And the ability to go longer almost certainly has something to do with newspapers getting better. The authors point to a 1997 study by Kevin Barnhurst and Diana Mutz documenting the rise of longer stories and Stepp’s 1999 study:

Barnhurst and Mutz do not certify that the longer stories of 1974 and 1994 offer “better” journalism than the shorter stories of 1954 and earlier, but it is hard not to believe that, in general, this is so. Stepp acknowledges that the 1999 papers struck him as “less flavorful, less surprising, and - distressingly - less imbued with a distinctive sense of place” than those of 1964. Nevertheless, he judges that the 1999 papers were “by almost any measure, far superior to their 1960s counterparts.” They were “better written, better looking, better organized, more responsible, less sensational, less sexist and racist, and more informative and public-spirited.”

And of all the forms, it’s contextual journalism that, almost unnoticed, exploded, mostly at the expense of the conventional style.

Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.

Fink and Schudson define it this way:

Contextual stories tend to focus on the big picture, providing context for other news. If the conventional story is a well-cropped, tightly focused shot, the contextual story uses a wide-angle lens. It is often explanatory in nature, sometimes appearing beside conventional stories to complement the dry, just-the-facts versions of that day’s events.

Got it. Fink and Schudson carry this forward, studying three papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (considered representative of good regional daily), over selected periods in 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991 and 2003, dividing page one stories into five categories: conventional, investigative, social empathy, contextual, or other. The names mostly speak for themselves, but one thing to keep in mind about conventional stories is that they usually, “often, though not always, inform the public about the official activities of government.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the idea is that official institutions set the agenda, the press follows.

The relevant chart and table are here:

One way to think about it is:

The notion that the news media are dominated today by “he-said-she-said” stories that write themselves is not a valid general critique of leading U.S. newspapers, nor has it been for several decades.

Fink and Schudson acknowledge that contextual journalism’s “impact on how people understand their world is yet to be explored.” That is to say, it’s hard to know what good it all did. But then, you can say that about any form of cultural product. Good work is its own justification.

The authors offer various reasons for this sea change and point mostly to a “normative” shift in the profession. That is, people just decided to do things differently. I’d probably have added a word about the newspapers’ consolidation into quasi-monopolies and the post-war boom in their ad revenues, which provided the economic underpinning to all this context.

Now I’m curious to see what the chart would look like if carried forward from the year 2003, after the economic foundation began to collapse, to see if the lines would look anything like mine:

*The journal is published by Sage Publications, which has offices in Thousand Oaks, California, London, and elsewhere.


Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.