Our Changing Journalism

I

IN SO far as the public takes any interest at all in the welfare of the press, it is usually concerned only about newspaper morals. A journalist who goes abroad among people of other occupations is subjected to an almost continuous barrage of inquiries as to the ethical state of his profession: —

Do you suppress news at the command of the big advertisers?

Is it true that editorial writers are usually Socialists, who give expression to conservative ideas under pain of dismissal?

How much of the foreign news is just made up out of whole cloth in the newspaper office?

The morals of journalism are certainly interesting and important; but to centre attention on them, regarding them as something fixed and static, the result of willful wickedness on the part of capitalist owner and subservient editor, is to miss the most important part of the picture. For journalism, like so many other things, is in a state of flux. It is changing; and these changes are producing a situation of far more vital concern to the people than the one matter of ‘morality,’ important though that is.

I hardly need point out that the most extensive alterations in civilization — and certainly the most rapid — are those which result from mechanical invention. It is at least open to question whether the world-shattering Darwinian theory, in the sixty-odd years since it was announced, has wrought as important changes as have been produced in two decades by the automobile. I suppose no one will deny that the invention of the steam engine was, in the long run, the largest single factor in producing the Great War. The men who have had the greatest actual influence on their fellows have always been the inventors, from Gutenberg, through Watt, to Edison and Henry Ford.

Journalism is to-day a particularly good example of an institution which is altering in all its characteristics because of mechanical progress. In order to see these changes in their proper perspective, it is necessary to go back for a moment to the conditions which existed half a century earlier.

Fifty years ago it was the general rule, even in the large cities, that the editor was owner as well, or at least possessed of a substantial part-interest. He wrote many of the editorials, inspired the rest, and showed his dominating personality in every part of the paper, including the news columns. Advertising was so small in volume that it was of minor importance in shaping editorial policy. Though the Civil War had brought the telegraph into widespread use for transmitting news, papers were still produced slowly and carefully. Reporters took as much time as was necessary to gather their facts, and then wrote their copy in longhand.

There was plenty of vulgar journalism even then: it is a delusion of newspapermen born since 1885 that vulgarity was invented by Mr. Pulitzer and Mr. Hearst. But, in the main, papers were a laborious and fairly leisurely product. The reporter had been an eyewitness of what he described; and he was encouraged — as is very rarely the case to-day — to use the best English he could produce, to create a genuine ‘ literary ‘ effect if he were capable of it.

The writing was, on the average, not only good, but honest. The editorowner wrote what he believed and printed what he chose. Syndication of material of any sort lay in the future; the whole paper, except a small volume of telegraphic news and the ‘lifted’ matter (reprinted from other journals), was produced in one office. The editor might, as did Colonel Nelson, the famous editor of the Kansas City Star, express his personality even in the selections he made from the exchanges. In short, the newspaper of those days was essentially a personal, human, and local product.

II

This in 1870. What of 1923?

I have no wish to utter a jeremiad; but it would also be foolish to palliate a condition as familiar to my readers as to myself. To-day the character of journalism has been altered by a series of mechanical inventions: the telephone, high-speed rotary presses, stereotyping, typesetting machines, color presses, rotogravure, the electric-telegraphic typewriter. Allied to these is a series of institutional developments: an enormous increase in the bulk of advertising, greatly enlarged circulations, universal use of syndicated material, ‘chain’ newspapers in various cities under common ownership. These several factors work together to produce a number of important results, which I will catalogue briefly.

First, the ascendancy of the afternoon over the morning paper (because papers live on advertising, advertising is directed at women, and women have more leisure in the evening than earlier).

Second, a consequent premium put on haste, which means that the news is more and more presented in fragmentary, ‘skeletonized,’ and often garbled form.

Third, an increasing use of pictures, which have been found to appeal to large numbers of people who are almost illiterate, but possess the buying power which the advertiser seeks.

Fourth, with a few conspicuous exceptions, a continuing degeneration and flabbiness of journalistic English. This is primarily due to haste, facilitated by the use of the typewriter, and secondarily to the use of the telephone, because of which the man who writes is less and less often the man who has personally seen.

Fifth, a steady tendency to condense news articles into mere tabloid summaries. This is due to the great increase in the physical volume of advertising, and the desire nevertheless to hold down the bulk of the paper.

Sixth, a wider and wider use of syndicated material, so that newspapers all over the country are partly identical from day to day in their contents. This is true not only of telegraphic news, obtained from one of the three great news-gathering associations, but of ‘feature’ articles, drawings, even editorials. To-day this process is being extended to the local news, through the development of coöperative systems of gathering and distributing at least the routine items in each municipality.

Seventh, the great invested capital and earning power of a successful paper to-day. Because of this fact — the result of the increase in advertising — ownership has slipped out of the hands of the editor, whose type of mind is rarely compatible with large business dealings, and has passed to that of wealthy individuals or corporations. This means that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the editorial attitude of the paper reflects the natural conservatism of these ‘capitalistic’ owners, or is of a wishy-washy type which takes no vigorous stand on any subject.

Eighth, the passing of rivalry from the editorial to the business office. Since the textual contents of newspapers are so largely identical, there is no longer the fierce editorial rivalry which formerly inspired the journalist to seek constant improvement in his paper. Instead, rivalry has been transferred to the business and circulation departments. The chief journals of each city struggle hard for the coveted post of leader in volume of advertising. Circulation men fight to the death for every last hundred subscribers. Unfortunately, their race for added sales is reflected editorially in the production of journals which more and more represent, not an editor’s notion of a good paper, but a circulation manager’s notion of a good seller.

These developments need only to be mentioned for their importance to be realized. There are others, however, which lie somewhat deeper beneath the surface and are still equally vital.

III

Since so much of the editorial matter is nowadays produced at secondhand, either written from telephoned description, rewritten from telegraphed matter, or prepared in other cities for syndicate distribution, it is increasingly hard for even an honest and conscientious editor to keep his columns free from the taint of propaganda. This problem is augmented by the increasing use of press agents by persons or institutions wishing to get into — or keep out of — print. Formerly it was possible for reporters to come into direct contact with the executive heads of the great industrial corporations which are such an important source of news. To-day they interview the ‘counselor on public relations,’ who hands out a mimeographed statement, or answers queries with monosyllables which reveal a pretended or genuine ignorance. These same corporations are also increasingly heavy buyers of display advertising space. This is sometimes due to a legitimate desire to increase the amount of business done; but it is also to some extent an attempt to bulldoze or cajole the paper into a ‘friendly’ editorial attitude—an attempt which is in too many cases successful.

Even the small-town press is not immune from these dangerous efforts to poison the stream of public opinion at its source. Mechanical invention has reached down to the smallest country weekly, with devices which result in lessened control by the editor of his own columns. Of these there are two of first importance — ‘patent insides,’ and ‘boiler plate.’

‘Patent insides’ — called by their manufacturers ‘ ready-print ‘— are paper sheets which come to the country publisher with one side vacant and the other already covered with editorial matter and advertising. The local editor supplies his own material for the vacant space, and delivers to his subscribers what appears to be an eightpage paper, though it has in reality only four pages of local matter. He receives no payment for the advertising in the ‘patent inside,’ and has no control over its editorial matter. If the proprietor of the service should choose to accept material from propagandists for use in the guise of legitimate editorial matter, there is no way to prevent it.

‘Boiler plate,’ a not dissimilar device, is syndicated editorial matter, which is furnished to the country papers already cast into plates, usually one column wide and twenty inches deep. These are cut up into any desired length and used in the local pages of small weeklies and dailies, either as ‘filler’ or as legitimate news. It is, of course, more difficult to secure the publication of propaganda as ‘boiler plate’ than as ‘patent insides,’ since the country editor may read over the former in advance and reject whatever he pleases. To overcome this, people with an axe to grind are in the habit of sending out their ‘boiler plate’ free of charge, in the hope that motives of economy will induce the editor to print it.

The propagandist has been aided by other developments of the past few years. The general use of the linotype and monotype, even in small country offices, has made typesetting so rapid and easy that it has facilitated the movement toward papers of larger bulk than before, even though, as I have said, the average length of the individual item is decreasing. Newspaper offices are therefore flooded with an enormous mass of publicity matter. It comes from uplift, reform, and welfare organizations, from banks, theatrical managers, and politicians, from farmers’ organizations, labor unions, book and magazine publishers, railroads, steamship companies, high-tariff enthusiasts, low-tariff advocates, schools and colleges, from monetary reformers, religious organizations, and a host of others. Some of this comes in mimeographed or printed form, some as boiler plate, and much in the form of matrices (a matrix being a mould of a substance like papier-mâché, into which molten metal is poured to produce a casting for the press). This last form is particularly desirable to the propagandist, for two reasons: because the editor cannot change the material by a syllable, except by sawing off the end, and because it is possible to include pictures, which are reproduced as readily and perfectly as type.

Indeed, the clever press-agent long ago took note of the rapidly increasing popularity of illustrations, and exploits it to the top of his bent. The theatrical publicity man, or the ‘personal representative’ of a near-statesman who is toiling painfully up the ladder of fame, is just as well pleased to secure publication of a picture without an article as vice versa — though of course his preference is for both at once.

IV

The development of syndication has coincided with, and in part caused, another tendency in present-day journalism, which seems to me the most important of all: the common ownership by one man or corporation of a number of papers in various cities.

In the old days an editor, no matter how able, produced his influence for good or evil chiefly within the geographical limits of a certain city (though there were, of course, exceptions like Horace Greeley, whose political views were followed throughout the nation). To-day, one man may own an unlimited number of papers scattered from coast to coast, identical as to their telegraphic news, their ‘features,’ many of their important editorials; and identical in policy even in their handling of local news. A newspaper proprietor may thus influence the nation profoundly, not merely by his views on questions of general concern, but by his personal standards of taste. It is true that in the long run the public is itself responsible for the sort of journalism it gets, since every paper exists by its favor and no publisher dares permit himself the luxury of producing a journal better than the people care to buy. But it is also true that, once the ear of the public has been obtained, there is a wide range of option available to the editor as to what he shall say into it. There are honest and dishonest papers which have equally wide circulation.

William Randolph Hearst is of course the outstanding example of the ‘chain’ newspaper proprietor. His papers in New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, and other cities, are replicas of one another. Every important editorial appears in all of them simultaneously, and, theoretically at least, reaches within twenty-four or thirty-six hours fully one fourth of all the homes in the United States. Not only is this true, but Mr. Hearst sells his various features to independent newspapers in cities where he is not yet represented. Arthur Brisbane’s daily column, for instance, appears in more than sixty papers. The Hearst telegraphic news services are sold to hundreds of journals, as are his syndicated cartoon strips, the work of his large corps of professional humorists, his daily advice to the lovelorn, his serials for women.

This syndication makes it possible for Mr. Hearst to pay salaries which are far beyond the means of the single newspaper. Among not only his employees but those of competing syndicates, salaries of $50,000 or $60,000 for authors and cartoonists are not uncommon, while a few go well beyond the $100,000 mark. This results in semimonopolistic control, if not of the best journalistic brains, at least of the most popular; and increases the difficulty faced by the isolated newspaper seeking to survive in competition with the member of a chain.

The power of the syndicate also makes it possible to start a new paper at minimum expense, and with a virtual guaranty of success. Mr. Hearst, for instance, has recently followed the plan of entering a community with a Sunday paper only. It consists of the magazine features of the Sunday New York American, a paper the popularity of which is attested by the fact that it has attained a circulation of 1,100,000, the largest in America, at ten cents a copy, in the face of keen competition from papers all of which sell for less. To these features from New York is added a small section of local news, prepared by a handful of inexpensive reporters; and the result is a paper which is virtually certain to reach a large circulation in a short time. Local advertising, naturally, follows the circulation; and in a few months a daily edition may be added.

The potential dangers of this development seem to the writer so serious that it is almost impossible to state them without appearing to take an absurdly alarmist view. This is not merely because of Mr. Hearst’s personality; the Scripps-Howard chain of workingmen’s evening papers is growing as fast as is his, and despite its publishing a great mass of trivial, sensational matter, has an excellent liberal editorial policy. Regardless of editorial attitude, to have so large a proportion of the country’s press in the hands of two or three men or corporations seems to me a menace in itself. It is more serious than the hold of the Northcliffe papers on Great Britain ever was, even during the life of their founder; for the Northcliffe journals, after all, were virtually a London product, limited in revenue by the volume of business to be secured in that city, while syndicate journalism in America can draw huge profits from each of a score — or a hundred — cities, using them to buy up or destroy competition, and growing ever stronger in the process.

The specific danger, of course, is the lowering of our national intellectual standards. Journalism under the conditions outlined becomes ever more a quantitative, less a qualitative product. Newspaper profits are all derived from advertising; a publisher thinks himself fortunate if the reader’s pennies meet the cost of the white paper. He pays all other expenses, and derives all profits, from advertising-revenue. But advertising is increasingly dependent upon bulk circulation. There are still papers which talk about ‘quality’ and the high buying power of the individual subscriber, but they are in a dwindling minority. So far as daily newspapers are concerned, purchasing power and discriminating intelligence by no means necessarily go hand in hand in this republic. There are classes in the community, especially in the cities, which are barely literate, and yet provide an excellent market for phonographs, automobiles, radio sets, and fur coats. Competition among newspapers therefore becomes, as I have observed, more and more a race for the largest possible circulation, secured by fair means or foul. Mostly, from the viewpoint of this discussion, they are foul.

Illustrations bring more readers than text; and therefore we have ‘picture papers,’ such as the New York Daily News, which has grown more rapidly than any paper in the United States. Sensation is more popular than sobriety. The mass public prefers scandalous gossip to intelligent discussion of economic and social problems. It wants chitchat about the personal habits of a President, but refuses to read his state papers. And more than anything else, it wants endless square yards of comic strips, of Neolithic execution, Cro-Magnon morality.

V

While mechanical progress is thus strengthening the arm of inferior journalism, it is also developing, in at least two fields, products which many persons believe will seriously cripple, if they do not supplant, the daily press. These are the motion picture and radio.

Among motion-picture men a belief is common that the news reels which are now a standard feature in every cinema theatre will some day take the place of the daily paper. They point out that editorials may be thrown on the screen in the form of captions, that animated drawings are an obviously superior form of cartoon strips, that advertisers can exhibit their wares far more appealingly on celluloid than on paper. They expect that electric transmission of pictures by wire or wireless, already experimentally accomplished, will soon be a practical reality, so that Yokohama burning this morning may be seen on the New York screens to-night. It will not be necessary, they think, to go to a theatre for this cinematographic journalism. Already, home projection-machines may be purchased at the price of a good phonograph, and paper ‘film’ has recently been perfected, which costs only a fraction of the price of other forms, and is literally and completely noninflammable.

The grounds for expecting radio to supplant the newspaper are better. Radio transmission is really instantaneous, while the motion picture is still at least twelve hours slower than the printed page. From its beginning, radio has gone directly into the home; and almost from the beginning, it has transmitted a respectable budget of news — crop and weather reports, price quotations, baseball scores and the like. Speeches by the President and other important persons are now broadcast as a matter of course; and such happenings as World’s Series baseball games and prizefights are the subject of a running account from the pressbox which is heard, supposedly, by radio listeners in numbers mounting to millions.

Two obstacles exist, however, which seem to me to bar both radio and film as a substitute for the newspaper — at least until they have been radically altered by supplementary inventions which seem, to the finite mind, almost impossible.

The first of these, which applies less to the radio than to the motion picture, is portability. A large majority of all urban workers (who constitute in general the newspaper-reading class) are carried to and from their place of employment on street-cars or trains, and read as they ride. It is hardly likely that a carload of people would consent to a common budget of news from a single loudspeaking radio receiver or projection machine; and individual devices present grave difficulties, especially under the conditions of congestion which usually prevail in such conveyances.

The second obstacle, still more serious, is that of selection. No one wants to read every word of his newspaper; and few have the leisure, even if they have the inclination. The New York Times could not be absorbed in less than four or five hours. The present writer, who for professional reasons needs to make sure that he has noted every important fact in that paper, reads with average rapidity and yet takes an hour and a half a day for the process. With either radio or motion picture, it is almost impossible to ‘skip.’ The broadcasting station might offer various classes of news at various wave-lengths; but only a few of these are available, and it would still be impracticable to select among items of the same sort. It is also, of course, impossible to preserve for reference news items of particular importance.

In so far as either of these media supplements the newspaper, however, it does not retard, but encourages the development toward slipshod thinking, sensationalism, and vulgarity. The motion picture has the vices of the illustrated daily: it presents only those elementary ideas which can be translated into pictorial terms. Also, it does the work of thinking for the spectator, who has only to submit himself to a sort of mental massage, which is highly enervating when used in excess. It is peculiarly susceptible to use by propagandists, and, even in its present development, has been subjected to their influence.

As for the radio, its tendency is to abolish good writing altogether. Its news reports are mere hastily dictated eyewitness accounts, without any attempt at careful composition, or any opportunity for second thought. An overwhelming majority of its educational and ‘inspirational’ addresses at present are inconsequential stuff, not worth an intelligent man’s time. The protesting letters which the editor will receive when this statement appears in print will of course cite a long list of distinguished speakers ; but I think those who have listened will agree that in general my statement is true.

It seems to me useless, therefore, to hope for any improvement in the status of journalism from these substitutes for the printed page. The battle must be fought on existing ground, good papers winning in competition with bad ones.

Unfortunately, the recent history of the press seems to prove conclusively that there is a Gresham’s Law in this field: the debased coinage drives the true metal out of circulation. To be sure, there are facts to be cited in opposition. Honorable and intelligent journalism of the type represented by the New York Times and World, the Christian Science Monitor, and a few other papers, not only still exists but does well. Never were greater pains taken than by these journals to lay before their readers (usually thankless and indifferent) an accurate and complete picture of the world they live in. But these are isolated cases, usually the result of an outstanding personality, a man determined to produce a good paper whether it pays or not. The tendency is the other way. Not only do the papers owned by Mr. Hearst and his spiritual kinsmen flourish and increase, but they are imitated far and wide — and generally the copyist, lacking Mr. Hearst’s real genius, succeeds only in catching the vulgarity, and redoubles it.

What is ‘to be done’ about it? It is, of course, idle to suppose that the wheels of progress can be halted merely because part of the people feel that they ought to be; or that, by taking thought, we can secure a return to the higher standards of leisure, accuracy, and intelligence which marked the newspaper of a generation ago. Syndication, standardization, and speed are here to stay. Vulgarity may or may not be a permanent characteristic.

It is possible, of course, that the reading public may in time become satiated with its ‘highly perfumed garbage,’ There are newspapermen who believe that the vulgar press creates readers for papers of a better class, just as the possessor of a phonograph is sometimes led on from jazz to grand opera.

It is possible also that improving general education may increase the circle of discriminating readers to an extent larger than can now be foreseen. Certainly much could be accomplished if the leaders of thought in every community would abandon their present laissez-faire attitude toward journalism, would demand higher standards, and practice sabotage upon the inferior papers by refusing to read them. In general, however, there is no present evidence that optimism is justified. The utmost we have the right to expect, is that the country may be brought to realize in what direction its press is moving, and with what speed.