Question of the Week, February 25

Is our current conception of journalism based largely on an historical accident?

To a certain extent, yes. While newspapers have been around in the U.S. since the beginning, it was not until the 1830s that they reached a mass audience. More to the point, it was not until the early 1900s that journalism began to think of itself as a profession, even later when our current conception of the big-staff metropolitan daily took hold. Now that that conception is crumbling, it’s useful to ask: where did it come from?

If your answer is ‘the Constitution,’ you’d be wrong. It’s entirely unclear what the Constitution means when it guarantees ‘freedom of the press,’ and the Supreme Court done little to distinguish that freedom from freedom of speech. Until the twentieth century, newspapers were generally the house organs of political organizations and perceived as such. The Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Club, two preeminent journalism organizations, were both established in early part of the twentieth century. Advertising-fueled mass media became a highly profitable business during that time, and by mid-century every city in the country had a fully-staffed daily newspaper.

All of these forces created what we now associate with ‘journalism,’ making it a relatively recent phenomenon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. While painful changes are obviously occurring, the most important challenge today is figuring out what’s important and making sure it is preserved. While American society surely existed before modern journalism, I don’t think any of us want to go back.

–Vincent Valk

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