“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
Perhaps the biggest transformation involves the compact that journalism is forging with the people it serves. In 1977, in a note quoted by Fergus Bordewich, Springfield Newspapers’ Dale Freeman described that compact like so: “We can be breezy in a responsible manner. We can be shallow (hell, we are!) as well as deep. We can be both lady and a lady of the evening. And, above all, we can shinny down from our pedestals and stop being so by God arrogant.” Reaching readers on their level, Bordewich went on to note, often took the form of talking down to them: “The news must be ‘simplified’ for the reader who is too impatient to think about the often subtle unfolding of events; the news must be ‘personalized’ for the reader who is bored or alienated by the process of politics and world affairs.” Though many news editors profess their desire to produce more public-interest news coverage, “they are not talking about improving it: many are, in fact, cutting it back. Editors are not talking about better-written news, they are talking about ‘breezier’ news. Many papers are becoming so breezy you can hear the whistling through the holes where the news might have been.”