Tech and the Evolution of News

By CHM Editorial | July 08, 2024

The electric telegraph terrified the New York newspapers.

— Richard John

Today, journalism, technology, and political polarization are profoundly changing one another—and us. But this is far from the first time these forces have collided. Along with changing business models and political and regulatory choices, technological changes have affected journalism in the US for nearly two centuries.

CHM decoded technology's continuing impact on news, partisanship, and society in a CHM Live event. Professor of History and Founding Director of Purdue University's Center for Technology and American Political History Kathryn Cramer Brownell and Richard R. John, professor of history and communications at Columbia University, discussed these issues and more with moderator Alexis Madrigal, cohost of KQED's Forum and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Media in the Early Republic

Before the rise of pollical parties and their partisan newspapers in the 1830s and ‘40s, there were tens of thousands of newspapers in the US, according to John. They were all less than four pages and were filled with news stories pulled from national and international papers and had very little local news.

Because the post office provided papers free of charge to editors, penetration of news into the hinterland was quite deep. Then the telegraph came along, threatening the dominance of the New York city editors.

Richard John explains how the telegraph intended to destroy New York newspapers.

In the 1880s, as cities grew and the country expanded, the big dailies changed too. Some papers took a popular, low-brow route and offered up tabloid stories, while others, like The New York Times, chose to provide high-quality information on a wide range of topics. These rival models dominated into the 20th century.

The concept of professional objectivity eventually became institutionalized in the 1920s and ‘30s. But, as Kathryn Brownell noted, objectivity meant “white, heterosexual, male objectivity.” The Black press openly called themselves an advocacy press and argued that their stories deserved attention. The Northeast press didn’t even have reporters in the South and they relied on (white, Southern) stringers, who were not reporting on the Black perspective.

Radio and Television

In the 20th century, radio and then television changed the way the news reached people. The way these new technologies developed and the choices that were made about how to regulate and structure them prioritized commercial interests. The 1927 Radio Act, which set frequencies, focused on who could be more efficient and offer better quality, as did the 1934 act setting up the Federal Communications Commission that served as the main regulatory body until 1994. Companies that could get the largest reach and promised to deliver a national experience were privileged above local interests.

License agreements were set up with the idea that stations were essentially “renting” the public airwaves and therefore had an obligation to serve the public. In reality, said Brownell, the “Big Three" monopoly of ABC, CBS, and NBC focused on making money and only began to offer news programs after a series of scandals, like Quiz Show, eroded public trust.

In part to prove to regulators that they served the public interest, the 1960s presidential debates between Nixon and John F. Kennedy were televised. After winning the presidency, JFK appointed Newton Minnow as FCC chairman. Minnow believed television should educate people and serve as a tool for democracy rather than just entertain. Broadcasters depended on him to maintain their licenses, so they then began to invest in newsrooms.

Regulation influenced the development of the concept that news should be objective, fair, and balanced. But all three panelists agreed that the idea that Walter Cronkite—the trusted newsman—led the country toward a national consensus on issues like civil rights and Vietnam was romanticized and largely exaggerated. Research shows that the news followed public opinion, not the other way around.

Cable TV

People took network television news seriously, and all three stations had huge audiences. That meant that political leaders had to engage, even if they were unhappy with the coverage. Broadcast news couldn’t be ignored and there was not yet an alternative media ecosystem. Then came cable.

Kathryn Cramer Brownell describes how cable TV evolved.

HBO offered the first satellite broadcast in 1975, and when television was deregulated in the 1980s, cable channels took off.

Meanwhile, newspapers had been in decline since the 1940s, said John. They were making money, but there were fewer per city and the survivors had the advertising market locked up. But they were generating about 80% of the news stories that appeared on TV until the 1990s. Staff and overseas correspondents were funded by classified ads, and as newspapers have continued to decline, they’ve became attractive for takeover—bled dry by outside owners.

Digital News

The loss of print newspapers is continuing, and today news is often provided digitally. Even while the process of factfinding and struggling with ideas like objectivity have remained, the shift to digital news has also driven some unique changes.

Alexis Madrigal describes the world of digital news.

In addition to being driven by virality, subject to lack of context, and influenced by journalists’ attention to the algorithm, analytics are influencing digital news. Unlike the “made up” ratings that used to dominate, analytics are much more precise. Data allows organizations to be able to mete out rewards within the media ecosystem and also see themes that are popular with audiences, allowing them to design click bait.

Audiences today often have only a tenuous connection to the organization that’s producing the information they consume. Madrigal said that feels like a return to national focus in a way, but Brownell argued that it’s different than the way broadcast news tried to be national. It’s a very narrow demographic slice of a national audience. Niche podcasts, for example, might even be more similar to early magazines rather than newspapers, added John.

It’s all in flux, and, as the panelists noted, they hadn’t even had a chance to consider the implications of adding artificial intelligence into the mix.

That’s a topic for another conversation.

Watch the Full Conversation

Making News | CHM Live, June 27, 2024

Main image: From left to right, Alexis Madrigal, Kathryn Cramer Brownell, and Richard R. John onstage at CHM.



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About The Author

CHM Editorial consists of editors, curators, writers, educators, archivists, media producers, researchers, and web designers, looking to bring CHM audiences the best in technology and Museum news.

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