I recently finished reading Christopher Daly’s Covering America, a narrative history of journalism in America. (I’d recommend it to anyone interested in journalism — you’ll learn a lot, and it’s just a genuinely enjoyable read.) One thing that struck me was how many of our current debates over digital journalism have historical precedents.
For instance, can someone become a journalist just by the act of going out and pursuing journalism? That’s how Edward Murrow, one of the field’s most hallowed names, did it. Murrow got his start at CBS booking radio guests in a role called “Director of Talks.” Even when he took the role of European Director for CBS in 1937, his job was to book experts, not to speak on the air himself. As a result, when he applied to become a member of the foreign correspondents’ association they rejected him. Here was someone the field didn’t consider a journalist, because he didn’t have quite the right job and worked in a newer medium.
But when Hitler annexed Austria all that changed. Murrow headed to Vienna and as Daly writes, “with no training in journalism, either in school or on the job, Murrow plunged in.” In doing so, he and his colleagues essentially invented live war reporting. What mattered wasn’t Murrow’s credentials but his work ethic, talent, and commitment to principles, as well as his access to an audience.
There are a lot of other interesting historic corollaries to digital, particularly around what’s worth covering, what isn’t, and who should decide. (Is the fact that the audience can’t get enough sufficient reason to publish?) But there’s one in particular I want to focus on here: aggregation.
Daly himself does not draw this comparison when he talks about digital aggregation in the end of the book, but I was struck by how deep its roots run.
Here’s Daly talking about the seeds of journalism sprouting in the American colonies prior to the revolution:
The beginnings of postal service gave rise to an important new position in society — that of the colonial postmaster. A royal appointee in most cases, the postmaster in any colony had the opportunity to see the people who sent letters and to talk to them as they visited his shop to send or pick up mail. What’s more, many letters were opened in the course of transit, and so the postmasters became masters as well of all sorts of information that was being posted. They also got to read the newspapers arriving from Europe, even before their ultimate recipients did. Thus, in each of the growing port cities, the postmaster was one of the best-informed people in his area… it is no surprise that most postmasters would find a way to peddle the news that was coming their way.
One of those postmasters, John Campbell, was in charge of the mail in Boston. He followed the custom of many other postmasters by periodically writing, in longhand, a summary of the most noteworthy items of information that passed through his post office and circulating that newsletter to a small group of friends. Eventually, drawing on models that he would have been familiar with from his years in London, Campell took the next logical step and started having his letters printed. In 1704, Campbell launched the first successful English-language newspaper in the New World. He called it the Boston News-Letter.
So the postmaster read all the newspapers before most people had the chance, worked in some tidbits gleaned from conversations with the community, and repackaged it in a useful way. Sound familiar?
Or what about the launch of Time magazine, by two twenty-something Yale graduates. Their idea? Writes Daly:
What if someone summarized news from around the country and the world, wrought each item into a concise, polished story with some history and context, added coverage of the arts and culture, and priced the whole thing at fifteen cents? With such a magazine, people who were too busy to sit down and read three or four newspapers every day could keep up on the important news, or at least feel that they were keeping up…
In editing Time each week, Hadden confronted a fundamental problem that is familiar to anyone who has ever worked on a rewrite desk: how to make information that is stale or dull sound fresh and important. There are essentially two answers to this question: either do more reporting and advance the story somehow, or polish the prose to make it sound punchy or cute or profound. Lacking a reporting staff at this stage (that would come later) Hadden went to work punching up the copy, giving each article that special Time treatment.
Of course that included a healthy dose of opinion disguised as explanation.
I don’t bring all of this up to defend or admonish aggregators. I just want to point out that this debate over how much a new journalistic outlet should be allowed to rely on others’ reporting is not in any way a new one. It’s been going on as long as American journalism has existed.