Journalism, History of

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Some form of "news packaging," defined as tailoring news for sale, has likely existed since the first newspapers were published. This entry, however, examines the history of journalism in terms of four basic American eras: the 1830s, the Civil War era, the Watergate era, and the 1980s and beyond. News packaging (not to be confused with distribution techniques of print media) has three crucial definitional elements:

  1. arrangement of news in formats to make it more appealing, accessible, and readily available while facilitating the ability of consumers to "make sense of" it—that is, making news easier to grasp, absorb, digest, understand, and use,
  2. efforts to market news as a product, and
  3. the notion of news as a commodity.

When the term "packaging" was first used in this sense is not clear, but a 1971 book by James Aronson may have been the first with the concept in the title: Packaging the News: A Critical Survey of Press, Radio and Television. Since the late 1980s, the term has been widely used, but it must be distinguished from "framing"—also used increasingly interchangeably with "packaging." Framing, however, instead of referring to overt efforts to sell news, concerns how the "packaging" or "framing" of subjects in news accounts shapes the way in which people think about events and issues. Generally not considered a conscious effort, framing is assumed to result from the beliefs and values of content producers as absorbed via cultural heritages.

Over time, the emphasis in news packaging has evolved from helping readers find news quickly to presenting news in ways that help consumers make sense of it. Important impetuses to developments include: (1) the drive to gain readers or viewers—to profit; (2) new technologies; and (3) new media, new ways of conveying news, or reinvented media forms.

The 1830s and the Penny Press

Beginning in the 1830s, a shift occurred away from a partisan press and toward the penny press, which brought profitability to the field and laid the foundation for later news packaging developments. As part of this shift, the interest in news events overtook interest in political essays. Pre-1830s newspapers served political parties and seem to have been aimed at an educated elite— especially political leadership. Dominated by political content, they had small circulations (averaging approximately 1,000), were expensive, and, with estimated life spans averaging three years, were rarely profitable. Advertising was sold by the square, newspapers were delivered by mail, and unpaid subscriptions caused serious financial problems.

Seeking profits, the first successful penny newspaper editor, Benjamin Day, beginning in 1833, introduced structural changes and news packaging techniques. On the structural level, he established new advertising sales and circulation systems, thereby assuring profits through both. He sold advertising by the line and created street sales of newspapers, charging carriers less when they paid in advance. Solving the deadbeat subscriber problem and establishing a new advertising sales system put newspapers on a solid financial foundation. The first penny newspapers were small enough to be easily carried around, so they could be read as opportunities arose during the day; thus, Day made news more accessible to readers through newspaper price, size, and content.

Day's approach to content especially fits the definition of news packaging. The items were concise and easy to read, and thus they were more accessible to the less educated than were the publications that featured political essays. Day is credited with establishing core news values that have endured, including prominence, proximity, and human interest. Among wittily written and deliberately amusing items, some "stories," such as the great moon hoax, were fabricated for sheer entertainment.

The Civil War and News Innovations

The Civil War era marks a significant turning point in news packaging history. The format became crystallized (in a version that is very similar to the modern newspaper), and several wartime changes consolidated the commercial value of newspapers. Organized business techniques for handling demand, supply, and costs of producing war news increasingly shaped the press, leading to a well-defined business model. People's need to know what might be happening to loved ones away at war and whether the nation might endure created an insatiable demand for news. This unprecedented value attached to newspapers meant news was treated distinctly as a product, as, in the effort to meet demand, more newspaper space was given to war news than had been given to any subject previously.

A style that has come to be called the inverted pyramid was created to standardize the presentation of information. By beginning with summary leads (that explained who, what, when, where, why, and how), an item could quickly provide the readers with the most important elements of news accounts. Some, including J. Cutler Andrews (1970), say the summary lead developed from the use of the telegraph by Civil War correspondents, who had to transmit essential details quickly before sending fuller reports. However, at least one scholar, David Mindich (1998), has attributed the summary lead to a model found in U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's writing.

Related to the summary lead, multideck headlines (i.e., headlines with multiple divisions, creating subheadlines under the main headline) were used during the war. Prewar headlines were one column wide, and many were "standing heads" (e.g., "By Telegraph") that revealed little if any information about the content to follow. However, headlines became increasingly tailored to stories during the war, and multideck headlines—used on occasion in the New York Herald before 1860— became common packaging techniques. The decks gave readers the gist of elements about events being reported, thus making news readily accessible and digestible. As with the summary lead, some have credited these developments to the use of the telegraph by correspondents. Because telegraph lines were unreliable during the war, due to underdevelopment, vulnerability to weather conditions, and to being cut by enemy troops, reporters developed the practice of transmitting the most important details first, followed by full accounts as access to the telegraph permitted. Editors built multideck headlines of those details, packaging the information for readers to absorb quickly.

Other news packaging advances that occurred during the Civil War period include interviews, direct quoting of sources, descriptive techniques adapted from fiction and poetry, use of multiple sources, expansion of eyewitness accounts, and illustration. While these were used before the war, none was common, but illustration and interviews became irreversibly integral to news packaging. Before 1860, newspapers had little display material and virtually no cartoons or illustrations, except small woodcuts that were commonly restricted to advertisements. However, to help package war news, magazine publishers hired artists to draw pictures of battles. (Soon after the war, the first illustrated newspaper, the New York Daily Graphic, began, and, in 1880, the first photograph appeared in a newspaper.) Also, interviews, rare before the war, became a fad soon after.

News packaging advanced also as journalists focused on the commodity qualities of news. That is, marketing involves emphasizing the most salable qualities, and the most salable quality of Civil War news was timeliness. Prewar accounts commonly reported events in chronological order, and some were two to three years old, especially those from abroad. One had to read to the end of a story to learn the latest developments of the events that were being reported. During the war, however, demand for the most recent accounts entrenched timeliness as a permanent value, along with factual accuracy. One of the first editors to create a set of written rules to govern the work of journalists was George C. Childs. After purchasing the Public Ledger (in Philadelphia) in 1864, Childs listed twenty-four rules to govern the conduct of the journalists who were working for that newspaper.

Following the Civil War, news packaging escalated, especially in an environment influenced by Joseph Pulitzer's successes in the 1880s. Among the many news-selling techniques associated with him are the staging of events to report, undercover reporting, and visuals. The physical appearance of newspapers was changing as well. Departmentalizing content into labeled sections made it easier for the readers to find the subjects that were of the most interest to them, and this approach advanced significantly by the 1890s. Indeed, the notion of news as a commodity was so common that discussions through the last thirty years of the nineteenth century focused on newspapers as businesses. An 1897 article by Lincoln Steffens likened a newspaper to a factory or department store—alluding to the many departments that were by then established in newspapers to separate various kinds of content. Excesses in using gimmicks to sell news turned more attention to the qualities of the product being sold, which in turn provoked efforts to create and maintain "quality control." Such efforts encompassed development of professional organizations, codes of ethics, and journalism education. The latter was especially assisted by Pulitzer's 1904 article that suggested a journalism curriculum and his 1911 endowment of the Columbia University School of Journalism, which opened in 1912. While that packaging stage in newspapers seemingly peaked by 1900, a new media genre two decades later epitomized news packaging. Time magazine was first published in 1923 with a purpose to present weekly digests of the most important news from the nation and the world. Other news magazines soon followed the success of this packaged news medium.

Watergate and the Mass Media

Several factors in the second half of the twentieth century culminated in the late 1970s and early 1980s in an environment that propelled news packaging to an unprecedented degree. One very important factor was the development of image manufacturing to sell political candidates to voters. This practice, which began at least as early as the 1952 presidential campaign, was, by the mid-1980s, entwined with news packaging to a degree that blurred lines between image and news in such events as presidential press conferences, political campaigns, and interviews. Television has so pervasively influenced news packaging as to be perhaps still undistillable. However, one must note at least (1) the power of the television ratings system to compel ever-more enterprising efforts to package news to sell and (2) the creation and perpetuation of the "sound bite" as a packaging technique. These bites, which are snippets of interviews with "experts," are used to distill reports into the most compact form possible and "enhance" the quality of opposing sides. Other factors that propelled news packaging in these years included new media, the spread of communication technologies, and efforts of traditional media to remain competitive in a changing popular culture environment.

A catalyst for consolidating these as an impetus to modern news packaging was a "let-down" in the mid-1970s as the Watergate scandal subsided. The drama of this episode, which led to the first resignation of a U.S. president (in this case, to avoid impeachment over abuse of power), so riveted attention to news reports that its end brought a clear public sense of a news vacuum (ironically, in an era of information overload). Media personnel sought ways to sustain (or recapture) what some have called an almost addictive attention of consumers to the media throughout the Watergate episode. For newspaper journalists, an added perceived need to continue trying to compete with television intensified the search for ways to sell news, and by the spring of 1983, scholar Ben H. Bagdikian referred to a "passion for an unholy trinity sweeping all American media—packaging, marketing, and graphics."

The 1980s and Beyond

A newspaper intended to present news as a package appeared in 1981. USA Today, called a "new medium" and "experimental little newspaper," came with a promise that it "would be easy and fun to read." Advance research, called the most thorough ever on behalf of a newspaper, had sought how, where, and what length to publish stories for optimum sales. The resulting news package included short items; no jumps; lots of charts, graphs, and color; and information presented so it could "be absorbed quickly." A departmental managing editor described the aim as simple presentations that communicate a sense of urgency; clear, straightforward writing; photographs of "what has happened today or what's coming"; "fact-filled" and "vibrant" graphics; and "urgency" in headlines (Seelye, 1983). By the late 1990s, these packaging elements were commonplace in newspapers across the nation.

Criticism has probably always accompanied news packaging. James Parton wrote in 1866 of watching a "respectable New Yorker" observe a penny newspaper for the first time: "[H]e gazed at it… with… mingled curiosity and contempt." However, modern trends may have produced more criticism than did past developments. By 1990, news packaging, which has always seductively flavored information with ingredients to amuse, aroused strong criticism for mixing information and entertainment in televised magazines. These shows came to be derisively called "infotainment," as current-affairs programmers, in an attempt to compete with "melodramatic pseudo-documentary and talk shows," borrowed the theme music of television programs and used simulations and reenactments—too often without identifying the latter as such. Furthermore, as Rae Corelli (1989) has pointed out, the appearance of television magazine journalists in situation comedies and dramatic series (to enhance the salability of both genres) blurred even further the lines between informational and noninformational programs. A statement by Bagdikian (1983) distilled enduring concerns as he spoke (referring to USA Today) of "the primacy of packagers and market analysts in a realm where the news judgment of reporters and editors has traditionally prevailed." And Lynn Staley, in 1998, complaining about an increasingly blurred line between hard and soft news, said "packaging the news is getting trickier as words and pictures have to be balanced carefully to reflect what is substantial [versus what is] sensational."

With the expansion of the Internet, online publishing capabilities are still being defined and assessed, but John Pavlik (1997) has already referred to the work as involving "repackaging" information. Doug Underwood (1992), who said that modern news packaging trends made "news into just another commodity," predicted that, as newspapers joined "electronic competition," reporters would be "ever more subject to the forces of technological change, the demands of perpetually updating the news for electronic services, and the pressure to think of their work in marketing terms." Thus, news packaging appears certain to reach new levels in cyberspace.

See also:Bly, Nellie; Hearst, William Randolph;Internet and the World Wide Web; Journalism, Professionalization of; Magazine Industry; Magazine Industry, History of; Murrow, Edward R.; News Effects; Newspaper Industry; Newspaper Industry, History of; News Production Theories; Pulitzer, Joseph.


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Hazel Dicken-Garcia

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