History of Journalism: 1930-1995

Patricia L Dooley. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

Development of journalism in the six decades from 1930 to 1995 saw the decline of newspapers and rise of radio and then television as the dominant purveyor of news. The 1930s began in the depths of the Depression when newspapers were the primary means of communicating news to most Americans. As it would all too soon become clear, economic reassurance from Washington would not be enough to protect journalism from the Depression’s effects. After overall newspaper circulation dipped early in the 1930s, it remained fairly level through the rest of the decade. But an indicator of deeper problems was evident when, early in 1931, the owners of the New York World were forced by hard times to sell the paper for a mere $5 million to the Scripps-Howard chain. Editor & Publisher, the industry’s trade journal, devoted six pages of its late February issue to the event, which threw hundreds out of work.

Such economic hard times led a group of reporters and editors in 1933 to establish the American Newspaper Guild, the first successful attempt to organize the nontechnical side of newspaper production. Three years later the guild affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. One of the nation’s first white-collar unions, it sought to protect job security of members while agitating for higher wages and better working conditions. The rise of the guild was highly controversial and was accompanied by conservative charges that it was part of a communist conspiracy seeking to take over the nation’s press. By the end of the decade, however, the guild had become a permanent feature within at least major urban newspapers.

Minority Papers

The Depression was an especially difficult period for publishers of America’s foreign-language press, as well as for newspapers devoted to concerns of African Americans and other minorities whose concerns were largely neglected by mainstream papers. The need for foreign-language newspapers declined as their readers were absorbed into American life and restrictive policies arrested the flow of immigration. By 1960, the number of foreign-language periodicals published in America had dropped to half those of 1914.

African American newspapers provided their readers with indispensable news and editorial commentary. One of the most widely distributed, the Pittsburgh Courier (1911-2002), reached its peak in the 1930s. A conservative voice, the Courier challenged misrepresentation of blacks in national media and advocated social reforms to advance the cause of civil rights. In the 1940s, the New York Amsterdam News (1922-93) reached the height of its influence. During World War II, its writers strongly advocated for desegregation of American military forces. In addition, its writers also covered the historically important Harlem Renaissance. The Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005) became the largest African American-owned paper in the west and eventually in the country. The Chicago Defender (1909-75) was another important black newspaper, with more than two-thirds of its readership outside Chicago.

Many smaller African American newspapers also published, although economic circumstances made their tenuous situations even more difficult. In Kansas, for example, more than 80 African American newspapers have appeared since the first one in 1876. Some lasted but a single issue. Among those whose publishers were more successful were the People’s Elevator (1937-40), in Kansas City; the Kansas Whip (1934-55), in Topeka; and The Negro Star (1922-52), in Wichita.

At the same time, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 election led to exciting times for journalists. His administration’s New Deal recovery program precipitated tremendous debate through the 1930s, as did growing tension with totalitarianism regimes in Europe and the Pacific. All this helped strengthen newspapers as a center for political debate, and the burgeoning role of the Washington columnist underlined this. Before the early 1930s, newspapers’ editorial pages largely excluded writers whose views differed from those of their publishers. Given Depression pressures, however, the writings of journalists with opposing views were increasingly featured. One of the earliest and eventually most influential was Walter Lippmann, whose New York Herald Tribune column “Today and Tomorrow” was eventually syndicated to hundreds of newspapers across the country.

Rise of Radio and the War Correspondent

Long-held competition between newspaper and radio owners came to a head. After the first commercial stations went on the air in the early 1920s, radio gradually cultivated huge audiences for its fare, which consisted largely of entertainment and advertising. The newspaper industry reacted with hostility, such as in 1922 when the Associated Press wire service issued a notice to subscribers that its news copy was not to be used for broadcasting, but as time went by, radio became so successful that even some newspaper owners started investing in stations. By the early 1930s, the economic threat posed by radio was so intense that the Associated Press (AP) and American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA) sought to restrict news availability to its owners. The April 1933 Biltmore Agreement was crafted by members of the leadership of the AP and ANPA to, among other things, require newspaper owners of radio stations to limit news broadcasts to twice-daily, unsponsored, short newscasts made up of 30-word stories. But these restrictive policies lasted only a few years before United Press and International News Service broke ranks to sell news to radio, and by 1940 the AP capitulated as well.

Despite these threats, radio experienced a golden era during the 1930s and 1940s, and part of its appeal grew from its expanding journalistic voice. In 1930, Lowell Thomas began a nightly news program for CBS. Thomas traveled the world to bring news to his listeners, who were captivated by the sense of adventure his broadcasts inspired. As other talented journalists, such as Hans von Kaltenborn of the Brooklyn Eagle, joined Thomas on the air in the 1930s, radio’s voices became etched in listeners’ minds.

Beginning with the Spanish Civil War and Japanese incursions into China in 1936, journalists covered wars almost continuously throughout the last half of the twentieth century. By the time World War II ended in 1945, print and radio news media had reported an unprecedented amount of information from the battlefield. While advances in technology reduced the amount of time it took news to travel to the home front, governments attempted to control the flow of information, though generally working with media rather than mandating censorship.

World War II elevated the status of all foreign and military correspondents, although some stood out. One of the war’s famous reporters was Ernie Pyle, a roving correspondent for the Scripps Howard chain until he was killed in action in 1945. The “Murrow Boys,” CBS radio news correspondents who broadcast memorable stories from across Britain and Europe, all but created radio’s journalistic status. Led by the iconic Edward R. Murrow, these reporters set high standards for later radio and television journalism.

Television

Though television had a limited start in 1941 in the United States (the BBC began regular telecasts in 1936 but stopped when the war began), the medium expanded only after World War II. The networks began service in the fall of 1948, and both CBS and NBC provided newsreel-like brief newscasts weekday nights for the few with television receivers. Television raided radio of its celebrities, including journalists. Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, Douglas Edwards, and others began to utilize television, though many considered video but a passing fad and not “serious” in its intent. By the mid-1950s, radio began to transform from a network-dominated into a more local medium, including dissemination of local news.

While some of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War was seen on film in television newscasts, only with the 1960s’ Vietnam War did war-related television coverage come into its own. Satellite and other technologies began to make it possible to transmit news more quickly over long distances than had been the case before. These reports and the general lack of censorship over the long conflict led to dissemination of stories that eventually helped precipitate a groundswell of public opinion against the war. By 1975, when the American role in the long war ended, the term “Living Room War” carried a somewhat pejorative connotation.

The half-century-long cold war after 1945 featured an intense rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States that was readily evident on television with reporting about espionage, propaganda, weapons development, and technological competition such as the “space race.” A pivotal event in this process was television’s highly inflammatory live coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. President John Kennedy’s announcement of a naval quarantine of Cuba made for gripping television—as did the subsequent Soviet withdrawal of its missiles that had initiated the crisis. Just over a year later, television pulled the nation together in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. Four days of coverage (and the elimination of all advertising) solidified the medium’s coming of age as a national news service.

Television became a vital means of covering the growing movement to achieve civil rights for African Americans. Journalistic coverage of such struggles climaxed in the years between the Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. a dozen years later.

The 1970s saw a rise in the impact of televised international news coverage. In August 1970, coverage of thousands of women marching in U.S. cities to dramatize feminist concerns found its way to Europe. In solidarity, French and Dutch women staged their own marches. Television news also entered the world of global diplomacy. In 1977, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite used satellite technology to conduct interviews with Egypt’s President, Anwar Sadat, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. The result of this event was a breakthrough in Israeli-Egyptian relations.

In 1991, the continuing importance of television in world affairs was epitomized by the joint appearance by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin on an ABC-sponsored town hall meeting that took place on September 7. Their appearances occurred in the midst of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Communist system. Admitting the failure of the system, Russian television began its newscast with: “Today, September 5, 1991, we all began living in a new country: The Soviet Union is no more.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, international terrorism replaced the cold war as the primary international topic covered by Western news outlets.

Magazines and Newsreels

Magazines were also popular disseminators of news during these years. A milestone in news magazines took place on November 23, 1936, when Time, Inc. published the first issue of Life magazine, a photo-journalistic weekly that covered a wide range of topics. Publisher Henry Luce told readers in the magazine’s first issue that he wanted them “to see life; to see the world; to witness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things” (quoted in Stephens 1998, 75).

Luce kept his promise by hiring a stable of talented photojournalists. Among those who rose to prominence at Life was Margaret Bourke White, the magazine’s first woman photographer. Her photograph of Montana’s Fort Peck Dam provided the cover of Life‘s first issue. During the war, Bourke-White served as a war correspondent, working for both Life and the Army. She survived a torpedo attack while on a ship to North Africa and was with U.S. troops when they reached the Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945.

The popularity of the weeklies Time and Life encouraged others to compete in the same market. Thomas J. C. Martyn first published Newsweek and David Lawrence began U.S. News in 1933. Notable for its thorough coverage of Washington, the latter often carried complete texts of speeches and documents. In 1945, Lawrence established World Report to cover international news, and in 1948, merged them to create U.S. News and World Report, which published until 2008. Gardner Cowles Jr. established the pictorial Look magazine in 1937.

One popular venue for news well into the 1950s was the neighborhood movie theater. Movies were so loved that people frequently went more than once a week. Among the shorter features shown were newsreels covering the previous week’s events. Five newsreel companies predominated: Fox Movietone, Paramount, Universal, Warner-Pathé (owned by Radio-Keith-Orpheum [RKO] after 1931), and Hearst Metrotone. Each month, a newsreel titled March of Time, a program that resembled a news magazine, supplemented these. Newsreels remained a regular feature in American movie theaters until television squeezed them out in the late 1960s.

Issues

Women in Journalism

Newspapers discriminated against women who sought to become general news or political reporters. It would take World War II’s demand for men in other posts for the newspaper industry to welcome women into journalistic positions previously earmarked for men. Before then, women were largely confined to writing “Women’s Pages.” A few managed to capture other positions, such as Lorena Hickok, who quickly tired of her society page position at the Milwaukee Sentinel and was able to shift to the city desk. In 1928, the Associated Press hired her to write feature stories for its wire service. During the 1930s and 1940s, Hickok’s close ties to Eleanor Roosevelt provided her with a rare journalistic platform. During the war, she advised Mrs. Roosevelt to hold press conferences with only women reporters and encouraged her to resume her writing, most notably her monthly column “Mrs. Roosevelt’s Page” and her daily newspaper column “My Day.”

One northern Minnesota newspaper hired an all-woman newsroom staff for the duration of the war. As the war ended, however, a call went out for them to give up their positions to the returning vets. While some were glad to do so, others remained in journalism.

Radio was also largely a man’s world into the 1960s. Men reigned supreme since the industry’s leaders considered women’s voices unsuitable for the medium. Despite this, a few women managed to break through. Indeed, many had worked behind the scenes for years. One of America’s first female radio newsreaders, Fran Harris, started broadcasting news for Detroit’s WWJ in 1943. Dorothy Thompson and Sigrid Schultz, among others, gained popularity through their reporting and commentary from Europe before and during World War II.

Changing Technology

Rapid technological change marked news reporting during and after the 1950s. Development of videotape was an especially appealing tool for television news producers. Its first use for television news came in 1956, on Douglas Edwards’s evening news program on CBS. Development of portable video cameras a dozen years later was another important milestone. Color transmission was increasingly common by the late 1960s. Communication satellites allowed for almost instant communication from anywhere on the globe. The first experimental satellites appeared in the mid-1960s, and regular use was common by the 1970s. In mid-1969, Apollo 11 transmitted live pictures from man’s first landing on the surface of the Moon.

Television enjoyed its dominance in national news for several decades. In control of the field of television news in the United States from the 1950s until the 1980s were the “big three”: ABC, NBC, and CBS. During these decades, the popularity of newscasters Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Douglas Edwards turned them into legends. In 1968, CBS aired 60 Minutes, an investigative journalism television news magazine, for the first time. The news magazine became so popular that other networks launched clones, such as ABC’s 20/20. By the 1990s, critics of television news decried what they saw as the tabloidization of the field.

In June 1980, Ted Turner’s Cable News Network (CNN) became the first 24/7 news channel, suggesting the competition to come. CNN served the growing number of cable systems in the United States, making clear cable’s potential role as a journalism heavyweight. Eventually, Turner’s CNN (ridiculed at first, in part because it was based in Atlanta, far from the traditional New York national news outlets) became so lucrative that many others invested in other cable news, weather, and sports channels. CNN’s global reach was epitomized in its coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, when for the first time television broadcast live around the world from a war zone as bombs fell.

By the 1980s, newspaper owners were forced to adapt not only to the popularity of television news but also to competition from within the newspaper industry itself. Al Neuharth’s 1982 launch of the controversial USA Today, with its color, graphics, and innovative layouts and headlines, shook the field. Many publishers responded by investing in color printing technologies, although some refused, largely because of the costs involved. By 1997, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post were the only major dailies without color on their front pages. Computer-assisted reporting was another technological innovation adopted by newspaper publishers. In a 1973 book on the use of computers in journalism, University of North Carolina professor Philip Meyer stated that computers were enabling journalists to become more scientific.

Ethics

Critics of American journalism questioned its owners’ commitment to the nation’s needs. A landmark in such criticism took the form of a 1947 report, A Free and Responsible Press. The so-called Hutchins Report was created by the Commission on Freedom of the Press and it charged publishers and broadcasters with five responsibilities:

  • Provide a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context that gives them meaning.
  • Provide a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
  • Project a representative picture of the constituent groups of society.
  • Present and clarify the goals and values of society.
  • Provide full access to the day’s intelligence.

The press, however, was largely unreceptive to these recommendations. Preoccupied with fixing other problems, publishers largely neglected to look at their responsibilities to their readers and the general public.

In the 1970s, the ethical standards of professional journalists were also on the minds of a group of reformers who established news councils made up of both news people and others. Designed to investigate complaints about lapses in journalism ethics, organizers of news councils held hearings where complaining parties could air their concerns about specific cases of journalistic inaccuracy or bias. The most successful of the councils was established in Minnesota in 1970 and still operates today. By the mid-1990s, five news councils were still operating in the United States, while dozens remained active around the globe. The National News Council, established in 1973, however, closed in 1983 after a decade of struggling to unsuccessfully develop a base of support among journalism’s leaders.

New Styles of Journalism

Following the tradition of earlier muckraking journalists, late twentieth-century investigative journalists exposed illegal and unethical conduct of government officials and business leaders. Among the most famous investigative journalists from this period were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who led The Washington Post in its 1972 to 1974 breaking of stories related to the Watergate political scandal that led to the first resignation of a sitting President.

A development in journalistic writing style—dubbed the “New Journalism”—emerged in both magazines and newspapers during the 1960s and 1970s. Those who wrote in this fashion applied fiction-writing techniques to news. The “new” style provoked intense criticism within the profession. Among early proponents were Tom Wolfe, whose first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby (1964), demonstrated the style’s techniques, and Truman Copote, whose chilling narrative of a murder case in In Cold Blood is considered a classic in this genre.

Another part of the movement to make journalism more accountable was the establishment of magazines devoted to responsible journalism. Notable examples include the Columbia Journalism Review, launched in 1971 by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; the Chicago Journalism Review, started after the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention to counter the negative effects of local journalists’ overly cozy relationships with city officials; and the American Journalism Review, which began in 1977 as the Washington Journalism Review. These magazines cover issues of interest not only to news publishers, but also to members of the public with an interest in journalism.

By the early 1990s, another new form of journalism—public or civic journalism—began to develop. At the heart of the movement was a belief that journalists have an obligation to public life that goes beyond disseminating news and editorial opinion. Leaders include David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation; Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University; and W.

Davis Merritt, a former editor of the Wichita Eagle. This movement represented a departure from the trajectory of the “detached objective journalist,” which the field of mainstream journalism had been on for nearly a century. Those who practiced public journalism treated readers and community members as participants in the process of journalism.

Conclusion

The period 1930 to 1995 was one filled with many challenges and changes for those in the field of journalism. The Great Depression and World War II tested the resilience of all producers of news during the period’s first two decades. The popularity of first radio and later television threatened the health of the newspaper and news magazine industry, while rendering movie-theater newsreels extinct. Newspapers and news magazines maintained an important place in the overall news business throughout the period, but to do so, publishers were forced to adapt to hold on to their advertisers and readers. To appeal to consumers of news, publishers, among other things, created new types of newspapers, increased their attention to the concerns of women and minority groups, invented new styles of journalism, and invested in improved printing presses and other new technologies. Wars and global economic problems confronted news producers throughout the period, but the adoption of satellites for broadcasting starting in the 1960s made television journalism even more globally relevant. Ironically, at the end of the 1990s, the world’s providers of news were once again poised on the threshold of a new technological challenge—the World Wide Web.