My new column is live in The Drum:
How journalism can survive and thrive
Should mainstream news outlets first and foremost create profits for shareholders or neutrally, objectively and thoroughly educate the public? That is the battle for the soul of journalism today.
From bias to neutrality and back
The idea that journalists should be neutral and fair is relatively recent. In the US, newspapers took sides during the Revolutionary War. Throughout the 1800s, publications were essentially propaganda tools of political parties. Late in the century, ‘yellow journalism’ yelled sensationalist headlines, published scandal-mongering stories and even helped to provoke the mistaken Spanish-American War.
But business changed things in the early 1900s. Publication owners discovered that offering advertising was far more profitable than selling subscriptions. Of course, having more readers meant that the newspapers could charge more money — so the goal was to attract the widest audience possible through being moderate and non-partisan.
The US Civil War decades earlier even played a role. The cost of sending telegrams with battlefield reports was expensive, so correspondents developed the inverted pyramid along with a concise and ‘just the facts’ writing style that would later become the basis of ‘objective journalism.’
Still, objectivity did not become the only standard. For the first two decades of the 20th century, ‘muckraking’ investigative journalists focused on exposing corruption and other misdeeds in the government and corporate worlds. In the 1990s, talk radio became dominated by right-wing hosts. For years, the highest rated cable TV news network has been the rabidly conservative Fox News.
The growth and decline of advertising
Objectivity became the goal in most journalism because it was the most profitable model in the mid-20th century world of reaching a mass audience and attracting the most advertisers.
But then the advertisers started to disappear.