What Fulton saw was the increasing—and increasingly pivotal—role that community would play in the previously product-driven work of news reporting. The phrase “content is people” recognizes that journalism can’t be, fundamentally, a product when it is also, fundamentally, a relationship. “The newspaper’s approach to news has to change in order to be successful in transmitting information electronically,” CompuServe’s Richard Baker told Doug Underwood in 1992. “Newspapers and magazines have to embrace the concept of sharing the creation of the news.” They’ve done so, tentatively. Increasingly, journalism-as-product and journalism-as-process are finding ways to coexist under the same news brand, within the same journalistic framework. Journalism in the late twentieth century began to revisit its coffee-house roots, convening communities and conversations that can play out regardless of geographic and temporal divisions.
“Where can people listen to each other?” Fulton asked in 1996. “Where can they be heard? Where can they meet new people? The answer to those questions could turn out to be as important a factor in the long-term survival of some journalism institutions as the quality of their information.”
The More Things Change . . .
It’s remarkable how enduring these questions have proven. And remarkable, too, how much of CJR’s wisdom from the 1960s and beyond holds up today. “There may be a contradiction between the newspaper’s role as a business and its role as a medium charged with informing the public.” (Lawrence Pinkham, 1961.) “The craft of journalism is losing its old-time meaning. The ‘communicator’ with broader skills and knowledge may be the man of the future.” (Edward McSweeney, 1966.) “Nothing on the horizon indicates that the trend toward concentration of power in the news business and the mixing of news with other enterprises will diminish.” (Ben Bagdikian, 1977.) “The newsweeklies: Is the species doomed?” (Bruce Porter, 1989.) “As the explosion of information continues, there will be even more need for highly skilled journalists to root through it, filter out what’s important, and help put it into perspective.” (Doug Underwood, 1992.) “There’s an awful lot of junk on the Internet, and it’s very difficult separating the wheat from the chaff.” (Joe Burgess, 1993.) “Strip away some of the more profitable or popular items under this current umbrella, and you could strip away the means of paying for serious reporting aimed at mass audiences. . . . Classified ads, that huge profit center for every newspaper, are particularly vulnerable.” (Katherine Fulton, 1996.)
The concerns about journalism’s path, too, remain relevant. And not just the many involving Rupert Murdoch. The admonitions take familiar shapes. In CJR’s inaugural issue, Lawrence Pinkham reviewed a book titled, provocatively for the time, The Fading American Newspaper. “The main theme,” Pinkham wrote, “running erratically through the book, is that American newspapers, faced with the double necessity of staying in business and staying in journalism, have placed the demands of the cash register ahead of informing the public, and, as a result, have lost much of their reason for existence.”