There’s a comfort to all this, a sense that what we’re experiencing now, at this moment in journalism—the tremors, the crumbles, the seismic shifts—has all been experienced before. Even in a world that finds tablet computers ubiquitous rather than imaginary, even in a world that finds machines and formulas (robots, algorithms, cyborgs) taking over tasks once done by humans, even in a world that finds us, somehow, gleefully celebrating the takeover . . . journalism is still journalism. The news, as an industry and an institution, has always faced challenges—challenges both unique to the times and common to the craft—and it’s always found a way to persevere. Changed, maybe—evolved—but intact all the same.
“The dream of all journalists and conscientious owners has been to free the American newspaper from being mostly a factory,” Ben Bagdikian wrote in 1973. “That liberation has now begun.” But that liberation, courtesy of new technology, would also transform the industry from the outside in. And digital technologies, though the newest of the lot, have been the most revolutionary of all. “Computers are driving a change far larger than computer-assisted reporting, or paint programs, or digital photography,” Katherine Fulton declared in 1993. “The economic infrastructure of whole industries is going to change, and journalism along with it.” She quoted Stewart Brand: “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”
The Hyphen Index
When CJR began telling the story of the digital world and its impact on journalism, it did so—like most of its fellow publications—with a copious amount of hyphens. On-line. Data-base. Multi-media. Log-in. E-mail. The hyphen wasn’t just punctuation; it was also a representation of newness, of exoticness, of the semi-awkwardness of disparate things being joined together. (“E-mail,” at least at first, was an extremely strange concept.) Though the hyphens seem quaint today, they’re a good reminder of the tentative way in which new technologies insert themselves into our language and our lives. We resist them. And then we ease them in gradually, sometimes grudgingly.
But if the Hyphen Index is a measure of a technology’s newness, the story of journalism’s evolution through CJR’s pages is in many ways the story of the hyphen’s dissolution. It’s a story of exoticism becoming ubiquity, of divisions resolving themselves, finally and perhaps inevitably, in convergence. Today, in late 2011, we talk about the online world, about database journalism and the promise of multimedia. Our talk of these technologies is no longer tentative; in fact, it is often banal, commonplace. The hybrids have become whole.
And those shifts—from the latent to the present, from the separate to the coherent—are themselves convenient metaphors for the broader trends in journalism as they’ve played out in CJR’s pages. Those pages have seen journalists come to connect with, understand, and serve their audiences in ways that were never before possible. They’ve seen the line between professional journalism and amateur fade in the hot light of shared interest and collaboration. They’ve seen the concept of the “news story” itself take new shapes with the advent of new tools.
They’ve seen the opposite movement, too, of course: the unbundling of the news form, the movement to define journalism against other forms of information, the disentangling of content from the revenue streams that sustained it, the dissolution of formerly solid business models. But CJR has generally adopted the long view. And the long view suggests that, while we may live in a time of deep disruption, the tremors are temporary. The ground will stop shaking, because it always does. And journalism will continue to be what it’s always been: a way for people to learn and participate and, finally, come together.
The Omnipresent Audience