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.”

The rise of infotainment was in large part, of course, a response to the physical and psychic ubiquity of television. And the web, for its part, engendered a similar convergence of the Serious and the Silly—and encouraged, at the same time, the kind of ambient attention that has been TV’s hallmark. Writing in 1996, Todd Oppenheimer, then an associate editor at the new Newsweek Interactive, compared online audiences to crowds on a street. Of the web and its denizens, he wrote: “Its audience is a restless bunch. Grabbing them, let alone holding their attention, requires one to reach out with much, much more. This is no world for docile publishers. This is street journalism.”

Bordewich was talking about ad hoc interest, the kind of hit-and-run engagement that is both a bane and a boon to the business of online publishing. But he was also describing the way the web shapes social interactions. Oppenheimer talked of the potential offered by interactivity—the new insights, the new relationships—but he also discussed the “on-line” audience with just a hint of disdain. He talked of web communities’ penchant for typos and interpersonal vitriol and communicative frenzy, characteristics that are now so common as to be matters of cliché. “In chat,” he wrote, “those who are on-line at the same time (called ‘real-time’ in cyber-jargon) can type to us, or to each other, no matter where they’re located. As the ‘conversation’ proceeds, everyone’s messages scroll madly across your screen.”

Compare that to today’s conventional wisdom, which holds that conversation is key to a whole range of journalistic values: engagement, interactivity, community. CJR foreshadowed that, too. As Katherine Fulton put it in a 1996 article, “Content is people, as well as information, and new media change the equation. For all the talk of interactivity, I find very few journalists who really understand its import.”

Fulton quoted Melinda McAdams, who had helped in the formation of The Washington Post’s online news service: “A journalist with little on-line experience tends to think in terms of stories, news value, public service, and things that are good to read. But a person with a lot of on-line experience thinks more about connections, organization, movement with and among sets of information, and communication among different people.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.