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Technology of Journalism: Cultural Agents, Cultural Icons

Technology of Journalism: Cultural Agents, Cultural Icons

by Patricia Dooley

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From the printing press to the telegraph to the camera and beyond, technology has always been tied closely to journalism. In The Technology of Journalism, Patricia L. Dooley proposes a history of news that heeds the social and cultural environments in which both technology and the press emerge and


From the printing press to the telegraph to the camera and beyond, technology has always been tied closely to journalism. In The Technology of Journalism, Patricia L. Dooley proposes a history of news that heeds the social and cultural environments in which both technology and the press emerge and exist.

            By placing this history solidly in its cultural context, Dooley can explore the effects of shifts in social, economic, and political systems and the impact of war. One such development with far reaching implications was Matthew Brady’s use of photography during the Civil War. Growth or decline in readership can also influence technological changes in journalism; most recently, the shift toward digital and Web-based journalism has reshaped the press.

            Finally, Dooley assesses the legacy and future of print, deciding what happens to print journalism—and all forms of reportage—will depend on the willingness of industry leaders to innovate in ways that will help them connect, through their reporting, to Americans of all ages and walks of life.

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Medill Visions of the American Press Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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By Patricia L. Dooley
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2007

Patricia L. Dooley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2330-4


History tells us that technologies have led to significant changes in journalism. In the mid-nineteenth century, the telegraph allowed news publishers to gather and send news with great speed because they had been freed from the constraints of previous communication systems. By early in the twentieth century, the camera's power to create photographic images of people and events that readers could not view firsthand was being captured by those involved in the early development of the field of photojournalism. And today, people without formal ties to the news professions are discovering that blogging software can help them become journalists in an instant.

By the same token, however, humans have shared news throughout much of history without the aid of printing presses or the other technologies associated with journalism. Titus Livius, whose lifework was the History of Rome, wrote of news criers in his chronicling of the city's story from its founding in 753 B.C. until the time of Drusus in 9 B.C. Human runners were used to convey news in ancient times over vast expanses of territory. Starting around 1200, news was spread throughout continental Europe, England, and Scandinavia by balladeers singing about the events of the times in poetic form. After Johannes Gutenberg's mid-fifteenth-century printing press ushered in its revolutionary new world, it would take more than one hundred years before sheets resembling what we think of today as newspapers were printed. Even now, in a world awash in mediated forms of news, we still often hear about important events from our friends, families, and acquaintances.

That people have not always been quick to replace extant tools and techniques should remind us to be circumspect in our assessments of how technologies have affected journalism. Yet the tantalizing promise of new technology has often been difficult to resist. Popular histories of the telegraph typically relate the story of Samuel F. B. Morse's recognition that his new machine would change the world: in the first public demonstration of his telegraph, in 1844, he sent the message "What hath God wrought?" In a discussion of the power of the camera, art critic Walter Benjamin declared that it "introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses." Reflecting on the wonders of radio in a poem, Josephine Preston Peabody wrote: "This is a marvel of the universe: to fling a thought across a stretch of sky." About television journalism, Fred Friendly stated: "TV is bigger than any story it reports. It's the greatest teaching tool since the printing press." And in 1948, Norbert Wiener, who popularized the social implications of cybernetics, wrote that he hoped the era's new information technologies would prevent humanity from plunging us back into "the world of Belsen and Hiroshima."

How have writers on the history of journalism regarded technology in their analyses of the dynamics of change in the field? While historians have published works on particular technologies -and many have published works on the history of journalism-relatively few have focused on the intersection of technology and journalism. An examination of the scholarship on the history of journalism reveals a bias that favors technology as a driving force behind changes in news, especially among the field's earliest historians. A tendency to equate journalism with its technologies, for example, is seen in the common use of the term the press after Gutenberg's mid-1400s invention began to spread rapidly throughout continental Europe and eventually to England and the New World. As telegraphic, photographic, broadcasting, computer, and Internet technologies have been adopted by journalists, historians have divided the field into the eras of print, broadcasting, visual, and digital journalism. Their many references to the "rise" and "spread" of journalism's technologies convey the idea that technologies have a natural tendency to grow and move through society on their own. And historians who favor technologies tend to valorize those individuals who are most obviously associated with them, rendering the roles of others involved in the process of change in journalism less visible.

America's first well-known journalism historian was the American Revolutionary War-era printer Isaiah Thomas. In 1810, having dedicated himself to memorializing the machine that helped his new country win its freedom from the British, he published a massive tome titled The History of Printing in America. Thomas's book offered a detailed rendition of the emergence and development of the nation's printing and newspaper industries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Having risked his life to free America from British control, Thomas was in an ideal position to document the contributions of the press and members of his craft to its newfound freedom. And after the war, he witnessed how the enhanced stature of both the press and its products led to a rapid growth in the number and influence of newspapers. In retrospect, he wrote: "To an observer of the great utility of the kind of publications called newspapers, it may appear strange that they should have arisen to the present almost incredible number, from a comparatively late beginning." With hopes of pleasing the period's "professional men," Thomas also acknowledged the pivotal role printing presses and those who operated them played in the early history of American journalism.

Thomas's history was the standard text in the field until mid-century, when other retired journalists published histories of the newspaper. Joseph Tinker Buckingham (1779-1861), a prolific writer, editor, and publisher who was involved with both newspapers and magazines, published two sets of books on the newspaper business after he retired. Filled with personal stories and commentary on important papers and their publishers and editors, Buckingham's books focused largely on the newspapers published in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. He characterized the history of the printing press and newspaper as a march of progress and its printers and editors as heroes.

In 1873, former New York Herald managing editor Fredrick Hudson published America's next major history of journalism. Hudson explained in the 789-page book's preface that his was the first complete treatment of the history of the American press. Over the course of his career, he witnessed the introduction of the telegraph to the world of news publishing. As he prepared for retirement, pondering the role of technology and other factors in the process of change in journalism, he wrote:

All created things have an origin. Where there is a necessity in a community, some one supplies the want.... When ideas, and signs, and words came, something was necessary to put words into shape to communicate ideas with greater rapidity. Type were [sic] invented for this purpose. Ink and rude presses came with type, as gutta-percha with the telegraph. Written news-slips were too slowly prepared even for the slow age of Gutenburg and Schoeffer. Newspapers, therefore, became a necessity, and were invented in their turn. Then came steam and electricity as auxiliary powers to intellect. What next? The pneumatic tunnel-the universal newspaper carrier!

Despite his stated sentiment that necessity is the mother of invention, he filled his history of American journalism with references to the transformative power of the telegraph and new devices adopted by newspeople over the course of his career.

Using the histories produced by Thomas, Buckingham, and Hudson as models, a raft of writers produced books documenting the histories of the presses of their communities on local, county, and state levels. In addition, several books were published that provided statistics on the establishment of the printing press and newspapers across the United States and other countries since the first papers were started. One of the earliest of these compilations, published by W. T. Coggeshall in 1857, included a large amount of data on not only American newspapers but also papers across the world since the earliest of them started appearing in the seventeenth century. The U.S. Census Bureau published two similar compendiums, one by S. N. D. North in 1884 and a second by William S. Rossiter in 1900. Such books characterized the printing press and newspapers as precipitators of progress of a powerful nature. Other than identifying the printers and editors who managed the presses, the authors of these volumes paid little attention to emerging technologies or other factors that affected the newspaper business.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, similar compilations of information about printing and newspapers were published by bibliographers who sought to document as many aspects of the fields of printing and news publishing as possible. The most prolific of these scholars was Douglas C. McMurtrie (1888-1944), who published dozens of works on printing and newspapers. From a book on the Gutenberg press to a history of the products of Chicago's first printing presses, McMurtrie spared no praise for the capabilities of these presses and those who operated them both in the broader field of publishing and within the journalistic industry itself.

McMurtrie was part of a generation of journalists and scholars who contributed to a late-nineteenth-century movement to establish university and college courses devoted to teaching students how to become professional news reporters and editors. Among the nation's oldest news education courses were those started in the early 1890s at the University of Kansas and Indiana University. As the rest of the country's colleges and universities followed in the footsteps of these educational leaders and set up their own journalism programs, more histories of journalism and other instructional materials were published. Some of the authors of these works were more prone than their nineteenth-century counterparts to look at the roles of social, cultural, economic, and geographic factors in their interpretations of the field's history. Nevertheless, they still exhibited a healthy regard for the power of the press and those who operated it.

Among the best known of these textbooks is Willard Grosvenor Bleyer's 1927 Main Currents in the History of American Journalism. Bleyer started by telling his readers that he would help them "understand the present-day American newspaper and its problems" by providing them with "an historical background sufficient for an intelligent understanding of the American newspaper of today." His concluding chapter focused on how the newspaper industry of the 1920s was "profoundly influenced in its development" by the "tremendous mechanical progress" of the previous twenty-five years. He wrote:

The age was one of machinery. Ingenious machines were devised to do practically everything that had previously been done by hand. Mechanical inventions and improvements were as important in newspaper production as they were in other fields. The modern newspaper would have been impossible without huge perfecting presses, the linotype, the autoplate, color printing, and the half-tone and rotogravure processes. Other inventions that were of great value to newspapers were the telephone, the typewriter, radio communication, the telegraph printing machine, and the automobile. From one point of view, the present-day newspaper is a machine-made product to a greater extent than ever before.

Machines, according to Bleyer, were responsible for changes in journalism such as increased speed and efficiency of printing, rising circulations, and faster transmission of news. "Newspapers very naturally took advantage of every improvement in communication and transportation," he observed. In addition, Bleyer credited technology with triggering industrial developments that in turn led to more standardization among America's newspapers. Such industrial developments, he pointed out, included newspaper syndicates, press associations, and local press bureaus.

But while Bleyer gave considerable credit to technology, he counted societal and cultural conditions among the precipitators of change in journalism. The growth of cities, the influx of immigrants, and the rapid pace and high nervous tension "everywhere manifested in American urban life" had led to the way news was written, organized, and displayed in newspapers. According to Bleyer, America's development of "big business enterprise" led newspapers to grow not only in size but also in bureaucratic complexity. And society's "various movements for higher ethical standards in business and the professions" brought new pressure on advertisers and newspaper publishers and editors to develop more socially responsible enterprises.

Similar to Bleyer, Walter Lippmann and Robert E. Park, in important essays on the dynamics of change in the field of journalism, discounted the idea that technology should be given much weight. But in contrast to Bleyer, who had written of the close relationships between the newspaper and broader contextual developments, Lippmann and Park argued the newspaper was an institution largely free from the control or influence of society. In a 1925 essay titled "The Natural History of the Newspaper," Park explained: "The newspaper, like the modern city, is not wholly a national product. No one sought to make it just what it is. In spite of all the efforts of individual men and generations of men to control it and to make it something after their own heart, it has continued to grow and change in its own incalculable ways." And in a 1931 essay published in the Yale Review, Lippmann offered a similar view in a discussion of the growing independence of newspaper from government and political parties. Neither spoke directly to questions of the impact of technologies versus the impact of society on journalism.

One of the best-known twentieth-century historians of American journalism was Frank Luther Mott, who wrote, edited, or contributed to more than thirty books during his academic career at universities in Iowa and Missouri. His 1941 book, American Journalism, which was the field's preeminent textbook until the 1970s, went through three revisions. A great admirer of journalism, Mott paid ample attention to technology and largely credited it for helping the press achieve even greater heights. His work has been criticized for being overly simplistic and too admiring of journalism. William David Sloan noted: "[For Mott] history became simply the story of the progress of journalism.... The past was less important for itself than for how it had contributed to the development of what journalism was to become."

Edwin Emery and Henry Smith, in a 1954 textbook titled The Press in America, diverged to some extent from the earlier journalism historians who gave considerable power to technology in their discussions of the dynamics of change in journalism. The authors briefly mentioned the invention of the printing press in the book's opening chapter and later discussed the emergence of the telegraph and subsequent technologies. But throughout these discussions, they elevated the status of political, social, and commercial conditions among the forces that impacted the news and its associated industries. Particularly attentive to the press's role in helping people fight class struggles from the American Revolution on, they portrayed technologies as important when they helped leaders of progressive movements gain legitimacy. Revised and republished eight times, The Press in America was the field's major history textbook for three decades.

Since the telegraph, photograph, movie, radio, and television were not invented specifically for news purposes, they did not attract the attention of press historians until after general histories on them had been published. The telegraph was unveiled by Samuel Morse in 1844 and was first used for news gathering two years later. Brief reports on the use of the telegraph for news were seen as early as 1860, and one of the first in-depth accounts of the use of telegraphy in the news business was Fredrick Hudson's history of American journalism, published in 1873. Hudson devoted considerable space to an account of the first uses of the telegraph by newspaper people. As one of the founding members of the Associated Press (AP), Hudson was especially knowledgeable about how telegraphy became part of the news business. In the opening of a chapter called the "Telegraphic Era," he stated: "Morse has been a benefactor of the Press. This, it is true, is not the opinion of every publisher ... but newspaper statistics prove our position. Morse has undoubtedly struck ... many newspapers off the lists of journalism, yet he has added many others, and increased newspaper enterprise and newspaper readers by the thousands. He has placed an electric force in every printing-office in the land."


Excerpted from THE TECHNOLOGY OF JOURNALISM by Patricia L. Dooley Copyright © 2007 by Patricia L. Dooley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Patricia L. Dooley is a professor of communication at Wichita State University and the author of Taking Their Political Place: Journalists and the Making of an Occupation and The Early National Period: Primary Documents on Events from 1800 to 1820. She lives in Wichita, Kansas.

Neil Chase is the editor of continuous news at the New York Times, the former deputy editor for news at NYTimes.com, the former managing editor of CBS Market Watch, and a former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Arizona Republic. Chase works in New York City and lives in South Orange, New Jersey.

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