about newspapers today is based in the "high bourgeois" 19th-century newspaper model characterized by a professional stance and a reverence for facts, objectivity, fairness and the "public (or national) interest". Most of the internal rules of broadcast news come from that model also, as does the notion of the journalist as professional.  By 1866, Mott reports, bylines for reporters were becoming increasingly common. Richard Harding Davis, who reported for Hearst on the Spanish-American War from Cuba, represented the reporter as media hero.

            Meanwhile advances in press technology pushed the potential of mass-circulation newspapers. They included Hoe's invention of the one-piece stereotyped printing plate for rotary presses (1861), Ottmar Mergenthaler's pathbreaking

linotype machine, which ended the need to set type by hand, letter by letter (1886) and the replacement of rags by wood pulp as the basis for newsprint and the creation of "web" (continuous rolls) of paper that could print at high speeds on the rotary press (1860s and 1870s).

            Illustration flourished. Woodcut cartoons by Thomas Nast helped bring down the corrupt Tweed government in New York City. Hearst sent the artist Frederick Remington to Cuba to illustrate Richard Harding Davis's first-person accounts of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. His assignment gave rise to one story about Hearst that has never been confirmed but is too good not to include. Remington is said, early in his assignment in Cuba, to have wired Hearst that he wanted to come home because nothing was happening: there was no war to cover. Hearst is supposed to have wired back: "you furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war."

            Between 1870 and 1890, circulation of U.S. newspapers increased at four times the rate of U.S. population.  The great "yellow journalism" war between Hearst and Pulitzer, during which Hearst is credited with having instigated the Spanish-American War to boost circulation, was a major shootout of mass circulation newspapers, and the most notable example in modern times of the excesses of competition. Lesser examples abound and continue today.

            Newspapers became big. From the four to eight pages per edition that characterized the early penny dailies, Pulitzer's New York World was publishing up to 24 pages daily and 48 Sunday in the 1890s. E.W. Scripps pioneered the idea of chain ownership, owning in whole or part 34 papers in 15 states during the 1890-1910 era.

            In the first decade of the new century, a notable departure was the expansion of an explicitly African-American press into standard newspaper formats. Early versions such as Frederick Douglass's North Star had been advocacy publications. But papers like the Chicago Defender and New York's Amsterdam News in their form as complete newspapers represent the rise of a self-confident black middle class in many urban areas. The Defender boasted the anti-lynching campaigning of pioneer newswoman Ida B. Wells-Barnett but also the great "Simple stories" of Langston Hughes in column format, relaxed and fully-realized satirical tales of the "class struggle" within African-American society.





Though the sedition laws and libel concerns dogged the press slightly throughout the 19th century, it wasn't until World War I that political divisions within the increasingly diverse U.S. brought press freedom questions to the U.S.  Supreme Court, where a foundation of First Amendment definitions started to evolve. The war with Spain and U.S. participation in the world war added size, power and importance to the federal branches and therefore to their coverage in the national press. Theodore Roosevelt set aside a room in the White House for reporters.

            The role of the postal service in delivering newspapers became a constraint on press freedom during the Great War, when German-language and socialist newspapers were denied mailing privileges.

            Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes set the first markers in several decisions (including dissents, when he was on the losing side) of that period. He introduced the ?marketplace of ideas? theory set out earlier by the poet John Milton in

17th-century England. Both suggested that when truth and untruth battle on a level playing field, truth will win, so let the games begin. Holmes added, in a famous phrase, that only a "clear and present danger" to institutions of democracy justified censorship.

            This was the first high court signal on "prior restraint" of the press -- stopping publication. The definitive decision came in the case of Jay Near, a publisher of a weekly newspaper in Minnesota. Near -- and his newspaper -- was racist, anti-Semitic and ready to take on anyone in authority. But when the local government tried to shut him down under a law against nuisance press, big-city publishers like the conservative Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick held their noses and backed Near's appeal to the Supreme Court. In 1931 the court said that publishers had a responsibility to answer for what they published but that government should not stop publication. For a great account of this important and entertaining case, see Fred Friendly"s book Minnesota Rag.





Meanwhile, the news medium that would challenge and threaten newspapers in their dominance of the field made its first baby steps-- one of the first of them at the instigation of a newspaper. The young genius Marconi came to the U.S. in 1899 at the invitation of the New York Herald. At 25 Marconi was already the closely guarded treasure of the British military-- especially the Navy-- for his invention that could communicate through thin air (without the clumsy cables or wires of the telegraph). Now the Herald wanted to use his "radio" to get news of the America's Cup sailing race without waiting for the racers to come back to port. It worked. But Marconi also met with U.S. military and government types, who bought the technology for use by the U.S. Navy. A company, American Marconi, was founded (but it still had strong British participation). During the First World War (1914-1919) as the U.S. prepared to enter, military secrecy led the government to "expropriate" the company by "inviting" it to sell its assets to the government-approved Radio Corporation of America (RCA). It was an offer that could not be refused.

            After the Great War, U.S. companies struggled to control the  technology but the thousands of amateurs ("ham" operators) talking to each other over the airwaves and building their own radio sets made it impossible to keep the possibilities of the new format held closely. One Westinghouse engineer, in his spare time, began "broadcasting" from his garage in Pittsburgh, playing music and cultural programming that was listened to by amateurs all over the area. Then the amateurs began selling radio sets to the non-techies. A Westinghouse executive experienced the shock of understanding: people would listen to interesting programs and buy radio sets to do it.

            As Erik Barnouw notes in his Tube of Plenty, the first deliberate broadcast (in Pittsburgh) happened on election night 1920, ironically providing rapid updates on the contest for president between two newspaper publishers-- Warren G. Harding and James Cox. It represented the high point of newspapers? social influence and the beginning of their decline in the face of broadcast technology.

            Events followed rapidly. The first "commercials" were broadcast in 1922, marking a decision to support broadcast that way rather than by the British scheme of publicly owned broadcast stations supported by a special sales tax on radio (and later TV) sets. By 1925, five million homes had radios, and in 1927 the federal government made the first of its many moves to regulate and control the profusion of stations on the air. As a result the large companies pushing broadcast-- Westinghouse, AT&T, RCA and General Electric-- formed the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to avoid antitrust prosecution. In 1928 the first tentative television broadcasts  were an exotic event, and the first "talking" motion picture, The Jazz Singer, was released by Hollywood. A rich electronic diet was about to become available. The companies were slowed by another antitrust suit in 1930, which caused AT&T to stick to telephones. NBC moved to the newly-built Radio City in Manhattan and began TV broadcasts on a New York station.

            In 1934 the Roosevelt administration again attempted to break up the monopoly on broadcasting with a Communications Act that would found the Federal Communications Commission. There was much public outcry to force the broadcasting companies to provide public service broadcasts and start a public broadcasting service, but the companies lobbied hard and quickly came up with a varied diet of cultural programming that blunted the mood in Congress. The 1934 Act included no public service provisions, and the road was clear for the development of commercial broadcasting. The struggle, however, had established one big difference between broadcast and the print media. The amount of "space" in the airwaves was limited, though large, and there was a logical reason for the government to be the regulator of who used what space and whether or not the users of those "public airwaves" were doing anything to benefit the public.

            The twenties and thirties were the heyday of Hollywood. Movies and movie starts ruled the public's idea of entertainment. But television was about to change that. The entertainment possibilities of broadcasting-- both radio and TV-- were so clear and attractive that news often seemed like an afterthought. CBS developed a reputation for news because it was always behind the giants-- RCA's two networks, NBC and later ABC-- in providing entertainment. News, however, was always the answer to the regulators' question: what public good is served by letting you use the public airwaves? NBC started a news division as part of its concessions to the government over its monopolistic position in broadcasting.

            The 1930s and ?40s were years of the dominance of radio, while television grew its wings. Millions listened faithfully to radio drama serials, both adults and children, and radio news flourished, especially during World War II when the public was hungry for signs of victory and broadcasters like Edward R. Murrow from London during  the Blitz were heroes on a level with Richard Harding Davis half a century earlier.

            Broadcast organizations needed radio profits to support the development of television, so in the mid- and late 1940s radio gradually lost its diversity along with its dramatic-- and news-- programs. Instead,  music programs with disc jockeys-- a very cheap form of programming-- took over the radio bands in the late forties and early fifties.

            Entertainment storytelling moved to television and movie attendance dropped like a rock-- down 20 to 40 percent in cities with television stations. From 1952 to 1956 the number of TV stations climbed from just over 100 to over 500, and Hollywood began making entertainment products for TV, such as sitcoms and Westerns. In 1956 the studios began selling off their backlists to TV, and the "old movie" became a common TV programming item. In 1952 the FCC had responded to public concern about the value of broadcasting to the public by establishing public broadcasting-- what we know as PBS today. The public's attention to public affairs was fleeting. In 1953 President Eisenhower's inauguration was broadcast, but the heaviest viewership was for the heavily-anticipated episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucille Ball gave birth to baby Desi-- 68 percent of all TV sets tuned in to that one.

            Because television-- and before it, radio-- specialized in telling good dramatic stories, the bias in broadcast news has always leaned in the same direction. Just at the time when newspapers moved away from dramatic presentation (as in the penny press) and stuck to the facts-- sometimes to the edge of being very boring-- broadcast used its unusual advantages and traditions to move in the opposite direction. The tension between these two different ways of communicating has persisted, as we shall see below.





Broadcasting had gone from nothing to a giant industry based on seemingly magic technology in the fifty years since Marconi made his trip to the U.S. In the twentieth century, newspaper technology had made some strides but with nothing like the effect of the major advances of the previous century. Mass circulation newspapers thrived through World War II and then engaged in a long, still-evolving struggle with broadcast and electronic technology for the attention of a media-saturated public. Many of the mid-century innovations in publishing technology, such as photographic or "cold" type and computerized production, made it possible for smaller and less-capitalized publications to emerge. The newspaper trend had for over a century been to use galloping economies of scale to produce a publication that had something for everybody. Now those everybodies were deserting the newspapers for more "narrowcast" versions of their particular interests, in small publications, cable and other special outlets.





he introduction and amazing growth of the Internet -- which increases in size faster than the rate at which new knowledge is produced, which gives you the idea there is some padding in there -- is the communications phenomenon of the last ten years. At the same time, it is good to remember that access to the 'Net is still limited, that it stratifies sharply along class, race and income lines, and that it represents the cultural mind-set of its creators, European white males. But it must be acknowledged that getting "published" on the Net -- with a potentially massive audience of self-selected information seekers -- represents just about the cheapest access to a truly mass audience that has occurred in the history of mass media.





 Our survey has shown us that the idea of news and the way to "do" it has developed as an arrangement between the audience and the providers. The providers, of course, are businesses in a market society that have owners and workers, so an arrangement inside the news organizations has arisen as well. Whenever big changes have taken place (usually slowly) in the way news has been produced) they have been affected both by the need to turn a profit and the need to uphold some acknowledged standards for the product. The unusual relationship of news and information to the role of the citizen in industrial democracies such as the U.S. has been a vital factor in the growth of the standards that the public appears (usually) to demand from the news and the organizations that produce it.

            The "professionalization" trend of the twentieth century has seen journalistic practice bounce like a pinball among several poles of significance. The idea of news as public service is a constant, invoked by journalists as a reason for special privileges or legal protections while gathering news. The idea of news as independent and iconoclastic appears to push in a different direction, with the strong suggestion that public institutions are always in danger from corruption or incompetence and require a very skeptical press "watchdog". Both those trends had their adherents and were engraved on various tablets. Journalism schools (the first was started at the University of Missouri in 1908) taught the conventional wisdom of the day and changed with the changes.

            Philosophical ideas and fads about the nature of the world around us influenced the news, too, since it was supposed to be a picture of that world. There were several wild swings in the scientific view of the "real world" as orderly and verifiable, or disorderly, subjective and chaotic. Those changes have caused similarly wild swings in the confidence -- of journalists, and sometimes of the public -- in the idea that objectivity is something within human grasp.




After World War II, a sense of both optimism and responsibility resulted in the establishment of the Hutchins Commission. This huge group of academics, professional journalists and political figures produced a giant report on the press that stressed the "national and public interest" as the touchstone for effective, truth-telling media. Along with freedom, the press was to exercise responsibility. And the Commission warned against the dangers of chain ownership and monopolies, which caused irritated reaction among those large and influential newspapers that were one or the other.





The role of the press as advocate for citizens in the public arena was seemingly anchored by the well-known New York Times vs. Sullivan decision of 1964. The justices said public officials were less protected against incorrect news coverage about their conduct of public duties -- libel -- than private citizens. To ensure "robust, uninhibited and wide-open" debate on public issues, said Justice William Brennan for the court, media have to be allowed to perform their jobs without the threat of ruinous lawsuits hanging over them.

            What this settled, of course, was that the press could be excused for getting a fact or two wrong as long as it could show it did its level best to "get it first, but first, get it right," as the wire service motto says. Competitive and deadline pressures cause mistakes, the court recognized implicitly, but the press should never negligently avoid taking every step to get it right -- which Brennan referred to as showing "actual malice."

            Subsequent libel decisions have built on this by increasingly requiring media to show they followed a truth-seeking process as well as they could before publishing or broadcasting the story. Public figures like movie stars and others who seek out the limelight have become included in the less-protected sector.

            Private citizens, however, are still protected against libel, even accidental. And courts have increasingly recognized a right to personal privacy as including a right against unwanted intrusions by media inquiries into one's private life.  Government, including law enforcement, has not been left helpless by the courts, however. Holmes's "clear and present danger" doctrine still has force. When during the Vietnam War the New York Times published the classified Pentagon Papers, the government failed to have the Supreme Court stop publication. But when a left-wing magazine, The Progressive, sought to publish an account of how to make an H-bomb the court ruled against publication -- even though the magazine claimed with some evidence that all the material in the story came from unclassified sources.

            Courts have always tried to get reporters to testify to what they know about criminal cases, and many reporters have gone to jail to protect their confidential sources in such cases. The federal government has stayed out of this arena but many states have passed Shield Laws to protect reporters' sources under well-defined circumstances.  Under a 1964 decision, however, police may search newsrooms for evidence, and courts have increasingly probed not only the information gathered by media but also the process of newsgathering.





Mott and Schudson both make the case that there was a swing from fact-based journalism to interpretation in the 1930's, followed by a swing back. Again in the 1960s, the magazine-style personal journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, among others, was called (for the umpteenth time) a "New Journalism". Again, public reaction against that antifact, subjective writing style caused a return to "just the facts."

            Schudson makes a distinction that not everyone would agree on. For the reporters and editors of the Progressive era (1890-1914, perhaps) the reverence for the "facts" was not the same as the notion of "objectivity" that is held by news professionals today. Progressives, Schudson says, "understood that facts provided moral direction of themselves and [they] prided themselves that their own moral precepts grew naturally out of their association with the real world." As Schudson says convincingly elsewhere, that meant that a reporter of the day would not be self-conscious about inserting opinion or interpretation into a fact-based story. His (or, rarely, her) own sensibility, rooted in the "real world," were not to be doubted.

            The modernist idea of objectivity, Schudson argues, is different from this respect for facts in being an "ideology of distrust of the self"-- a much more up-to-date or perhaps postmodern notion. He suggests that in the 1890s journalism split more or less along class lines, with the "information model" appealing to the educated, elite upper class and the "storytelling model" appealing to the middle and working class. The "information model," he suggests, has evolved into the modern professional stance of objectivity, and is first cousin to the scientific method. The storytelling model, on the other hand, still appears in newspapers (in various forms, such as lifestyle features and columns) but has been largely transplanted to the explicitly entertainment media of television and the movies.

            But the information vs. storytelling distinction still represents a major tension in journalism. Any writer who has tried to construct a lead in which telling the story did not get in the way of the facts-- or vice versa-- sees that.





Some of the better histories of news are being written right now and printed in -- newspapers. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post has made a decent reputation as an insider critic of news; he has published several books but his columns in the Post are, you might say, a first rough draft of critique of the first rough draft of history, to improve on a phrase of the Post's old boss, Ben Bradlee.

            Another media critic who appears often in the Post is Richard Harwood, an experienced reporter whose critique is focused on news media as businesses and what stresses and problems are caused by the need to make a profit.

            Of the sources used in this brief survey, DeMott's book is still the heavyweight conventional history of media and has not been surpassed even though it is old. Schudsen wrote his book as a sociologist of professions (this was his first one, his doctoral dissertation) and went on to become one of the best cultural studies sociologists of the media. Denis McQuail, a European sociologist with a moderate-left perspective, sees news organizations as part of a vast dance of information and audience. Barnouw's very entertaining history of broadcast media (of which Tube of Plenty is a part) is also a leftish critique of the business orientation of broadcast.

            Other media critics you will not see in local papers include David Shaw, who used to work at the Los Angeles Times, has written several good books of press criticism including Press Watch (1984). Ben Bagdikian, once the ombudsman or reader representative at the Post, has gone through a half-dozen editions of his classic The Media Monopoly .





Alterman, Eric. Sound & Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics.  HarperCollins,1992.


Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly .  Beacon Press.


Friendly, Fred. Minnesota Rag. Random House, 1981.


Gans, Herbert J. Deciding What's News.


Todd Gitlin, ed. Watching Television: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture, 1987.


Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. Pantheon, 1985.


 Hertsgaard, Mark. On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency.


Isaacs, Norman.  Untended Gates: The Mismanaged Press.


Kurtz, Howard. Media Circus (1993) and Spin Cycle (1997).


Lee, Martin, and Norm Solomon. Unreliable Sources. Lyle Stuart, 1990.


 Postman, Neil . Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show           Business.


Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers.      BasicBooks, 1978.

Shaw, David . Presswatch. McMillan, 1984.


Sigal, Leon. Reporters and Officials. D.C. Heath, 1973.





Acta urbana



mass audience



penny press*

demographic profiles of audiences

Ruth Clark

Horace Greeley*


inverted pyramid



Chicago Defender*

bulleted lists

five Ws

Hutchins Commission*


expletive constructions

John Peter Zenger*

news hole


ti pao

focus groups




Rudolph Flesch





question leads

multiple-incident leads

umbrella leads

quotation leads

readability tests

access laws



Fair Use doctrine

Freedom of Information Act

Government in the Sunshine Act

Open Meeting laws

Stanford Daily case (newsroom searches)

public figure


NY Times v. Sullivan

confidential sources

shield laws




- 30 -