The Evolution of Journalism

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By David M. Bresnahan

Journalism has always been an evolving craft, and those who pursue it have always evolved as their media for expression has changed, until now. The old crumudgeons out there have been slow to recognize that the world moved on without them, but many in the world of journalism have only been slow to respond. Change is inevitable, but it is underway.

Unfortunately some very fine papers have put a large number of excellent journalists out on the street, and some have even closed their doors for good. Fortunately other papers are starting to figure out the “new” media and are in the process of getting on board.

Ancient writings on cave walls, hieroglyphics on Egyptian burial chamber walls, ancient Dead Sea Scrolls were all a form of the ever-changing world of journalism and communication. Perhaps the biggest evolution came with the advent of moveable type, bringing about books and printed newspapers and enabling large populations to read as well as write.

The newest evolution is taking place all around us, and every day it seems to develop some new aspect to it. The Internet and so-called new media are just the start of the latest phase of the communication evolution, which will never end. We are witnessing the biggest evolution in the world of communication since the birth of the printing press and moveable type. Only with the passage of time will we learn which of the two will be regarded as having the greatest impact on the world.

There are two aspects to journalism – the delivery method, and the reporters. The delivery method is facing the biggest change. Reporters still perform the same basic tasks of gathering the news and them delivering it in an intelligible, meaningful form.

The birth of the Internet has not been without growing pains. New-found freedom of expression has spawned a vast array of so-called citizen journalists. However, in reality citizen (i.e., untrained, non-professional) journalists have been around longer than professional (i.e., trained) journalists.

Anciently, anyone who could find a flat rock wall, something to mark it with, and the desire to communicate could use that form of media for self-expression. The American Revolution was fueled by a printing press, ink, paper and citizen journalists who wanted to get their message to the general public.

Nothing has changed, except that we now have professional journalists who have been trained in the art of journalism and believe that no one else can engage in that same art without the same training. When Internet newspapers began to appear in the mid 90’s the professional journalists laughed and turned up their noses, and predicted rapid financial failure.

Anyone with a web site could become a publisher, and the traditional media became defensive because they felt threatened (and still do). Threatened by citizen journalists who scoop them on major national stories (i.e., Matt Drudge does it all the time). Threatened by citizen journalists who develop large, loyal audiences. Frightened by their sudden discovery of their own failure to be a part of the evolution. They were left behind, and today there are still many have no clue how to get caught up.

Traditional media claim they need subscribers to survive financially on the Internet, yet many Internet-only newspapers have grown to become large, profitable businesses solely funded through advertising revenue, and without having to resort to online subscriptions.

Commercial organizations have learned that there are other ways to deliver their message to loyal customers and prospects. The world of professional hockey is a great example of how the new media has gained credibility in the eyes of businesses who want more than what traditional media can give them.

For example, the Washington Nationals Hockey team for the past two years has provided press credentials to 13 bloggers along with the traditional sports reporters. When Rich Hammond, Los Angeles Daily News sports reporter, was no longer reporting on the L.A. Kings (budget cuts by his paper) the team hired him to write a blog for the team. Hammond continues to report as he always has, but now it is published online through a blog instead of using ink and paper.

Take a look at WorldNetDaily.com and NewsMax.com, two Internet-only newspapers (i.e., published online but not in print). Both papers began in the mid 90’s when traditional reports laughed and said they would never last. More than a decade later these online papers, and thousands of others just like them, have large staffs of professional reporters and (more importantly) loyal readers in excess of 1 million from over 100 countries.

The next phase of the evolution is underway with the explosion of social networking and Web 2.0. Traditional media will survive, if and only if it evolves with the rest of the world.

The evolution of journalism is never-ending, so the most important thing for today’s journalism students to learn from history is that the method of news delivery may change, but the basic skills of a good journalist do not.

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