In the waning days of his presidency, as George W. Bush held his final White House press conference, he extended a few kind words to the reporters that had covered his two terms as America’s commander-in-chief.
Through it all, it’s been — I have respected you. Sometimes didn’t like the stories that you wrote or reported on. Sometimes you misunderestimated me. But always the relationship I have felt has been professional. And I appreciate it…
And so here at the last press conference, I’m interested in answering some of your questions. But mostly I’m interested in saying thank you for the job.
Later that day, the New York Times published an article covering the president’s last appearance before the press corps. The tone was critical, echoing the nation’s general opinion of the unpopular president, but it nevertheless remained professional and civil.
The same cannot be said of the Philadelphia Aurora‘s more vitriolic coverage of President George Washington’s farewell. Two days after Washington left office, the Aurora (a newspaper run by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache) wrote:
When a retrospect is taken of the Washington administration for eight years, it is a subject of the greatest astonishment, that a single individual should have cankered the principles of republicanism in an enlightened people, just emerged from the gulf of despotism, and should have carried his designs against the public liberty so far as to have put in jeopardy its very existence. Such, however, are the facts; and with these staring us in the face, this day ought to be a jubilee in the United States.
Many contemporary Americans may be a bit shocked at the Aurora‘s aggressive attitude. On one level, seeing the newspaper rail against President Washington for leading the nation away from liberty toward the waiting jaws of despotism is a bit disorienting given that Washington is considered one of the nation’s best presidents.
But it may also be a bit jarring for those unfamiliar with the history of journalism. After all, today’s media is often criticized as having deviated from their true role as nonpartisan protectors and communicators of fact. Conspiracy theories abound: that every major network is run by a vast, left-wing machine, or by influential right-wing corporations, depending on your personal bias.
The truth, however, is a good bit less exciting. Market forces and other non-financial incentives, not ideological puppeteers, shape how the news industry functions.
In this blog post, I will explain how news organizations choose what stories to cover and discuss why they cover those stories they way they do.
I will describe the main force that has historically impacted how journalism functions: money. I will discuss how the early American news media functioned as an arm of political parties when it was funded by political parties and distributed to niche audiences. I will explain how the news media shifted away from niche audiences and toward attracting as many readers as possible when it moved from political party funding to advertising and reader fees.
Next, I will discuss several non-financial incentives that impact how news organizations conduct themselves, including fulfilling the journalistic mission and enhancing their reputations. I will describe how the new industry’s financial incentives sometimes conflict with its non-financial incentives.
After that, I will describe how the Internet has disrupted journalism’s incentive structure and changed how news organizations choose stories and what stories they focus on. Finally, I will finish by discussing how the huge number of news options available on the Internet has pressured news organizations to focus on niche audiences (such as Democrats or Republicans), rather than trying to attract as many readers as possible.
In the early years of the United States, political parties helped finance newspapers. This was especially true of the party in control of government — as holding the reigns of government allowed the party to subsidize friendly newspapers in a number of ways, such as awarding printing contracts to editors of supportive newspapers. Reflecting this revenue stream, news organizations generally supported their party and criticized the opposition.
The Aurora‘s scathing review of the Washington administration can be seen in this context. Although Bache thought of himself as an independent, not a partisan, his Aurora nevertheless ardently supported Jefferson and Madison’s nascent Democratic-Republican Party and relentlessly criticized Washington, Hamilton, and Adams’ Federalist Party.
Madison and Jefferson, for their part, arranged for the creation of the Democratic-Republican Party’s first newspaper, the National Gazette in 1791. Madison encouraged a college friend, Philip Freneau, to become the paper’s editor, and Jefferson rewarded Freneau with a job in the State Department.
The era of partisan press continued until a new funding model began to replace newspapers’ reliance on political figures and parties, starting around 1833. That year, publisher Benjamin Day put out his first issue of The Sun in New York, the United States’ first “penny press” newspaper (so-named because these papers cost the reader a penny to buy). Whereas the partisan press was more expensive and aimed at businessmen and other affluent people, the penny press papers were more affordable and covered a wider range of stories — especially sensationalistic ones.
Numerous trends contributed to The Sun‘s success: advances in technology made printing less expensive, greater literacy rates meant more potential readers, and urbanization concentrated these potential readers in a smaller area.
Significantly, the penny press also brought with it a new way to finance the news industry. The partisan press relied upon party funding, government subsidization, and subscriptions. The penny press, without party funding and with a low price, turned to advertising for funding.
From the 1830s until today, the news industry has more or less functioned under a financial model based on advertising and reader fees, with some changes in other supplemental sources. With both revenue sources, news organizations have an incentive to maximize how many readers they reach, because doing so will bring in more revenue.
The relationship between reader fees, readership numbers, and revenue is pretty straightforward: the more people paying to read a news article, the higher the organization’s revenue.
Also, the more people reading a news source, the more valuable its advertising space will be, because the high readership numbers will provide the advertiser with greater exposure. Accordingly, the more readers a news source has, the more it can charge advertisers.
The financial incentive here is fairly clear: in order to remain financially viable, a news organization must attract as many viewers as possible. This change in financial incentives paved the way for journalism’s ‘objectivity standard,’ the idea that journalists should write neutrally about their subjects. Writing objectively allowed news organizations to reach as broad an audience as possible and avoid alienating any potential readers.
It also paved the way for another longstanding journalistic tradition: sensationalism. Editors quickly discovered that publishing eye-catching stories was a good way to sell papers. This led to ‘yellow journalism,’ the exaggerated and often misleading news exemplified by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s publications.
Yellow journalism was the precursor to today’s tabloids. However, even news organizations that try to focus mainly on ‘hard news‘ (such as world events) often seek to make stories as exciting as possible in order to draw more viewers. Organizations that mostly cover hard news have also increasingly carried ‘soft news‘ (such as celebrity gossip or human interest pieces) in order to broaden their appeal and circulation.
Of course, financial incentives are not the only incentives a news organization faces. Most news organizations take their missions and reputations very seriously. While news organizations have many roles, their most basic mission is to inform their readers. One of the most important ways they do this is through investigative journalism that incorporates months or even years of research and interviews on a certain topic into a comprehensive and in-depth news report.
Dedication to the basic journalistic mission to inform citizens encourages organizations to finance investigative journalism. Additionally, investigative journalism often garner awards for the journalists and news organizations involved, enhancing their reputations and further encouraging them to produce more investigative pieces.
However, these incentives to produce investigative pieces often run up against financial incentives to cut them. Investigative journalism is a time-consuming and expensive process — journalists can take months or years traveling to numerous locations and talking to countless sources to fully complete an investigative piece.
The high costs of investigative journalism often make it first on the chopping block when a news organization needs to cut back on its expenses. With no time for comprehensive investigation and analysis, news ends up being boiled down to the opinions of a few experts who are either readily available because the journalist already has relationships with them or who have written prominently on the subject.
While expert opinions are welcomed, they cannot be a replacement for a more comprehensive analysis that includes primary research and input from numerous other individuals involved in the story.
JOURNALISM IN THE INTERNET AGE
The arrival of the Internet has also fundamentally changed journalism, in several ways. Financially, the Internet has disrupted traditional funding streams, forcing the news industry to look for other sources of revenue.
The Internet has created countless new venues for advertising, driving down the price of advertising and, accordingly, drying up journalism’s advertising revenues. News organizations offering advertising space now also face competition from companies like Facebook, which can target ads at specific consumers, which drives down prices as well.
The news industry also injured itself early on by offering content for free online when the Internet was still young. At the time, people mainly used traditional news sources, such as print newspapers, television, and radio. Now, however, many people not only get their news online, but have gotten used to accessing it online for free. This poses a tricky problem for news organizations. People generally react poorly when they are charged for services that used to be free. And a news organization could lose readership to competitors if they begin charging while their competition remains free.
Falling revenue has had a major effect on the news industry. It has resulted in more layoffs, fewer investigative pieces, increasing reliance on fewer sources, a greater number of soft news stories, and sharper competition (which manifests itself in ways like competing to publish a story as it is happening).
News organizations have laid off much of their staff and closed foreign bureaus. With lighter staffs, organizations do less original reporting and are forced to rely more heavily on the newswires (organizations like the Associated Press which provide news to news organizations), which narrows the number of sources for a story. This means that more organizations are putting out stories based on fewer sources.
As mentioned earlier, investigative journalism is expensive — and strapped news organizations have been forced to cut back on the number of investigative pieces they fund. At the same time, soft news has given news organizations a way to buoy their circulation (though in the long run, this tactic may turn off hard news consumers).
The Internet has heightened journalism’s age-old appetite for a scoop, as well. News organizations want to be the first entity to publish a story, attracting readers and generally enhancing their reputation for being vigilant. Before the Internet, news organizations worked on tight deadlines, but also had some cushion time between an event and when the newspaper went to press.
The Internet’s ability to instantly transmit news across the world has completely changed that. Now, readers expect news updates instantaneously, which gives news organizations little time to fact check and contact expert sources. News organizations must also now compete not only with each other, but with the average social media user as well.
Yet the benefit of instantaneous news updates comes with a huge drawback as well: inaccuracy. Firsthand accounts are often flawed and lack context, which can lead to inaccurate reporting and fodder for conspiracy theorists. The quick turnaround leaves little to no time for journalists to check their facts and consult with a variety of sources before publishing. This inaccurate reporting, in turn, damages news organizations’ credibility.
MOVING FORWARD: NICHE MEDIA
Finally, the Internet has helped bring down the barriers to journalism and encouraged entrepreneurs to enter the field, focus on new subjects, and try new business models.
The fact that readers now have easy access to countless different media sources from around the world has forced news organizations to re-evaluate their strategy of maximizing readership. In order to compete in the news marketplace, news organizations can no longer rest on using objectivity and their reputation to maximize their viewers. Now, they must differentiate themselves from other news organizations in the content they carry and how they deliver it.
For many news organizations, this means dominating a niche market. That is, rather than trying to capture every reader across the country, some news organizations are tailoring their news product to a specific group of people in the hopes of maximizing their readership in that group. To the extent that news organizations seem more partisan today than several decades ago, it is because some of them have shifted to serving a specific audience (say, Democrats or Republicans) rather than a more general audience (the nation as a whole).
A number of forces are responsible for this shift. Shadowy plutocrats are not among them.
 The average total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers almost quadrupled in the decade after the introduction of the penny press (between 1830 and 1840).
 Beyond the basic journalistic mission to inform, news organizations also use the guiding principle set out by early 20th century journalist Finley Peter Dunne with the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That is, news organizations give voice to the concerns of average people who would otherwise not have access to a media platform and also act as a watchdog against unchecked power, whether in the private or public sector.
 The tragic Sandy Hook shooting is an example of how inaccurate initial accounts can turn into conspiracy theories. News organizations first identified shooter Adam Lanza as his brother, Ryan Lanza, before correcting their mistake. Additionally, CBS interviewed an eyewitness who saw the police lead a man out of the woods. Later, it was revealed that the man was the parent of a child at the school. Both of these have fueled conspiracy theories.
“The Fall and Rise of Partisan Journalism.” James L. Baughman. Center for Journalism Ethics (University of Wisconsin-Madison).
”The Press.” Peter Andrews. American Heritage Magazine.
“Penny Papers Tell All: On the Early Days of the NYC Tabloid Wars.” Matt Levy. The L Magazine.