Journalism isn’t dying. It died. Twenty years ago. And Don Hewitt and Ted Tuner — not the Internet — are who killed it.
Newspapers have been around forever. And as long as they’ve been around they’ve existed to make money. Think Joseph Pulitzer vs. William Randolph Hearst; big, bold, eye-catching headlines (regardless of how newsworthy the story actually was); and Yellow Journalism.
Broadcast journalism — radio and then television — is relatively newer, with TV news gaining popularity starting in the 1950s. There was never really any threat of television news replacing newspapers, due in a large part to its money-making model.
Specifically, that TV news didn’t make any.
As mentioned, newspapers had always been expected to bring in profits — after all, the paper was their only source of revenue. However, television news had a whole network behind them. It wasn’t necessary for the nightly news broadcast to have amazing ratings; it was a public service. A widely-watched, trusted nightly news program was just part of having a quality network.
Then came Don Hewitt and 60 Minutes in 1968. By the mid-70s, its hidden cameras, “gotcha” journalism, and investigative reports had made 60 Minutes one of the most watched shows on television (success they’ve continued to have). Better overall ratings meant CBS could charge more for ads and make more money. With ratings through the roof, other networks began to rethink their nightly news broadcasts. The 1976 film classic “Network” — which featured the first (fictional) TV anchor to be killed because of poor ratings — predicted this oncoming avalanche. By the 1980s, most networks abandoned the public service mission of their newscasts and worked harder to bring in the dough. Professional, newsworthy stories at times largely went out the door and were replaced with salacious and sensational coverage.
While Don Hewitt and 60 Minutes may have been bad for traditional journalism, Ted Turner and CNN were arguably much worse. 1980 marked the arrival of 24-hour news, and the departure of what was left of traditional journalism.
CNN was the first 24-hour, all-news television network in the United States. They covered all the news they could, and if they needed to, they would repeat some news stories throughout the day (every half hour in the case of Headline News). This was great because most people watch the news in 20- or 30-minute segments, not all day long. And for several years, CNN was one of a kind. But the late 1980s brought CNBC, and a few years later Fox News and MSNBC were on the scene.
By 1997, all of these (and more) 24-hour news networks were in competition with each other. Because of this, there was a perceived need to have content that was new and different from the other networks — difficult when you’re already trying to fill 24 hours a day with a finite number of newsworthy facts (add to that the assumption that most viewers don’t care about most international content). Unique content had to come from somewhere else if they wanted to keep ratings high.
Pundits, analysts, and special guests were brought on to help bring another dimension to the news — commentary. But over the past decade, that dimension has taken over almost completely. The majority of shows on any given news network today focus on editorial news and interpretation of facts. Opinion has begun to crowd out content. Networks have devolved to a point where they, at times, fill their content almost entirely with speculation, commentary, and opinion. And when most of what is called “news” is really just angry people yelling at each other and trying to prove their point, it’s not journalism, it’s high school.
So where does that leave newspapers? Up until the last five or ten years, newspapers didn’t have to necessarily worry about 24-hour coverage. They would publish their paper the night before, deliver it in the mornings, and then go to work on that day’s stories. They may have placed the articles from that day on their website. But what CNN did to broadcast journalism, the internet and blogs did to print.
With the unprecedented growth of the internet, newspapers couldn’t satisfy their readership by only having the news of the day (or, in most cases, the previous day). They had to have breaking news, updates, and online-only stories. But the demand for unique content was greater than what could be supplied. So newspapers everywhere did the same thing as broadcast news — they put anything they could on their site, including speculation, editorial, and gossip. More and more reporters were expected to also be bloggers — not just focusing on the facts, but ranting about them as well.
As a news organization produces more and more opinion and editorial, it will naturally drift toward a certain ideology. This creates liberal or conservative networks or papers — instead of objective news. They may provide time or space for dissenting opinions, but only to disprove the opposite viewpoint. All of this has polarized journalism.
Sure, the internet changed the face, the appearance, and the distribution of news, but it wasn’t what destroyed it. When hyperbole gets more clicks and coverage than news, if we’re looking for the guilty we need only look into a mirror.