Newspapers were, originally, subversive publications. News sheets were smuggled into England in the 1500s and early 1600s from Holland to dodge government censors. Governments and official religious groups wanted complete control of information. When France surrendered its North American possessions to the British in 1763, there wasn’t a single newspaper in its colonies. There wasn’t even a printing press.
All of the early newspapers, on both sides of the Atlantic, were up-front about their biases, and stayed that way until the invention of the display ad, which was soon followed by the development of national and multi-national ad agencies. Then came wire services. The ads caused newspaper profits to skyrocket, averaging, in Canada, at least a 15% return on investment. The wire services, with their stream of copy, helped keep reporting costs down. Bias got in the way of national advertising. Big department stores and national brands didn’t want to be seen to have political associations. And wire service copy had to be one-size-fits-all. Newspapers were required to contribute to wire service copy streams, as well as take from them. These two factors underlay North American newspaper claims of “objectivity”. The biases were real, but they were supposedly confined to editorial pages (where there were no ads.)
I went to journalism school in the late 1970s, when the focus was on developing a basic understanding of economics (a required course), history, and political science. The ideas in those courses were not supposed to be carried over into the journalism lab courses. But, of course, they were.
I was a student (off and on) since then, and taught journalism and media studies a decade ago. Universities have changed. In many ways, they needed to. Journalism, with a gun to its head, has also adapted. But in many ways, we are back to where we were in, say, 1830: the influence of national advertisers and of wire services have crumbled, and the subscriber/reader’s desires are now front and centre in media business decisions. As well, despite the grim insecurity of the job market — big layoffs at traditional media and sexy startups like VICE, Buzzfeed and the Athletic — journalists are demanding much more of a say in what goes into the publications they work for. Editor, author and scholar Matthew Fraser gives an intelligent analysis of the situation in this piece.
Here’s an intelligent, nuanced take by the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg: