The Profession of Publicist

THE real interest attaching to the Pulitzer School of Journalism, the latest experiment at Columbia University, lies in the purpose it embodies to create the profession of publicist. Incidentally, of course, a necessary step to reaching a professional status, the school will attempt to train and equip more competent reporters and “ all-around newspaper men ; ” that is, to turn out a superior article of newspaper craftsman. The ultimate object is shown in the schedule of courses submitted by President Eliot to the Advisory Board as a suggestion for guidance in organizing the school, a schedule which includes systematic instruction in all departments of the business of publishing a newspaper no less than in those of editorial method and management. But the crux of the experiment is touched in that part of the schedule included under the head Ethics of Journalism, and designed to instruct the student in the proper attitude of the “ editorial department ” to the “ business office.” These courses are arranged to treat of the “ relations of publisher, editor, and reporters as regards freedom of opinion,” defining and inculcating “ a proper sense of responsibility to the public on the part of newspaper writers,” and discussing, if not determining, the extent to which “ the opinion of an editor or owner of a newspaper should affect its presentation of news.” This phrasing, a little vague for one so exact as is President Eliot in saying just what he means, seems to apply directly to reporting rather than to editorial writing, but “ presentation ” is a broad word, and must assuredly include the latter. In so far as the purpose of these courses is realized, their product will he a class of journalists, recognized as having a professional right to independence based on special attainment and trained judgment.

These courses in what may be called the right to independence are evidently planned to carry out the avowed purpose of the founder of the school, who wishes through it to raise journalism from an occupation of anomalous status to the dignity of a recognized profession. For reasons obvious to all acquainted with the conditions, the New York World’s official announcement of that purpose is silent on the question of the individual journalist’s right to independence. The World’s announcement deplores the fact that “ journalism, which is really the most intricate and exacting of all professions, requiring the widest range of knowledge, and holding a highly responsible relation to the people and to public affairs, ranks in many minds as not even a profession at all.” It is pointed out that while by the last census there were in the United States 100 law schools with 1106 professors to provide trained recruits for the ranks of the 114,073 lawyers in it enumerated, there was not a single school of journalism in the United States to provide trained recruits for the ranks of the 30,098 journalists in it enumerated, although, proportionately, there should have been twenty-six schools of journalism with 291 professors. To contribute toward supplying this lack is Mr. Pulitzer’s purpose, and thus, as the official announcement in the World states it, “ to raise the character and standing of the newspaper profession, and to increase its power and prestige through the better equipment of those who adopt it, and by attracting to it more and more men of the highest character and the loftiest ideals.” In these days of widespread belief in the potency of money to accomplish any end to which it is applied with expert business judgment, it is reassuring to know that an undertaking so ambitious is “ backed ” by no less a sum than $2,000,000.

Quite apart from the difficulty peculiar to this form of experiment, it is interesting to note that any attempt to create a new profession must, at the outset, encounter two obstacles peculiar to the conditions of modern life, outgrowths of the trend of social development, evident obstacles, though often overlooked. One is the decline in prestige of existing professions, the professional man as such by no means holding the place once accorded him in the esteem of the community. The other is popular unwillingness to accept the judgment of the expert as authoritative, except in cases where the necessity is apparent beyond dispute, as, for example, in the case of a great engineering work. The decline in prestige of the professions is an anomaly. The professional standards have been raised far above what they were fifty years ago ; that is, the requirements for admission to professional life are more exacting and more strictly enforced. But at the same time there is relatively far smaller distinction, if any at all, in belonging to the professional class. The distinction to-day lies in the success of what one is doing and not in the occupation or profession. Once, when one calling was rated “ more respectable ” than another, a person might prefer, and often did, following his aptitude, choosing, as sometimes is the case now, moderate success in a respectable calling, or one he liked, to far greater success in a calling not so respectable, or one to which he was not drawn. What calling, business, profession, or trade is not respectable, to-day, if only the returns are sufficiently remunerative ? Admitting, as consistent believers in the democratic ideals for which America stands, the gain in substituting efficiency of work, accomplishment, for traditional distinctions of respectability, we must also recognize the loss, since the change implies a standard by which all success is defined in terms of dollars and cents. Interesting evidence that the changed status of the professions gives grave concern to the professional class comes to hand more than occasionally. Proof of this is found in the effort by some of our leading universities to shorten the A. B. courses, and to supplement them with anticipatory professional courses, in order to entice into “ going to college ” young men who otherwise would graduate from the high school straight into the professional school. The feeling from which this effort springs finds expression in the engineering profession, popularly thought of as having small relation to an academic training. For it was Mr. Eddy, President of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, who said that “the crying need ” of his profession today was u men whose technical knowledge and proficiency rest upon a broad basis of general culture.” The crying need for this broad basis of general culture is most widely recognized in the profession of law because of its direct influence in shaping legislation and its close relation to public affairs. The technically trained legal expert, indifferent to broad questions and constitutional principles as such, may be, as has been said, the “ most private-spirited citizen ” in a community, when a “ leading lawyer ” ought to be its most public-spirited citizen. The policy of certain university law schools in excluding all but collegetrained students emphasizes the attempt to meet this menace by checking or modifying the set toward specialism.

If it be an anomaly that the prestige of the professions has declined as professional standards have been raised, it is a paradox that experts lack popular authority in an age whose characteristic mark is the differentiation and multiplication of new experts. In mechanics, doubtless, their authority is practically unchallenged, a conspicuous exception. But in how many other strictly professional spheres can the same be said of expert authority ? Some twelve years ago, President Eliot in a magazine article noted the advantage in respect of public health enjoyed by an autocratically governed community over one democratically governed. Berlin was instanced as an example of a city which had lowered its death-rate below that of certain American cities, possessed of every sanitary advantage in natural condition, by the vigorous application of scientific principles to water-supply and sewage problems. In the American city the voters had first to be convinced that sanitary science would lower the death-rate, proof that the dictum of the expert is not popularly accepted as authoritative. A like example, which to-day is forced on every one’s attention, is the fight of health boards to check the spread of tuberculosis by stopping the practice of public spitting. Did the statements of experts carry authority, the people themselves would take the enforcement of anti - spitting regulations into their own hands. Without wearisome multiplication of examples we find, on turning to problems of economics, the special sphere of the authority of the proposed profession of publicist, the same attitude emphasized, for it has long been almost sufficient to laugh an economic expert out of court to call him “ a theorist.” An interesting and timely illustration was afforded at the recent hearings before the Massachusetts Commission to investigate the relations of employers and employees, whose chairman is Carroll D. Wright. The labor representatives who appeared before the commission, says R. L. Bridgman in summing up his report in the Outlook, were “ disposed to flout all offers of help from theories of students of society and economics regarding the best solution of their own problems.”

These being the limitations to the development of professionalism in its traditional sense, the professions, as such, declining in prestige, and professional opinion, as such, without general authority, the phrase “ professional standing ” has naturally come to signify professional recognition as distinguished from popular recognition. The problem, then, of a school of journalism, so far as it attempts to confer status on the profession of publicist, is to create professional standards within the profession when the value of the publicist’s professional work depends, not on the estimate of fellow craftsmen, but on the estimate of the great public ; and, still further, when, in addition to the serious drawback of anonymous writing, the conditions of modern journalism afford only occasional opportunity for independent work, such as is afforded in other professions. For these conditions, “yellow journalism ” is usually held responsible, but it is so only in part. If we admit everything that is said of “yellow journalism’s demoralizing influence,” it remains true that journalism itself has been revolutionized in the course of natural evolution. These revolutionary changes, as Whitelaw Reid, one of the Advisory Board of the Pulitzer School, pointed out in a recent address at Yale, “ while they were largely physical at the outset, necessarily opened the way to moral changes as striking.” The physical changes include the reduction in cost of raw material with an unlimited increase in supply ; the reduction in the cost of both composition and printing, with marvelously increased speed in both processes of production. Thus are created the conditions of a constantly expanding business in the opportunity to reach a widening patronage of both readers and advertisers by adding “features ” to attract this or that new class, by specializing innovations in news, or stories, or miscellaneous descriptive articles. As a result, what was once distinctive is minimized, the editorial page, for example, being often the least conspicuous page and the most difficult to find in an “ up-to-date ” newspaper. In short, a complete revolution is wrought in the newspaper type and character. “ Obviously,” says Mr. Reid in the lecture quoted, “ the business results from these revolutionary changes in the methods of the business were inevitable, no matter what were the sentiments, or wishes, or even principles, of the men engaged in it. Nothing could avert either a great reduction in price, or a great increase in size, or both; and nothing could then wholly avert the moral changes which soon began to accompany an unexampled facility of production.”

In graduating from “ a small venture ” into “ a big enterprise,” the newspaper ceased to be primarily a vehicle of opinion, a fate which, curiously enough, it has shared with its old rival, the pulpit, — contributive evidence of the decline of professional prestige and of ex cathedra authority in ethics. In point of fact, who but an eccentric millionaire can afford to “ start a newspaper ” in order to control an organ for the purpose of personal comment on current events ? Only a small per cent of its possible constituency, “ a saving remnant,” would be attracted to it through interest in its “ views,” a totally insufficient patronage to justify its publication even as an organ. The “ growth of independent journalism,” often another name for negative, if not pusillanimous, journalism, of which so much is made as “ a hopeful sign ” (as it is, perhaps), means also that strenuous advocacy of a cause can hope to make successful appeal to a minority too small for a constituency, enforcing the old saying that capital is cautious and conservative. The blunt fact, offered not in apology, but in recognition of a condition as opposed to a theory, is, of course, that capital does, and must, control the policy of the newspaper, to maintain which a large investment is necessary. Sometimes this control extends to details, and sometimes, where the representative of capital is far-sighted, it only applies to general directions. Alike in either case, the final decision of policy rests in a newspaper enterprise, as in any other, with the capital that finances it and is responsible not merely for its profit, but for its solvency, — an aspect of the case of which little account is taken in current discussion. It is a fair generalization to say that “ degenerate ” and “demoralizing” newspaper methods are not so often chargeable to a greed that seeks to squeeze the last unscrupulous dollar out of a profitable business, as to the attempt to maintain an unequal struggle for a bare business existence. The fact is that while the occasional owner with a peculiar genius for the business has made a fortune out of the modern newspaper, the great majority of modern newspaper plants, despite the apparent opportunity for profit, have proved far from well-paying properties. Indeed, this fact is so generally appreciated, that for some years noticeably few attempts have been made to establish new papers of any size. Per contra, many “ wellestablished ” papers have been “ reorganized,” to the great loss of their owners ; or are shabbily maintained as adjuncts, in smaller cities, to a job-printing establishment ; or are “ kept going ” as “ organs ” by owners, usually politicians or promoters, who look for indirect personal advantage as distinguished from legitimate business profit. That profit, in the case of a newspaper properly equipped in plant and “ news-gathering ” facilities, must be figured on the basis of an annual expense of from $50,000 to $150,000 in leading provincial cities, and of at least $500,000 in a metropolis. The uncertainty of the returns, even under fairly promising conditions, once led the late Charles A. Dana to say, “ I believe a man can make more money as a newspaper broker,i unloading ’ newspaper properties on * lambs,’ than as a straight newspaper publisher.”

The phrase “ newspaper property ” of itself suggests a necessary limitation to the possibilities of establishing the profession of publicist in the sphere of journalism. Only by the happy chance of a broad-minded and high-minded ownership of the “ property ” employing him, or by the rarer chance of being himself admitted to a share in the ownership, can such a publicist, however competent, enjoy that degree of independence which is the distinguishing mark of professional life. A certain latitude of treatment may be accorded in specially favored places of peculiar responsibility, as to the longtime correspondent; or the valued editorial writer or critic may be permitted to choose his subjects, and thus escape selfstultification in what he writes ; but beyond that, liberty of expression can seldom go. The lawyer, the doctor, the minister, the engineer, the artist, the man of science, the actor, the musician, even the teacher, all look forward to a time, which with some of them begins with the beginning of professional life, when individuality shall have free play in work, — the charm of a professional career in that it is an embodiment of individuality. The more competent a man has made himself through study and training, the more he covets and claims this independence. In professions where, as in the higher branches of teaching, such independence has been at times invaded, where “ academic freedom ” has been violated under pressure of external control suggesting a control to which journalism is constantly subject, the voice of general protest is quick to make itself heard, and, in instances, has found concrete expression in the appointment, by colleagues, of a committee of inquiry. This is the proper response of professional pride to any menace of that esprit de corps which differentiates the profession from the occupation. It is true, of course, that there remains to the journalist a wide range of innocuous subjects, the opportunity to spend time on the preparation of articles informing or amusing, work more or less attractive according to individual aptitude. To these subjects no such restraint applies since they contribute only incidentally to determining the character, and still less, the policy, of the paper, and hence are a negligible quantity. But in so far as this class of articles is chosen by a journalist as his specialty, they obviously remove him from the profession of publicist, however broadly inclusive may be the meaning attaching to that loosely used phrase.

If the satisfaction of work for work’s sake is to so large an extent denied the journalist, no compensation is offered him in the chance of those large pecuniary returns which in other professions reward the man who has proved himself exceptionally capable. One is almost tempted to say of journalism that there is in it no struggle for the survival of the fittest, since “ the fittest ” pass unmarked in the crowd. As it was put by a journalist who has himself secured one of the few prizes of the profession, in sounding the kindly note of warning to a group of young men : “ There are no great prizes in journalism to-day, — nothing but a modest competence compared with the incomes of men not journalists, of similar education and circumstances.” The journalist, it may be said as a generalization, is not paid quite so well as either the teacher or the preacher of like standing. Can any process of special education or distinction of degree create a professional class of journalists whose value will command the recognition in dollars and cents to attract that quality of brains which secures the prizes in other professions, the conditions of journalism being what they are ? This is not a mere mercenary question. It is even more a question of opportunity ; for by the possibility or lack of opportunity to reach the kind of recognition by which the world measures success must be ranked the character of a calling, its attractiveness, the place in which it is held, however careless the individual concerning his own chance. Science may be named as an exception, for it is one of the glories of science that the passion for it obsesses the devotee regardless of poverty or wealth. Yet had not applied science justified itself to a practical world it is open to doubt whether its recognized status would be the same, or whether it would draw into it the same quality of young men who devote themselves to it without thought of money to be made or to be forgone. The crux of the question was touched by a brilliant journalist, the late John Swinton, for many years managing editor of the New York Sun, in a retort on Mr. Dana. “ Swinton,” said Mr. Dana one day, “ I need a first-class editorial writer. Have you one to recommend ? ” “ How much are you willing to pay, Mr. Dana?” asked Mr. Swinton. “For a first-class man $125 a week,” was the reply. “ But you cannot get a first-class man for that,” protested Mr. Swinton. “ Why not ? ” asked Mr. Dana. “ That is what I pay you, and don’t you consider yourself a first-class man ? ” “ No, Mr. Dana,” rejoined Mr. Swinton. “ If I were a ‘ first-class man ’ I should be paying you $125 a week.” That $125 a week practically marked the limit of Mr. Swinton’s opportunity, as it may be said to mark the limit of the same quality of brains in journalism to-day; and also the limit of something far more vital, for the difference between a Dana and a Swinton defines status.

What qualities do we naturally associate with the typical editor, the representative publicist of the press ? He may be, of course, that rare man who not only possesses certain qualities necessary to journalistic success, such as foresight of what will be interesting and significant, instinctive appreciation of the kind of news and news-treatment which will attract, the administrative and organizing faculty which will get the most out of a staff, the business faculty which will make the most out of a plant; but who, besides all these, possesses through personal gift and training the power to grasp great issues and the art to express great thoughts. But this equipment, and properly under modern conditions, comes last of all, and is the least esteemed. Those who do the pen work of the press are for the most part unknown by name, professionally, beyond the immediate circle of their associates. Only in the smaller provincial cities, and even in these to a surprisingly small degree, is the understudy of the “publicist,” the controlling and directing manager who is responsible for what is printed, known by, or identified with, his work. And the great public cares as little as it knows. Yet the capacities of comprehension of issues and expression of views are those which first of all a school of journalism is founded to develop in so far as it is to realize its purpose of training young men to be publicists, and thus of raising the profession of journalism.

There is a significant passage in James Bryce’s tribute to his friend, the late E. L. Godkin, emphasizing the anomalous character of the so-called profession of journalism, but evidently written with no thought beyond that of stating his individual conclusions, those of an interested and competent observer. This passage puts concretely what it has here been attempted to put broadly, as a case of natural evolution, naming in illustration hardly one journalist who conforms to the professional standard. It is thus convincing apart from the authority of its distinguished authorship, because it unconsciously settles moot questions of status and type. Mr. Bryce writes: —

“ As with the progress of science new arts emerge and new occupations and trades are created, so with the progress of society professions previously unknown arise, evolve new types of intellectual excellence, and supply a new theatre for the display of peculiar and exceptional gifts. Such a profession, such a type, and the type which is perhaps most specially characteristic of our times, is that of the Editor. It scarcely existed before the French Revolution, and is, as now, fully developed, a product of the last eighty years. Various are its forms. There is the Business Editor, who runs his newspaper as a great commercial undertaking, and may neither care for politics nor attach himself to any political party. America still recollects the familiar example set by James Gordon Bennett, the founder of the New York Herald. There is the Selective Editor, who may never pen a line, but shows his skill in gathering an able staff round him, and in allotting to each of them the work he can do best. Such an one was John Douglas Cook, a man of slender cultivation and few intellectual interests, but still remembered in England by those who forty years ago knew the staff of the Saturday Review, then in its brilliant prime, as possessed of an extraordinary instinct for the topics which caught the public taste, and for the persons capable of handling these topics. John T. Delane, of the Times, had the same gift, with talents and knowledge far surpassing Cook’s. A third, and usually more interesting form, is found in the Editor who ‘ is himself a writer,’ and who imparts his own individuality to the journal he directs. Such an one was Horace Greeley, who, in the days before the War of Secession, made the New York Tribune a power in America. Such another, of finer, natural quality, was Michael Katkoff, who in his short career did much to create and to develop the spirit of nationality and imperialism in Russia thirty years ago.”

It would be hard to find stronger enforcement than this by Mr. Bryce of the contention, that though a “ great editor ” may be incidentally a publicist, he need be, and oftener is, merely a purveyor of news and views. For the journalist with ambitions the obvious pinch of this situation is that as against the editor the publicist has, and can have, no right except the right to resign. This is the same cruel fact accentuated which years ago pointed Thackeray’s contemptuous fling, that Pendennis eked out his narrow income from book-reviewing “ by occasional contributions of leading articles to the Journal when, without hurting the paper, this eminent publicist could conscientiously speak his mind.” The conditions then being what they are, and what, for any sign to the contrary, they must long continue to be, it is futile to attempt through a special school to raise journalism to the rank of a profession. Such a school, whatever the problematical value of its training in technique, cannot give its graduate professional prestige, for that in all the professions has lost the significance of popular recognition. It cannot for the same reason give him professional authority. It cannot give him the chance of large professional reward, for that is determined by the returns of an uncertain, and often unprofitable, business. It cannot give him professional opportunity, for independence of view is controlled by the policy of the editor, who is either the owner of the paper or the representative of the capital invested in it. Under such limitations of career, journalism must increasingly repel the men to whom naturally it would most appeal, the men to whom it owes the largest share of its influence in the past, the men to whom it should look to give it character in the future.

Arthur Reed Kimball.