In the past half century, and especially in the past two decades, journalism itself—the way news is covered, reported, written, and edited—has changed, including in ways that have made possible the rise of fake news, and not only because of mergers and acquisitions, and corporate ownership, and job losses, and Google Search, and Facebook and BuzzFeed. There’s no shortage of amazing journalists at work, clear-eyed and courageous, broad-minded and brilliant, and no end of fascinating innovation in matters of form, especially in visual storytelling. Still, journalism, as a field, is as addled as an addict, gaunt, wasted, and twitchy, its pockets as empty as its nights are sleepless. It’s faster than it used to be, so fast. It’s also edgier, and needier, and angrier. It wants and it wants and it wants. But what does it need?
The daily newspaper is the taproot of modern journalism. Dailies mainly date to the eighteen-thirties, the decade in which the word “journalism” was coined, meaning daily reporting, the jour in journalism. Early dailies depended on subscribers to pay the bills. The press was partisan, readers were voters, and the news was meant to persuade (and voter turnout was high). But by 1900 advertising made up more than two-thirds of the revenue at most of the nation’s eighteen thousand newspapers, and readers were consumers (and voter turnout began its long fall). “The newspaper is not a missionary or a charitable institution, but a business that collects and publishes news which the people want and are willing to buy,” one Missouri editor said in 1892. Newspapers stopped rousing the rabble so much because businesses wanted readers, no matter their politics. “There is a sentiment gaining ground to the effect that the public wants its politics ‘straight,’ ” a journalist wrote the following year. Reporters pledged themselves to “facts, facts, and more facts,” and, as the press got less partisan and more ad-based, newspapers sorted themselves out not by their readers’ political leanings but by their incomes.
Jill Lepore, “Hard News”, The New Yorker (8 January 2019), 19.