The predictions about journalism’s future—and the declarations about its
current, transient state—lend themselves well to perhaps the most common questions in CJR’s coverage: What is a journalist? And what, indeed, is journalism? (Or, better, as Neil Postman would put it: “What is the problem to which the profession of journalism is the solution?”) Those questions lend themselves to pretty much any discussion of journalism’s future. “A journalist, as defined by the dictionary, is ‘one whose business it is to write for a public journal,’ ” Edward McSweeney wrote in 1966. “In the commonly accepted meaning, a journalist is a working professional whose primary concern is with words. But now as the graphic arts combine with electrical and audio-visual devices, publishing is expanding into new media of communication. . . .His primary activity will be to deal with meaning, whatever the symbols or methods of conveyance. He will be obliged to become master of multiple disciplines.”
It’s a sentiment that, obviously, reverberates—and only partially because journalists, born storytellers, often love nothing more than to tell their own stories. (“Never in my twenty-five years in this business,” Hearst’s Frank Benack put it, “have newspaper executives been as introspective about the ‘product’ as they are today.” He said that in 1976. Had he said it each year since then, it would only have grown more accurate.)
But what CJR’s coverage makes clear is that journalism’s existential questions are, for all their ubiquity, largely irrelevant. Content may be people, as Katherine Fulton had it; but so, really, is journalism. As long as there are people who define themselves as journalists, there will be journalism. The new tools available to its practice may “have the potential for democratizing the industry,” Paul Brainerd remarked in 1989. “But they are just tools. And it really depends on the people and their use of the tools.” Whatever the forms it takes, and whatever the technologies that take it there, journalism is a group endeavor. As Knight Ridder’s Bill Baker had it: “There are things about a newspaper that are attuned to the human spirit. And it’ll be there forever.”
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