Thursday, June 4, 2009


The question of whether we are witnessing the end of journalism is perhaps the most common topic at contemporary gatherings of journalists and journalism scholars. Although hushed and apprehensive conversations about it have taken place in recent years, today’s discussions are open and filled with alarm and fear.

Many of the voices and opinions, however, misunderstand the nature of journalism. It is not business model; it is not a job; it is not a company; it is not an industry; it is not a form of media; it is not a distribution platform.

Instead, journalism is an activity. It is a body of practices by which information and knowledge is gathered, processed, and conveyed. The practices are influenced by the form of media and distribution platform, of course, as well as by financial arrangements that support the journalism. But one should not equate the two.

The pessimistic view of the future of journalism is based in a conceptualization of journalism as static, with enduring processes, unchanging practices, and permanent firms and distribution mechanisms. In reality, however, it has constantly evolved to fit the parameters and constraints of media, companies, and distribution platforms.

In its first centuries journalism was practiced by printers, part-time writers, political figures, and educated persons who acted as correspondents—not by professional journalists as we know them today. In the nineteenth century the pyramid form of journalism story construction developed so stories could be cut to meet telegraph limits and production personnel could easily cut the length of stories after reporters and editors left their newspaper buildings. Professionalism in the early 20th century emerged with the regularization of journalistic employment and professional journalistic best practices developed. The appearance of radio news brought with it new processes and practices, including “rip and read” from the news agencies teletypes and personal commentary. TV news brought a heavy reliance on short, visual news and 24hour cable channels created practices emphasizing flow-of-events news and heavy repetition.

Journalistic processes and practices have thus never remained fixed, but journalism has endured by changing to meet the requirements of the particular forms in which it has been conveyed and by adjusting to resources provided by the business arrangements surrounding them.

Journalism may not be what it was a decade ago—or in some earlier supposedly golden age—but that does not mean its demise is near. Companies and media may disappear or be replaced by others, but journalism will adapt and continue.

It will adapt not because it is wedded to a particular medium or because it provides employment and profits, but because its functions are significant for society. The question facing us today is not whether journalism is at its end, but what manifestation it will take next. The challenges facing us are to find mechanisms to finance journalistic activity and to support effective platforms and distribution mechanisms through which its information can be conveyed.