Walter Isaacson began his recent Time essay about the news business by declaring that “the crisis in journalism has reached meltdown proportions.” He suggested that a micropayment system could help encourage people to pay for online news. For all of its faults, Isaacson’s argument did micropayments proud by inspiring many people to give their own two cents on the matter.
Setting aside the micropayments issue, we’re left with Isaacson’s declaration about the news business. Whether or not you share Isaacson’s view that journalism is in a state of crisis, these are undeniably interesting times for the profession. A wave of change is crashing over journalism and the business built around it. By my count, it’s the fourth such wave, at least in terms of accuracy and quality.
The first wave occured in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Europe during the birth of the newspaper. Prior to that time, printed news came in the form of “newsbooks.” These were one-off publications containing a mix of commentary and news that was gathered by word of mouth, from ship captains, or simply by copying from other newsbooks. Their ephemeral nature—a newsbook might appear one day never to be seen again—meant that most publishers didn’t have to worry about someone complaining about an inaccuracy in a previous issue. That changed when publishers started adhering to a set production frequency. The newsbook became the newspaper.
“[Publishers] started producing weekly or biweekly newssheets on sale from a public office where people could come back and say, ‘That report doesn’t jibe with reality’,” said Stephen Ward, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia and author of the excellent book The Invention of Journalism Ethics, when I interviewed him for my book. “They had to try and retain the reader’s confidence.”
Frequency, and the consistent news brand that came with it, made publishers realize the importance of accuracy and quality reporting. Or, to be precise, they realized the importance of the appearance of accuracy. As a result, early newspaper publishers in England made loud and mostly exaggerated claims about the accuracy of their reports.
In England, the Faithful Scout promised “to encounter falsehood with the sword of truth.” Another paper, Mercurius Civicus, carried the subtitle: “Truth impartially related from thence to the whole Kingdome, to prevent mis-information.”
The end result of the first wave was that accuracy and factual reporting become part of the language of the burgeoning newspaper business. You couldn’t have one without the other. Accuracy was primarily a marketing strategy, though some early papers did print corrections. Ward’s book notes a 1624 correction wherein the famous publisher Thomas Gainsford “thanks a reader for correcting a previous erroneous story that located the Anti-christ’s birth in Babylon.” (He was, apparently, born somewhere else.)
The second wave of accuracy came in the nineteenth century with the emergence of the penny press in New York. (These papers cost one penny, in contrast with the more austere journals that typically charged six cents.) Just as the first wave was linked to frequency, the second wave was linked to mass circulation. The penny papers aimed to bring the news to the masses at an affordable price. This meant they had to sell a lot of copies each day, which ended up being bad news for accuracy.
Penny papers like the New York Sun claimed accuracy as a cornerstone of their enterprise, but it was often sacrificed in order to drive up circulation. This was never more true than with the Sun’s famous Moon Hoax of 1835. The second wave reached its climax at the end of the century with the excesses of the so-called yellow press. One of the best things to be said about the second wave is that it led directly to the third wave, which started with the dawn of the twentieth century and created a professionalized form of journalism.