Can Journalism Survive?

For my wife, Jill, and my kids, Dylan and Miranda

Can Journalism Survive?

An Inside Look at American Newsrooms

David M. Ryfe


Copyright © David M. Ryfe 2012

The right of David M. Ryfe to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2012 by Polity Press

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ISBN: 978-0-7456-6413-2

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Detailed Contents

List of Figures




1 Backstory

2 Habits

3 Investments

4 Definitions

5 The Future

6 Worries



References and Bibliography


Detailed Contents

List of Figures




The Challenge

The Culture of Journalism

Habits, Investments, and Definitions

Summary of the Book

1 Backstory

An Industry in Decline

Why is our Audience Shrinking?

Changes in the Industry

Industry Response

A Changed Culture


2 Habits

An Experiment

The Numbers

Beat Reporting: The Basic Habit

How Do We Do This?

“This Feels Weird”

Organizational Culture


3 Investments

A Plan to Save The Herald

The Field of Journalism and the Newspaper

A Reinvention of TV Journalism

“Let’s Be the Newspaper”

“Still a Newspaperman”

4 Definitions

Superblogging at the Cedar Rapids Gazette

Superblogging as a Model of Journalism

“You are Still a Reporter”

5 The Future

A Field Unravels

Virtuous Cycles

6 Worries

Journalism and Democracy



Networked Journalism and Democracy

A Revolution of a Kind



References and Bibliography


List of Figures

1.1 US daily newspaper circulation vs. number of households 32

2.1 Frequency of story type 64

2.2 Frequency of story source 65

5.1 The field of journalism 142

5.2 Journalism as a mass medium 144

5.3 The structure of small worlds 145

5.4 Afield unraveled 155


I never set out to study newspapers. After graduate school and a PhD, in the year 2000 I happened to get a first job in a journalism school, not because I wanted to work in a journalism school but because that is where I was hired. Like many journalism schools, the faculty at Middle Tennessee State University was composed mostly of former journalists. Since I had never stepped foot in a newsroom, much less been a journalist, they held me in high suspicion, so much so that the chair of my department suggested I think about interning in a newsroom.

At first, I resisted the idea, seeing it as a distraction from my research and teaching. But then, in 2003, I found myself teaching a media and politics undergraduate course. In preparation, I reread the classics of media sociology, such as Herbert Gans’s book Deciding What’s News and Gaye Tuchman’s Making News. I also searched for updates to this literature. Much to my surprise, I learned that, by and large, it had not been updated. No significant ethnographic study of newsrooms had been published since 1980. Despite the fact that much had changed in American newsrooms since then, researchers were still referencing texts that were over two decades old.

At this moment, a thought occurred. If I visited a newsroom, I could kill two birds with one stone: allay the concerns of the senior faculty in my department and write an essay that updated a literature that sorely needed updating.

This thought brought me to my first newsroom at the end of 2004. I had no intention of staying very long. Authors of the classic ethnographic studies, people like Leon Sigal, Edward Epstein, and Mark Fishman, actually spent little time in newsrooms. Gaye Tuchman devoted parts of three years to her magisterial study, but on average most ethnographers committed no more than six months to their research. For the purposes of my small essay, I imagined I could get away with three months.

From the beginning, however, I discovered that events were too interesting to leave. I entered that first newsroom alongside a new editor who was intent on shaking things up. Each month became a new chapter in this saga. I couldn’t leave until I got to the conclusion. This took two years. In the meantime, journalists discovered the Internet. Not literally, of course. By the mid- to late 1990s, most newspapers had websites. But even in 2004 the web remained an afterthought in newsrooms. At the Daily Bugle – the first newspaper I visited – the “web team” consisted of two people (an editor and a programmer). They were shunted to the corner of the room, consigned to “shoveling” content written for the newspaper onto the website. To be sure, editors made note of web traffic numbers. But they had no grand strategy for the web, and, as far as I could tell, reporters considered the new medium as little more than an afterthought.

Then, in 2006, just as I was preparing to wind down my research, interest in the Internet exploded. Partly, this was due to the wide availability of broadband cable, which made the web usable to a larger segment of the audience. And partly it was due to the fact that the spiral of decline in the industry was quickening. Whatever the reason, I could not leave newsrooms just as this new story began to unfold. Through no fault of my own, I had a front row seat at one of the great public dramas of the early twenty-first century. I did not want to give up this privileged position. So I remained in newsrooms for another three years, watching, taking notes, and asking questions. Without meaning to do so, I ended up spending more time in newsrooms (parts of five years) than any ethnographer had ever done.

As the reader will see, the three newsrooms at the heart of this study belong to mid-sized, regional daily newspapers. I have good reasons for choosing such newsrooms. In that they are the primary source of local and regional news for the communities they serve, and employ the vast number of daily journalists working in the United States, these newsrooms represent the backbone of American journalism. For better and worse, the fate of journalism is tied to the fate of these newspapers.

Still, one may wonder about how well these newspapers represent wider trends in the profession and industry. In particular, one may ask about how well they reflect the situation of the elite, metropolitan dailies (e.g., the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post) that dominate the national picture.

The question of representativeness arises for any ethnography, a method that intentionally sacrifices breadth for depth. In this study, however, I am justified in saying that the dynamics I witnessed at these three regional dailies mirror those at work in the broader profession. In the first instance, the economic trends that confront regional dailies (e.g., declining market penetration, loss of advertising revenue, and so on) afflict all of daily journalism, including elite metro newspapers. The same is true for the challenges to journalism posed by the Internet. These challenges, which arise from the networked structure of online communication, are the same for all reporters, whether they work at large, urban or mid-sized, regional dailies. Moreover, forty years of scholarship has shown that news culture is fairly well organized and dispersed across the profession of journalism. Whether a journalist works at a small-town newspaper, a regional daily, or a metro daily, she has been more or less socialized into the same norms, practices, and principles. The reactions of most journalists, therefore, are likely to be within a small range of variation from those I witnessed in the newsrooms I visited. In short, while no ethnography is entirely representative, mine is representative enough to warrant wide conclusions about the field of journalism.

Before telling this story, let me say a word or two about methods. The bulk of data for this study was collected during fieldwork conducted over five years in three newspapers: the Daily Bugle, The Herald, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Fieldwork at the Daily Bugle took place from January 2005 to August 2006, at The Herald in July 2008, and at the Gazette in July 2009. At the Bugle, I spent an average of two days per week (and sometimes three) in the newsroom. During this time, I attended budget meetings and other news meetings, observed reporters and editors interacting with one another, conducted formal interviews with every reporter and editor working on the city desk, held many impromptu discussions as events occurred, and followed reporters around on their beats. I also conducted four formal interviews with Calvin Thomas. In addition, from May to July 2006, I worked as a faculty intern for the paper. For two days per week over twelve weeks I reported on and wrote twenty-seven stories for the city desk on topics ranging from government press conferences, to the release of academic studies, to events at the state legislature.

For the content analysis of news content at the Bugle, I collected the front and local sections of the newspaper Monday through Friday, from January to February 2005, and again from July 2005 to January 2006. A graduate student and I coded every article that appeared on the first page of these sections according to the following categories: reporter, placement of story (centerpiece, front, or local front page), length of story, story type (daily vs. enterprise), frame (hard vs. soft), and story source (one-time or ongoing event). This process produced a total of 1,369 records on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Figures 2.1 and 2.2 were generated using this software program through simple aggregations of story type and story source trends across stories over time.

At The Herald and the Cedar Rapids Gazette, I conducted four weeks of fieldwork and visited the newsroom seven days a week during this period. As at the Bugle, I attended budget meetings and other news meetings, observed reporters and editors interacting with one another, conducted formal interviews with every reporter and editor working on the city desk, and held many impromptu discussions as events occurred. I also conducted several interviews with the editors, Hank Carlin and Steve Buttry. These interviews took place both before and after my visit. Before visiting their newsrooms I spent several months doing historical research on the newspapers and, from May to June 2008, conducted a content analysis of the front page of their news sites. In addition, I stayed in contact with many reporters and editors for several months after my visit to keep up with events in these newsrooms.

By agreement with the editors, I did not audio-record or videotape any conversation or interview. Instead, I compiled my observations and conversations into ten ringed binders of field notes. These field notes form the core data on which I have drawn in this book, and all observations mentioned come from them. At times, I have had to paraphrase language used by individuals. However, any text placed in quotation marks is a direct quote from one of my sources.

In accordance with an agreement between me, Thomas, and Carlin, and the rules of my university’s institutional review board, all names, including those of the newspapers, have been changed in the writing of this book. However, Chuck Peters and Steve Buttry preferred that I use their real names and the name of their newspaper. While I have honored their preference, I have changed all other names of people in the newsroom. Editors and reporters were made aware of these rules when I visited their newsrooms.

Now, to the story!


This book took many years to complete and I have accumulated many debts along the way. I want to thank my former department chair, Richard Campbell, for setting me on the path that became this book, and two former deans, Cole Campbell and Jerry Ceppos, for keeping me on this path. I have had conversations with many people about the project. I want to thank a few of them for comments or information that have made their way into the manuscript. They include Alan Deutschman, Bill Winter, Martin Langeveld, Phillip Meyer, Gaye Tuchman, Carol Riordan of the American Press Institute (API), John Murray of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), Alan Mutter, Earl Wilkinson, Henrik Bødker, Mark Blach-Ørsten, Ed Lenert, and Ward Bushee. Others have done me the service of reading drafts of various chapters and parts of chapters. They include Dominic Boyer, Eric Klinenberg, Mark Deuze, Timothy Majoribanks, Daniel Hallin, Michael Schudson, Rodney Benson, Richard Kaplan, Timothy Cook, Bartholomew Sparrow, Gaye Tuchman, and Vicki Mayer. David Flores and Abbey Smith proved invaluable as graduate assistants at various stages of the project. I also owe a debt to the anonymous reviewers for Polity Press, who provided helpful suggestions for making the manuscript better. A special thank you to my colleague Donica Mensing, who not only read and commented on various parts of the manuscript but helped me flesh out my ideas over several years of lunches. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism published two essays from which much of the material in chapter 2 is derived. Here are links to these essays: http://jou.sagepub.eom/content/10/5/665.full.pdf+html and http://jou.sagepub.eom/content/10/2/197.full.pdf+html. This material has been published in Journalism, 10(2), and 10(5). SAGE Publications Ltd. All rights reserved. ©.


By some measures – say, employment – the American newspaper industry has been declining only for a short time. But by at least one – percentage of advertising expenditures – its decline began as long ago as the 1920s, and by several others, including market penetration and circulation, it began in the 1970s. In recent years, the rate of decline in nearly every measure has quickened. In the 2000s, newspaper circulation dropped 31 percent from its peak in 1984. As I write in 2011, market penetration of newspapers hovers at roughly 40 percent of households (meaning that the average household now subscribes to less than half a daily newspaper). Something less than 20 percent of people under the age of twenty-five read a daily newspaper. More ominously, advertising revenues have fallen off a cliff. In 2000, the industry garnered about $20 billion in advertising expenditures. By 2009, that number had been halved, to $ 10 billion, or about the level they were at in 1965. With their revenues dropping, stock shares of major newspaper public companies plunged in 2008 and 2009, falling to pennies per share in some cases. In 2010 stock shares for many of these companies bounced back somewhat, but only because newspapers systematically slashed costs, especially labor costs. According to the website Paper Cuts, from 2007 to 2009 the industry bought out or fired 33,000 journalists. In fact, since 2001, the industry has shed more than 25 percent of its workforce.1

Things in the industry got so much worse so quickly, journalists were initially caught off-guard. For years, they had comforted themselves with the thought that, as many have said to me verbatim, “there will always be newspapers.” But by 2006 they had been shaken out of this complacence. Why 2006? That year the Knight-Ridder news company unexpectedly died. Knight-Ridder was a combination of two venerable news companies (Knight and Ridder) whose histories stretched back to the beginnings of modern journalism at the turn of the twentieth century. Among journalists, Knight-Ridder was known as one of the “good guys.” Its newspapers – thirty-two at the time of its sale, making it the second largest news chain in the country – had a reputation for doing things the right way. They did not cut corners. They resisted the pull of commercialism. They privileged professionalism among their journalists and preached service to their communities. Since their merger in 1974, the Knight-Ridder news chain had won eighty-four Pulitzer prizes, including fourteen for public service. And now, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the company was gone.

Its sale set off a collective panic among journalists. One could almost hear the same thought rising from all corners of the profession: “If it happened to Knight-Ridder . . .” Who will be next? What will happen to us? What will happen to me? WE’VE GOT TO DO SOMETHING! Journalism was like a punctured balloon, one moment upright and stable, the next careening out of control. One moment “everyone knew” that there would always be newspapers, the next journalists were imagining a once unthinkable situation, a world without them. It was as if with Knight-Ridder’s demise the blinkers had finally come off for journalists, and they could now see just how vulnerable they and their industry were.

Rachel Smolkin (2006) caught the new mood in an article for American Journalism Review published a few months after Knight-Ridder’s sale. After reciting facts that had been known but ignored for a very long time (“circulation is falling; newsprint costs are rising; retail, auto, and movie advertising is slumping; classified advertising is available free on craigslist and other online venues”), Smolkin got to the point. The situation has become so dire, she observed, newspapers now have only two options: they can “adapt” or they can “die.” Adapt or die. Since then, this phrase has become conventional wisdom across much of journalism. I rarely meet a journalist today who does not believe that journalism must either adapt or face the fate of (take your pick) the typewriter, railroad, or telegraph industries.

Have they succeeded? Are they adapting? Will they avoid professional death? Should we care? This last is a fair question. When considering the plight of newspapers, many people say, “Good riddance! Who needs newspapers!” When I hear this sort of reaction – and I hear it a lot – I respond in two ways. First, as Alex Jones (2009) has noted, newspapers (mostly metro dailies) produce upwards of 70 to 80 percent of new information that circulates in most communities. If these daily newspapers cease to exist, we have no good idea of how this information will be replaced. This should give us pause before we dance on newspapers’ collective grave. Second, assuming for the moment that the world would be better off without newspapers, it is, nonetheless, still a great story. It isn’t every day that an entire industry falls to its knees. We might want to know out of simple curiosity why it is happening.

So the question of whether journalists will adapt or die seems at least interesting and probably important, and it is with this in mind that I began making visits to newsrooms in January 2005. From that time until the summer of 2009 I visited the newsrooms of three metro daily newspapers, and watched as the journalists in these organizations worked feverishly to avoid obsolescence (see the preface for a discussion of this fieldwork). In that time, I talked with dozens of journalists as their news organizations implemented new experiments. I sat in on their meetings. I observed them devise new plans and reorganize their newsrooms. I followed their progress as they worked new beats, learned new tools, and acquired new vocabularies to describe what they were doing. As you might expect, I often heard uncomfortable conversations and intense arguments. On more than one occasion, my interviews lapsed into “bitch” sessions as people vented their frustrations. A few times, I even found myself, strangely enough, offering career advice, and trying to console someone who had finally had enough and quit or, more often, was laid off.

What did I find? The short answer is that journalists have not adapted very well. For the most part, they continue to gather the same sorts of information, from the same sorts of people, and package it in the same news forms they have used for decades. Newspapers have the same look and feel they have had since the 1930s, and newspaper websites still look uncomfortably like newspapers. When journalists have tried to break from tradition, their efforts largely have come to naught. I know of no recent innovations in news that were invented in a metro daily newsroom, and no newsroom, to my knowledge, has adopted the new innovations in a comprehensive way.

I am not the only person to come to this conclusion. In the late 1990s, Pablo Boczkowski conducted one of the first analyses of technology’s impact on journalism. In three case studies, which included a visit to the New York Times “Technology on the Web” section, Boczkowski (2004) found that, the closer online news came to a conventional newsroom, the less innovation it displayed. When confronted with change, Boczkowski concluded, journalists tended to be “reactive, defensive, and pragmatic” (p. 48). Since then, researchers have duplicated Boczkowski’s finding time and again. Deborah Chung (2007) interviewed twenty-two editors of online news sites nominated for 2002 Online News Association (ONA) awards. Given that they were being recognized by the ONA, you might think that these journalists embraced change more than most, but you’d be wrong. Chung found that these editors were “resistant” to adopting interactive features of online news and had a general “hesitancy” toward innovation (2007, p. 57). Jane Singer (2004) visited with online journalists in four newsrooms at about the same time. She found that even these journalists maintained a sense of “us” versus “them,” marking a clear separation between print and online news. Further, far from embracing the digital medium, they “resist[ed] convergence as long as they [could]” (2004, p. 846). Studies in other parts of the world confirm Singer’s observation. The idea that online news sites allow for much interactivity, David Domingo (2008) concludes in a study of four Catalan newspapers, is a “myth.” In all cases, “the professional culture of traditional journalism prevails” (p. 680). John O’Sullivan and Ari Heinonen (2008) summarize the findings of this literature in the title of one of their essays: “Old values, new media.”

Not surprisingly, content analyses of online news sites find much the same thing. In an examination of ten news sites in eleven countries (including the United States), Thorsten Quandt (2008) concludes that the “revolution” in news promised by the Internet “did not happen,” at least at traditional news organizations. “Online journalism . . . is basically good old news journalism” (p. 735). David Domingo and his colleagues (2008) performed a similar content analysis of European and American news sites and discovered that “core journalistic culture [has] remained largely unchanged” (p. 339). Ditto for Wilson Lowrey’s (2011) analysis of American newspaper websites. “Statis,” he writes, “rather than innovation seems the primary tendency for these newspapers” (p. 75). Introducing the findings of several studies included in a special issue of Gazette, Richard van der Wurff (2005) writes that “online newspapers [remain] subordinate and subservient to print newspapers” (p. 107).

The upshot seems to be this: even today, journalists rely on the same sources, especially government agencies, as principal sources of news. Their definitions of news and newsworthiness, e.g., immediacy, impact, uniqueness, human interest, and the like – which have been taught in introduction to journalism classes for decades – remain essentially in place. And their role conceptions still revolve around longstanding values like objectivity, facticity, balance, and neutrality. Again, this is not to say that nothing has changed in journalism. News writing today is more informal and conversational than in the past, and more likely to incorporate multimedia elements. But these are changes more of style than of substance. The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that, at least as practiced by metro daily newspapers, online journalism looks very similar to its print counterpart. Consequently, if it (probably) does not die, journalism will likely be greatly diminished in the next decade or two. The evidence for this is already apparent, in the demise of several prominent metro dailies, in slimmer yet costlier newspapers, in newspapers not delivered every day, in the move to online-only news.

The fact that newspapers have not adapted well is relatively easy to demonstrate. Explaining why is more difficult, and will take up most of the chapters that follow. Briefly, however, in my observation the major impediments to change arise from within the culture of journalism. This is a large term – the “culture of journalism.” Fortunately, sociologists have been analyzing it since David Manning White’s (1964) gatekeeper study. For more than half a century, they have argued over its origins and growth over the twentieth century. They have examined many of its elements, and sorted through how these elements are produced and reproduced in newsrooms. And they have sought to understand how journalists are implicated in this culture. This literature has not addressed everything we might ask of the culture of journalism, but a great deal of good work has been accomplished – enough, I think, to help flesh out a cultural explanation for why journalists have found it so difficult to adapt.

In the rest of this introduction, I want to place the culture of journalism in this broad intellectual context, a discussion that will set the stage for the more specific analyses to follow.

Let me first deal, however, with a preliminary issue, namely the definition of my object of study. Throughout this book you will see me throw the words “journalist” and “journalism” around. When I use them, I mean “journalists who work for metro daily newspapers.” Newspaper journalism, especially the journalism practiced at midsized and larger metro daily newspapers, is my focus. Partly I use the contraction for reasons of efficiency. Writing (and reading) “journalists who work for metro daily newspapers” over and over would be tedious and cumbersome. But there is also a substantive reason to conflate the two, one that the words’ etymologies reveal. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the origin of the word “news” (“a report or account of recent events or occurrences”) is very old, stretching back to the fourteenth century. Usage of “news” to mean “new things” goes back even further, to the mid-900s. In contrast, the first use of the word “journalist” (“one who earns a living by writing a public journal”) in the English language occurs in the early 1600s, about the time that pamphleteers first arrived on the scene. And the word “journalism” (“the occupation of a journalist”) does not make its debut until the 1830s. It is used initially to refer to the French and English “grub street,” and to the American “penny press” – the earliest ancestors of modern commercial news organizations. This is no accident. People coined a new word when they encountered a new organizational form: the commercial newspaper.

I take these etymologies to mean the following. The conflation of the word “journalist” with “people who work for metro daily newspapers” is reasonable because these people were the first to practice “journalism.” That being said, it will not do to equate “journalism” with the news, or to imply that all reporters practice their craft within journalism. As I say, today one often hears people claim “there has always been news.” The implication is that there must also always be journalism. But the news is not the same thing as journalism. There has always been news, but journalists have not always delivered it, and, in the four hundred years they have delivered it, they have not always done so within journalism. Indeed, the fact that journalists working for commercial news organizations dominate news production is a relatively new phenomenon. If there was a time before journalists produced news within journalism, then, logically, there may also be a time after this is the case. Or, put another way, the news may be inevitable, but journalism isn’t.

The Challenge

With these preliminaries out of the way, we might now ask what threatens journalism so much that we are contemplating a future without it. Many observers point to the Internet, or to “new communication technologies,” as the culprit.2 According to Yochai Benkler (2006), for example, the Internet is terribly disruptive to journalism – and all mass media – because it threatens journalism’s role as a primary filter of public information. This “is the core characteristic of mass media,” Benkler writes: “Content is produced prior to transmission in a relatively small number of centers, and when finished is then transmitted to a mass audience, which consumes it” (2006, p. 209). Online, in contrast, everyone is ostensibly a “user” – a consumer and a producer of information. As users, we “are substantially more engaged participants, both in defining the terms of [our] productive activity and in defining what [we] consume and how [we] consume it” (ibid., p. 138). This is a simple but profound point. The Internet gives individuals much more control over their information environment, and correspondingly dilutes the control of professional journalists.

Part of the challenge to journalism lies just in this fact: that individuals have more choice online. They have more freedom to avoid the filter imposed by professional journalists on the information they receive and, if they choose to do so, to create and distribute their own information. One way journalists sometimes deflect this fact is to say that much of the culture produced by amateurs is, in a word, bad. They are, of course, right. Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon even coined a law to this effect: “ninety percent of everything,” he famously said, “is crud.” Most people, including people producing news, have little talent for it. But another law – the law of large numbers – shows that this does not matter. Today, about a billion people (according to the website Internet World States, over 500 billion of them English speakers) have access to the Internet, and this number will only grow in the future. Suppose that only 1 percent of these people have any talent for cultural production. They write well, or have a nice visual eye, or know a lot about a particular subject. One percent of 1 billion is 10 million people. Each of these individuals possesses as much talent as the average journalist, and together they surpass the number of professionals by a large margin. Even if most of online content is “crud,” in absolute terms a large amount – an amount far larger in the aggregate than what is produced by professionals – will be very good. Not only do people have more choice online, then, they also have more choices.

In recent years, researchers have been hard at work analyzing how people exercise their newfound freedom online. They have discovered that people do not choose to interact with others in a random way. Rather, they tend to congregate in “small worlds” (e.g., Barabási, 2002; Ferguson, 2002; Schnettler, 2009). A small world is a network structure characterized by dense clusters of individuals linked together via bridges or connectors. Within these dense clusters, individuals go on with their virtual lives much as they do in their real ones: they interact with people who are familiar, or with whom they share a common interest. Indeed, one way of thinking about the Internet is that it amplifies people’s social tendency to interact with others like them, and brings this tendency to scale. This is not to say that people completely insulate themselves from one another online. Much as in real life, they remain linked to other clusters of people through the activities of bridges – individuals who have links to more than one dense cluster. Dense clusters plus these bridges equal small worlds. Scientists have shown that this structure combines durability with efficiency, which may be why it has been duplicated in a great variety of settings – from the human brain, to ant colonies, to electrical grids. At any moment, an individual in a small world can feel the intimacy of dense interactions with familiar others, and yet remain separated from any other individual in a system by as few as six steps (hence, the famous “six degrees of separation” associated with small worlds).

Researchers have learned a few other things about the small worlds we inhabit online. They know, for example, that the distribution of links within small worlds tends to be skewed toward highly active, popular individuals. Why this should be the case is easy to demonstrate. Suppose that there are three individuals, whom we will call “A,” “B,” and “C.” Further suppose that “A” and “B” are linked together, and “A” and “C” are linked together. If a new individual “D” were to enter this network, with whom is she most likely to link? The answer is clearly “A,” because “A” gives “D” access to both “B” and “C.” Now suppose that “E” enters the scene. Given that “A” provides access to every other individual in the network, “E” is even more likely to link to “A.” By this logic, “A” is likely to become ever more popular. This phenomenon, called a “power law,” produces a situation in which, the more popular a node is in a network at T0, the more popular it is likely to be at T1 the likelier still at T2, and so on. It produces, in other words, “hubs” – individuals with far more ties than the average person in a network.

Hubs play a special role in small worlds. In fact, their role is so special it makes them utterly unlike anyone else in their clusters of intimates. To demonstrate this point, scientists often turn to the example of height. To find the average height of people in a given population, you simply add the height of all individuals and divide by the number of people. The result gives you a bell curve, with roughly half of the people falling on one side, and half on the other. The average height lies in the middle. Power-law distributions work in a very different way. Because they describe relations between individuals, power laws allow a few people to accrue most of a trait characteristic of a system, leaving everyone else with little of the trait. In the instance of height, a power-law distribution means that most individuals are very short, and a few individuals are very tall.

In the case of online hubs, a power-law distribution creates a situation in which a few highly passionate, highly interested, highly knowledgeable individuals do most of the work of online communication. Hubs are most likely to post content, most likely to engage in collaborations, most likely to link to others and to be linked to. We can be even more precise: about 20 percent of online users (hubs) perform as much as 80 percent of the work. This “80/20 rule,” as it is called, is very nearly an iron law of online interaction. If an online community forms around baseball, most of its members will be a little interested in baseball, and a very few members will be highly interested. If an online community forms around a neighborhood, most of its members will be a little interested in the neighborhood and a few people will be highly passionate. And as much as 80 percent of the interaction that takes place in these online communities will be accomplished by the 20 percent who are most interested, most passionate, and most knowledgeable. This can seem unfair. Why should 20 percent of a community’s members be responsible for producing the bulk of its activity? In fact, however, this division of labor is key to a small world’s success. The willingness of highly active people to do most of a cluster’s work makes it possible for everyone else to contribute a little bit. Absent this willingness, online clusters quickly dissipate.

Its structure of nodes, links, hubs, and bridges allows us to see a different aspect of the Internet’s challenge to journalism. Imagine for a moment that you are a professional journalist wishing to reach an audience with the news. In a mass-mediated system, you might accomplish this goal in one of two ways. On television, you might broadcast the news to everyone (and therefore to no one in particular), hoping through brute force to catch the attention of a mass audience. Alternatively, in a newspaper, you might compile a large number of news items, with the hope of aggregating an audience by making each item very interesting to a few people. The small-worlds structure of the Internet dramatically alters this situation. Online, individuals have more choice about which information they receive, and more of this information will come from people with whom they have a personal connection or share a common interest (from someone within the clusters they inhabit). As a journalist, you stand outside these clusters of activity. How will you get inside? The answer is obvious. The most efficient way to access a cluster is to appeal to its hubs. They are the only individuals with a great number of links to others in the cluster. Recall that, in a system privileging personal interest and choice, people become hubs because they show more interest or have more passion than the average member of a cluster. If an online group forms around kayaking, for example, its hub will very likely be someone who is very passionate or has a lot of knowledge about this subject. Others link to this passionate person because she represents a “one-stop shop” for all things kayaking.

So, to get inside online clusters, you need to attract the attention of a hub. How will you do so? Well, if hubs tend to be very passionate and/or knowledgeable, then they are likely to respond to you only if you are similarly passionate and knowledgeable. In the small-world, power-law distributed structure of the web, hubs are far more likely to respond to people like themselves – people similarly passionate and knowledgeable about particular subjects. The web, in other words, rewards passion and expertise.

The problem for professional journalism is that, since the 1920s, it has been grounded in ideals of detachment, independence, and objectivity. Journalists in the profession distinguish themselves precisely by their unwillingness to get too involved. Some political journalists even go so far as to refrain from voting, for fear that their subjective choices will interfere with their objective reporting. Online, this simply will not do. It will not do to feign disinterest when trying to reach people who are anything but. It will not do to write for everyone and therefore to no one when individuals prefer to interact with very particular someones: people they know and people they trust. Achieving success online requires journalists to dispense with the very value that has sustained professional journalism for nearly a century, namely, objectivity. This is what journalists are up against. If journalists wish to survive in the densely clustered world of online interaction, they will have to make personal, even intimate, connections with others. They will have to learn to love (read: be passionate about) the issues they cover – and to love the communities of people with whom they interact – more than they love their professional identity.

To summarize: online, individuals have more freedom to choose and more options from which to choose, and this has dislodged journalism from its role as a primary filter of public information. Also, when exercising their choice, individuals tend to cluster with like-minded others, much as they do in their daily social interactions. The links within these clusters are skewed toward highly popular individuals – what scientists call “hubs.” These hubs are the most active, knowledgeable, and passionate individuals within online clusters. To have a chance of online success, journalists need to exude the same level of knowledge, passion, and interest as the hubs that stand between them and everyone else in a cluster. Success online requires that journalists, far from being disinterested observers, should be interested and active participants – and this requirement challenges a core aspect of journalistic culture.

The Culture of Journalism

As I have framed the issue, the challenge to journalism posed by the Internet is not, at bottom, technological or economic; it is ontological. It goes to the heart of what journalism is, what journalists do, and why they do it. It is a challenge, in other words, to the culture of journalism. And it is here that we will find the root of the profession’s inability to change. To see how this is so, it is helpful to learn a few things about this culture: its origins and history, its composition, how it works, and how journalists are enmeshed within it.

Literary scholar Raymond Williams (1976) once called “culture” one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language (p. 87). It derives from the Latin root “cultis,” meaning “to make things grow,” as in “to cultivate.” When I think of the culture of journalism, this is precisely how I see it: the symbols that have grown up within and around journalism to define it as a distinctive social field. No one has ever catalogued – if it were possible – all of the symbols that compose the culture of journalism. Generally, though, they take one of three forms: of principles, like “cover the story but do not become the story”; of shared norms like “objectivity,” which any two journalists may define differently but all share as a common reference; or of practices, like the practice of verifying information. The culture of journalism acts as a kind of gravitational force for journalists, pulling them together enough so that they are more similar to one another than they are to members of any other occupation.

The first thing to say about this culture is that it is relatively new. Many of its elements have long histories. When the first news beat was organized is unknown, but James Gordon Bennett created a beat of a kind in Washington, DC, as early as the 1820s. The definition of news as “human interest” dates back at least to the 1830s (e.g., Hughes, 1940; Schudson, 1978). Norms associated with objectivity – detachment, independence, balance, and the like – stretch back to the same period (e.g., Kaplan, 2002; Mindich, 1998; Schiller, 1981). The first news interviews took place in the 1860s (e.g., Schudson, 1995a). However, these elements did not coalesce into a distinctive culture until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Before that time, people who produced news saw themselves as engaged primarily in some other activity. In colonial America, for instance, most journalists were first and foremost printers, and referred to themselves as such (e.g., Botein, 1975; Pasley, 2001). During the nineteenth century most newspapers were appendages of the political party system, and most journalists were party hacks (e.g., McGerr, 1986; Schudson, 1998; Smith, 1977). The first commercial newspapers, the “penny press,” may have been introduced in the 1830s, but their proprietors were nothing like modern journalists. Many retained direct or indirect connections to the political parties. Those that did not considered themselves businessmen first and journalists a distant second. While they may have sold newspapers out the front door, for example, they often sold dry goods out the back. In keeping with the amorphous nature of journalism, through these years news could come from virtually anywhere and be circulated by just about anyone. It was not uncommon for a mid-nineteenth-century news proprietor to get the news from a traveler just off a train, and to print it as such: “So and so just arrived from Boston and tells us . . .” Through much of the nineteenth century, there were few boundaries between practicing journalism and doing other things.

This began to change in the post-Civil War period. Over a period of decades, several social trends began to converge. Liberal political reformers in the North – many of them newspaper editors – campaigned against the political parties and the partisan press. The professions (law, medicine, the academy, etc.) emerged around the same time. Corporations also grew larger. As a national market developed, these corporations began to see mass media, including large urban newspapers, as vehicles for marketing their products on a national scale. In turn, owners of urban newspapers saw new commercial advantages in satisfying this corporate need. New printing technologies invented in the 1880s gave publishers the ability to reach a mass audience on a daily basis. And then, in the aftermath of the 1896 presidential election, the third-party system dissolved, and newspapers suddenly found themselves freed from public culture to which they had been attached since the 1830s.

This freedom presented newspapers with new opportunities but also a slew of new problems. Commercial newspapers signed contracts with advertisers to print their ads daily. Now that they were no longer tied to the political parties, where were they going to find enough information to wrap around these ads every day? Another problem was that this information had to be cheap. Commercial newspapers were, by definition, profit-seeking enterprises. It would do them no good to find costly sources of information when what they needed was cheap information. The answer to each of these problems was to position reporters at the only locations in society that produced information reliably and at little cost: government agencies. City hall, the statehouse, the courthouse, the police department, and other government agencies came to form core news “beats” of modern newspapers because they gave newspapers ready access to low-cost information.

In solving these problems, however, these government beats raised another: the problem of credibility. With the political parties weakened, journalists became primary filters of the information that circulated between officials and citizens. But no one elected them to play this role. What gave journalists the right to determine which information the public received and how that information was to be framed? Except for a vague reference in the First Amendment to the freedom of the press, journalism plays no formal role in government. Yet there they found themselves, stationed at government agencies, front and center in the hurly-burly of politics. How could journalists fend off the accusation that they favored politicians over citizens, or one politician over another, or one government department over another?

This is the question sociologist Gaye Tuchman (1972) asked herself when she began visiting newsrooms in the mid-1960s. “The newsmen,” she famously discovered, “cope with these pressures by emphasizing ‘objectivity,’ arguing that dangers can be minimized if newsmen follow strategies of newswork which they identify with ‘objective stories’” (p. 664). These strategies include sticking to facts, balancing opposing points of view, attributing significant facts to external sources, and relying on familiar writing formulas, like the inverted pyramid style of writing leads. If these practices did not precisely solve journalists’ credibility problem – people have never stopped complaining that journalists are biased – they did allow them to manage it. By adopting “objective” news practices, journalists secured their new role in public life, to say, in effect, “we are rightfully filters of public information because, unlike anyone else, we strive to be objective, independent, detached, and balanced.”

Here, then, seem to be the origins of modern journalistic culture. When newspapers were freed from the party system, they faced new problems. Different newspapers adopted different solutions to these problems, and some of the solutions seemed to work better than others. Newspapers copied the success of other newspapers – a process social scientists refer to as “isomorphism.” Entrepreneurs took practices that worked in one newsroom and transplanted them to other newsrooms. Professional associations and journalism schools began to teach the “best practices.” Once the first steps were taken