the newsroom

Why the history of news explains its future

Researching how news has changed from the 17th century to the present makes two scholars sanguine about its future.

Was May 2016 the month that faith in print newspapers finally died?

On May 6, The New Day, a tabloid print-only newspaper launched by publisher Trinity Mirror in the UK, shut down. The paper was the first new national daily newspaper in the UK for 30 years. It closed after just nine weeks.

The New Day seemed like a last-ditch attempt to sail a boat of print against the tidal wave of online news.

This is just one episode in the dramatic upheaval taking place in the world of journalism that also has seen the shutting down of once established newspapers as well as the emergence of the “citizen journalist” and the popularity of instant, real-time, unmediated news on digital and social media.

Much of this information is self-promoting, unedited and not fact-checked. The current freewheeling world of news seems like journalistic hell to many in a business where American newsrooms shrank by 40% between 2007 and 2015.

But as our research shows, the decline of print journalism will not be the end of news. Not only does this reassure the two of us about the “crisis in journalism.” Our many years of studying the story of news from the 17th century on make us positive about the future. Change, not stability, has been the steady state of news over the long arc of history.

News isn’t the same as journalism

The root of the present pessimism lies, we believe, in the failure of reporters, editors and scholars to draw a distinction between journalism and news.

Reams have been written, for example, about how journalism needs a 21st-century creed or must adopt values of transparency instead of objectivity.

Journalism is a type of news reporting that has existed for a relatively brief period.

Professional journalism is younger than professional baseball and psychoanalysis. While the term journalism emerged in the early 19th century, it established professional codes, education, and associations only in the early 20th century. The first school of journalism in the United States, for example, was established at the University of Missouri in 1908.

News, on the other hand, has been with us for centuries.

News existed before the concepts of fairness and objectivity, before anyone thought a newspaper should have editors and reporters.

John Aubrey (1626-1697).
John Aubrey (1626-1697).

News could be seen in the feature-like personality sketches that John Aubrey wrote for his English friends (and posterity) in the 17th century about such individuals as William Shakespeare and Thomas Hobbes. News could be found under the Tree of Cracow in the 18th century, a chestnut tree in a Parisian garden where people with inside information exchanged newsworthy tidbits. And in Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin gathered news by strolling to the wharf when ships arrived to get the latest mail and overseas newspapers for materials to publish in his Pennsylvania Gazette.

News in the days before industrial steam-powered printing presses and telegraphy was already cosmopolitan. Cities were the hubs of information. Urban dwellers often sought to learn more about other cities than surrounding rural areas. Cities occupy a similarly dominant position in the globalized news of today. Consider this recent data point as reported in the Washington Post:

If you want a reporting job today, your best bet is to move to D.C., L.A. or New York. They were home to almost one in every five reporting jobs in 2014, up from one in eight in 2004. Anywhere else, your journalistic job options are dwindling.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, news often cost nothing because it was produced by amateurs for the amusement of a few. Even “for sale” news was often an afterthought. Franklin’s newspaper was ancillary to his printing business, not by any means his chief activity, although we tend to emphasize it now.

In contrast, today’s dominant understanding of journalism, often called the Anglo-American model, evolved at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. It paralleled the rise of professions and technology changes – such as rotary printing presses – that created high barriers to entry to the newspaper business.

The values that emerged from this system insisted, for example, on separating the commercial side of the newspaper from the news portion.

Many scholars as well as many journalists idealistically view these values as providing universal, permanent standards for news, just as Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 “End of History” argued that the end of the Cold War had settled all the big questions about forms of government.

But history – and news – does not work that way. This 20th-century moment of high professionalism is an exception in the history of news, not its defining moment. In important respects it was an aberration. Not least because of the cost.

Anglo-American journalism is expensive

Foreign bureaus and investigative reporting are expensive as are state and national news bureaus, stand-alone Sunday book reviews, and specialized reporting on health, science and business.

At the high point of Anglo-American journalism, when news business coffers brimmed, this was sustainable. Newspapers enjoyed average annual returns of 12 percent; magazines were nearly as high at 10 percent, as media economist Robert Picard has shown. During that same time, grocery store profits were in the two percent range and department stores around four percent.

This highly profitable system was made possible by a complex set of subsidies supporting aggressive news-gathering.

Advertisers subsidized American newspapers to reach the mass market of consumers that arose in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, advertisements covered about 80 percent of newspaper operating costs. Readers paid the remaining 20 percent, which roughly equaled the cost of delivery, so advertisers subsidized readers too.

The original home of the Oregonian, the oldest continuously published newspaper on the west coast of the U.S.  Oregon Native Son
The original home of the Oregonian, the oldest continuously published newspaper on the west coast of the U.S. Oregon Native Son

Readers also subsidised each other. The reader who cared little about hard news paid for the paper to learn sports scores, television listings, and supermarket sales. Expensive news, such as investigative journalism, was paid for by people who very often didn’t read it.

The resulting newspaper, which provided a bit of something for everyone, was relatively cheap and thus attractive to potential consumers.

This was an excellent financial model – as long as technology did not change much. But now it has thanks to the low-cost-of-entry, low-cost-of-production competitors on the Internet.

But new technologies have retrieved old techniques

These challenges have forced changes in the newsroom unimaginable ten years ago.

Then, no New York Times editor would have countenanced advertising that mimicked news, as it would blur the strong line that separated the editorial functions from the rest of the paper. Today, so-called native advertising accounts for 10% of the Times’ digital revenue.

While many of these developments seem earth-shattering, they are not wholly novel.

To give just a few examples, the contemporary news environment is increasingly filled with citizen journalists supplying news for free over platforms ranging from Twitter to the Huffington Post. They operate without editorial supervision as Aubrey did in the 17th century. These individuals, like the unemployed Eliot Higgins, who became the leading expert on munitions in Syria, are unpaid, but their skills and information provide crucial fodder for commercial media companies. They also live a similarly precarious existence to printers in the 18th century, when newspapers would blossom and fold continuously.

As a Briton and an American, we recognise the Anglo-American model’s virtues and believe it will continue. But it is now going to coexist with other models.

New technologies that have disrupted the Anglo-American model have paradoxically retrieved older ways of conveying news.

In our “news” today, we can see the reemergence of the tattler, the party pamphlet, the recondite journal of opinion, the yellow rag, the journal of commerce, the sob sister, the literary journal, and the progressive muckraker. The amateur citizen journalist, toiling solitarily as Aubrey did, exists side-by-side with the school-trained reporter in a large newsroom.

Both news and journalism are constantly evolving.

The demise of Britain’s New Day might spell the beginning of the end for print-only newspapers. But one thing is certain. Today’s newspapers will not be following in the footsteps of the Dublin Gazette, which in November 1670 stopped printing because “there was no news”.

John Maxwell Hamilton, Global Scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC and Hopkins P Breazeale Professor, Manship School of Mass Communications , Louisiana State University and Heidi J. S. Tworek, Assistant Professor of International History, University of British Columbia

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.