Efforts to professionalize journalism began early in the twentieth century as a response to the hyper commercialization of newspapers and the “anything goes” approach to news that emerged in the late nineteenth century as a means of increasing street sales through sensationalism, twisting the truth, and outright lies.
The impetus for journalistic professionalism originated among publishers who wish to counter the trend and it gained support of journalists who saw it as a means of improving their working conditions and social standing. Journalism training and higher education programs, professional societies for journalists and editors, and codes of ethics and conduct emerged as part of professionalism. These promoted the core values of accuracy, fairness, completeness, and the pursuit of truth.
These efforts improved industry practices, pushed out the worst journalists and publishers, and creating some trust in the content of news. They also created environments in which advertisers were willing to promote their wares in newspapers and made news organizations more financially sustainable.
This is where journalistic professionalism took a wrong turn, however.
It did so in two ways. First, professional journalists were taught and accepted the idea that they should worry about the journalism and leave the business to itself. Second, journalists, along with other employees, decided to seek improvement to their compensation and working conditions through unionization—thus becoming adversaries of management rather than partners in the management of news organizations.
Both developments clearly improved journalism and lives of journalists; however, they also separated journalists from business decisions and removed them from any responsibility for the organization’s actions and sustainability.
Although some protests over editorial interference, owner avarice, and the corporatization of the news industry were heard in the 20th century, few efforts to alter the situation developed because the enterprises were willing to share a sufficient portion of the riches generated with journalists and because companies employed more journalists, improved newsrooms, built networks of bureaus, and provided resources to undertake interesting reporting activities.
That has all changed. The reporting resources are gone, the networks of bureaus are being dismantled, many enterprises can’t afford their own facilities, and journalists are being widely laid off. All of this is being done with little input and influence from journalists and editors precisely because they spent nearly a century denying responsibility and involvement in business decisions.
Today, many journalists are arguing for the creation of new types of news organizations—primarily not-for-profit enterprises—and they are repeating the same mistake. Most are suggesting, or already setting up, organizations in which journalists still have little say on strategy and business matters. Many are content merely with the idea that the new enterprises won’t be profit driven. That, however, is not enough.
Journalists need to be equally responsible in ensuring they produce news and information that has value. They need to be responsible for ensuring their new organizations create the revenues and organizational strength needed to carry out high quality journalism. They need to ensure that organizational decisions make the organizations and the journalism offered viable.
If journalists continue to deny responsibility for the operation and survival of their news enterprises, it will be impossible to create sustainable news organizations for the future.