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‘On Press’ Shows That Journalism Has Survived Tough Times Before

Matthew Pressman's engaging, historical dive into the fourth estate, On Press, looks at the forces that contributed to the decline of news in print, gave rise to interpretive reporting, and the new challenges and advantages available to news reporters and consumers today.

On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped The News
Matthew Pressman
Harvard University Press
Nov 2018

The hits just keep coming for American journalism. In July 2018, Pew Research Center published an article titled “About a third of large U.S. newspapers have suffered layoffs since 2017”; the article also stated that “at least 23% of the highest-traffic digital-native news outlets…experienced layoffs between January 2017 and April 2018.” About a week later, Pew followed up with “Newsroom employment dropped nearly a quarter in less than 10 years, with greatest decline at newspapers”. And 2019 certainly isn’t getting off to the best start as The Dallas Morning News has already announced it is laying off 20 members of its newsroom (and approximately 40 staff members total).

It’s no secret, particularly to anyone who enjoys good journalism, that many print and online newspapers are in trouble. Readership and advertising revenues are declining. Audiences have changed as well as many readers (sadly) only want to read articles that affirm their own opinions. Then, at least in the United States, we have a president who shouts “fake news!” every time the press prints something he disagrees with.

Which raises some questions: just how much trouble are newspapers in? Can the problems be solved or are newspapers going to join the ranks of eight-track tapes, video rental stores, and home phones?

Matthew Pressman doesn’t exactly answer these questions in his impressively well-researched book On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, but he does note that (minus the internet) we’ve been here before.

On Press examines the ways print journalism (i.e., newspapers) changed in the ’60s and ’70s. One of the main changes Pressman notes, although certainly not the only change, is the move away from an objective approach—think who, what, when, where, and how—to a more interpretive form of journalism—think who, what, when, where, how and why. As Pressman explains, we saw a bit of interpretive reporting as early as the ’30s, by the ’50s it was a trickle, and by the ’70s it was a flood.

Pressman outlines numerous reasons why papers switched methods of reporting. While the internet obviously wasn’t a factor in the ’60s and ’70s, television certainly was, and Nick Williams, editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1958 until 1971 “felt interpretive reporting was the newspaper’s only hope if it wished to remain relevant in the television era.”

Another major factor was Senator Joseph McCarthy. After all, it’s one thing to print what someone said when you think they are being truthful; it’s another when you don’t. Simply put, McCarthy could say almost anything he wanted with little to no proof, and according to journalistic guidelines of the time, newspapers, particularly in the news section, could only report what he said: “When McCarthy made shocking accusations about communist agents inside the U.S. government, newspapers following the dictates of objectivity put his statements on the front page. Although many reporters doubted the truthfulness of McCarthy’s claims… they felt that expressing those doubts would be tantamount to editorializing, To be sure, the editorial pages and columnists of many leading newspapers denounced McCarthy, but their news pages dutifully amplified his charges.”

So for these reasons and several others, interpretive reporting became the norm—albeit at times a controversial one.

For most of the book, Pressman looks at the ’60s and ’70s. The last chapter looks at journalism in this century and makes connections between the ’60s and ’70s and now. It’s a nice concluding chapter but most readers will probably see the parallels long before the last chapter.

For example, Barry Goldwater’s statement about media coverage in his 1964 concession speech:”I’ve never heard in my life such vitriolic unbased (sic) attacks on one man as has been directed to me” sounds eerily similar to some contemporary politicians’ thoughts on their media coverage. Or consider this quote from George Wallace in 1968: “The average American is sick and tired of all these over-educated, ivory-tower folks with pointed heads looking down their noses at the rest of us, and the left-wing press writing editorials and guidelines.”

Vice President Spiro Agnew expressed similar thoughts a year later, and both President Lyndon Johnson and President Richard Nixon had rocky relationships with the press. But while the press coverage of President John F. Kennedy was generally more positive than the coverage of President Johnson, Pressman is quick to note “But the newly critical tone of Washington reporting owed more to changes in the press than to a change of presidents. Clifton Daniel, who had advised extreme deference toward the White House in 1964, had moderated his views by 1966. That June he gave a speech condemning his paper’s handling of the Bay of Pigs story five years earlier, saying that if the Times and other newspapers ‘had been more diligent in the performance of their duty,’ the disastrous invasion might have been averted.”

Daniel, who was managing editor of The New York Times from 1964 to 1969, also said “It is our duty as journalists and citizens to be constantly questioning our leaders and our policy, and to be constantly informing the people”—a quote that works just as well in today as it did in 1966.

Ultimately, as Pressman notes, journalism survived the turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s and in the ’80s entered a time of relative calm and prosperity that lasted until approximately 2005. Journalism’s changing stance on political coverage was not, of course, the only change that brought about this era of success. Papers also reconfigured their layouts to make them more reader friendly, drastically changed what was considered “women’s news” and expanded the soft news sections.

Pressman presents a logical and compelling look at journalism past and present, and while he notes that the press won its battles with politicians like McCarthy, Agnew and Nixon, many may still find it difficult to feel optimistic about the future of journalism in the United States today. The challenge of simply maintaining a large audience while covering news ethically and responsibly seems almost an insurmountable at times. Additionally, one reason journalism survived in the ’60s and ’70s was because of courageous writers, journalists often fresh out of college, ready to tackle the world. Today’s young writers in America, fresh out of college, may be ready to tackle the world, but they are also saddled with unprecedented student debt and increasing health care costs and may be unable to venture into the journalism world (particularly when public relations and marketing companies are often more than happy to snatch up talented writers and pay more attractive salaries).

Still there are positive signs—websites and apps dedicated to helping people stay informed by providing news from a variety of sources and new(er) funding models that include smart partnerships between newspapers and other entities (such as the New York Times‘ partnership with the Netflix program, Orange Is the New Black). Non-profit news sources and niche publications that look at current events from unique angles and that aren’t afraid to call out the journalism giants when they see coverage being softened are other sources of hope for those of us who value well-written and informative news. And finally perhaps more people will read Pressman’s book and heed his excellent advice: “Five decades ago, when America’s leading newspapers faced enormous political and economic pressure from many sides, they continued to report doggedly on public affairs while trying to remain apolitical. That approach served the press remarkably well at the time, and it can provide a model still.”