• Journalism today

The means of distributing news is far different today than it was in the first part of the 20th century when this picture was taken. Newsboys (rarely girls) hawked newspapers in the street. Today that is a rare site except in the largest cities.

The world does not lack for mass media, news organizations, or journalism. Plenty of news fills printed pages, the broadcast airwaves, and the World Wide Web. News organizations large and small abound. Hundreds of thousands of people make their living as journalists or in helping to produce this news. Others do not work at it full time but contribute to today’s news environment.

But there are those who fear that it will not always be.

That’s because of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the field of journalism in the last two decades.

Those two decades have seen the fracturing of television audiences and a dramatic growth in the number of television channels that produce and broadcast news. More frightening to many people has been the decline in the number and economic stability of newspapers.

At the end of the last century, newspapers were giant organizations and highly profitable. A strong single newspaper dominated the news environment of a city or geographic area and produced most of its journalism. These newspapers would employ many journalists and perform many of the functions of journalism that we have discussed in the other modules of this section.

But during the 1990s – particularly the last half of the decade – this environment began to change. The major cause of this change was the Internet and the increasing access to broadband connections in the work and home environment, The growing popularity of the World Wide Web as a source for news made it the preferred medium because of its immediacy and because it offered users more of a choice (something that television, though immediate, did not do as well).

Suddenly, printing news on paper and delivering it to homes – by which time the news itself was hours old – did not seem to fit into a world of instant communication.

But newspaper companies had billions of dollars invested in printing presses and impressive buildings. And they produced most of the journalism that the society depended on. And they delivered audiences to advertisers, which provided them money to operate. All of this could not simply go away or even change overnight. There had to be some kind of transition period.

That is the state of journalism today.

Exactly how things will turn out economically is still one of the great unanswered questions of journalism. Newspaper companies have lost readers and advertisers – and thus revenue – at an alarming rate. Many have not been able to adjust to these new conditions quickly enough, and many of them are in danger of going out of business. Some already have. (The Rocky Mountain News in Denver stopped publication in 2009 after nearly 150 years of existence. The Detroit News has ceased printing and home delivery for several days a week.)

The recession of 2008-2009 has pushed many newspaper companies to the brink financially and have accelerated many of changes that the field of journalism has been experiencing.

The Tribune tower in Chicago is the home of the Chicago Tribune and WGN radio and television and is the center for the media company that owns newspapers from coast to coast. Because of losses of readership and advertising revenue and massive debt, the company is in trouble and its future in doubt.

Those changes have not been just financial. The web has changed the way journalism is done in some important and fundamental ways. The web, unlike other media of print or broadcasting, has virtually unlimited capacity for content. A newspaper might cover a local collegiate football game and be able to run only one or two pictures of it; the newspaper’s web site, however, might contain 100 or more pictures of the game.

The web also offers more flexibility in the form that information takes. It handles not only text and still images but also video and audio. Consequently, the journalist has to decide which form is best to present the information he or she has, and the journalist must be trained and experienced in using all forms of media.

The web has also introduced other changes in the process of journalism – changes that we will discuss throughout this course.

The most important of those changes is the interactivity that the web allows between the journalist and the consumers of news. In module 1.3 News consumers <link>, we discussed the shifting metaphor of news from “news as product” to “news as conversation.”

Journalists and news consumers are only beginning to understand this change and develop the full meaning of this concept. The “rules” governing news as conversation have not been written yet, and they are not likely to be settled any time soon. Chances are, the students who are reading this module and planning to become journalists will be among those who develop the new standards of journalism.

Because of the profound changes that are taking place in the profession, journalism today is an exciting field that is full of opportunities for hard-working and creative individuals. Society will continue to need journalism, just as it always has, but the form that it takes and the media that it uses will shift. Although careers in journalism are not predictable as they were a half century ago, undoubtedly there will be great opportunities for journalists to do important work and to make a good living while doing it.

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