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This essay is the fifth in a series exploring the role of professions in a modern, liberal democratic society and their effect on the civic culture of the nation. For more information about AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, visit www.citizenship-aei.org.
In 2012, the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded the prize for breaking news reporting to the Tuscaloosa News in Alabama for its coverage of a wave of tornados that had swept through Alabama and other southern states the previous spring. There had been hundreds of dead and missing. Buildings were smashed or lost power—and one was the paper’s printing plant. While the News was getting its operations up and running at another plant
50 miles away, it used Google Documents and social media to report on storm developments and coordinate searches for missing persons.
It is an inspiring story for watchers of storms, but a depressing one for watchers of journalism—a newspaper gets praise for finding an alternative to publishing a newspaper. That, in microcosm, describes journalism’s encounter with information technology over the past decade. The efficiencies brought by open trade and the easy flow of information were revolutionizing many industries by the 1970s. It took a very long time for these developments to work their way into the journalism world, but when they arrived, they did so with a vengeance.
The number of working journalists in the United States has fallen back to its 1971 level, although the country’s population has increased by half since then. According to a 2009 report by Washington Post Vice President Leonard Downie Jr. and historian Michael Schudson, the Baltimore Sun’s newsroom has in recent decades fallen from 400 journalists to 150, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s from 600 to 300, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s from 500 to 200.
This is not to mention the prestigious papers that have simply died, from the Rocky Mountain News to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (which now appears only online) or those, including the Newark Star-Ledger and The Washington Post itself, that have systematically replaced seasoned journalists with inexpensive—and inexperienced—younger ones in hopes of producing a five-star product on a two-star budget. Journalists in the first decades of the 21st century live lives similar to those of the Rust Belt factory workers that Bruce Springsteen sang about in the 1970s and 1980s: harried, precarious, and subject to a barrage of propaganda about how pointless the march of history has rendered their calling.
A foreign correspondent or a city hall beat reporter stripped of his job is no more deserving of our sympathy than is a smelter or a machinist. But we should not ignore, either, that there has always been something special about journalism that makes its evolution a matter of broad significance. There are successful countries that do not produce their own coal or automobiles. But for the past two centuries, there have been no countries worthy of the name “free” in which journalism does not thrive.
Journalism has an intimate relationship to citizenship. What remains of that relationship after the information revolution will give us some idea of what American politics is going to look like in the future——how democratic and cultured it will be, and how likely to enhance (or demean) our public life.
1. Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Columbia Journalism Review (2009), www.cjr.org/reconstruction/the_reconstruction_of_american.php?page=all.
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