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.


@awallenstein said...

While I agree that the current state of journalism was helped along by the blissful ignorance journalists imposed upon themselves in the financial department, that ignorance was necessary self-protection. To uphold the "neither fear nor favor" principles that separates good, financially viable journalism from crap requires divorcing editorial operations from the levers of power that influence journalism's primary revenue generator: advertising. How can a journalist both produce fair news AND induce advertising from the very parties that may be disadvantaged by that fair news? They cannot.

Richard Thompson said...

Good post. We can perhaps agree to disagree whether establishing a degree of professionalism contributed to the current state because journalists haven't had a voice in business decisions. Along that line, I believe the number crunchers simply misread what was happening and plunged us all into the abyss.

On the other hand, I do believe that new media will require a all-hands on deck approach where editorial staffs must play a key role in producing content that is replicable and potentially profitable across multiple platforms, not just print or a corporate Website.

Robert G. Picard said...

The point is that journalists by not engaging allowed the number cruchers to take over and run things into the ground.

Joe Rotger said...

I don't agree.

The technological seismic shift has been way too big to even comprehend —there are too many angles affecting the news organization model at the same time.

The cannibalization of smaller markets by news agencies and larger peers that flood their free content into the old geographic territories, now extinct, advertising revenue drops to 10% in online news outlets, Google news, context ads... give an idea of the problems periodicals face.

socsavvy said...

Interesting post, but I disagree with the suggestion that unionization was a "wrong turn." How else were/are employees to fight for better working conditions? Isn't it possible--even expected--for unions to aid in such negotiations? Perhaps the key point underlying all of this is the infatuation with an extreme for-profit model in the first place. (I say "extreme" because there is a difference between sustainable profit and the kind expected in today's capitalism.)

More broadly, maybe I'm just picking on the second "wrong turn" you point toward. If "professional journalists" didn't take that first turn away from running management, then they would have likely avoided the second fork in the road. In essence, it seems that both issues I raise point toward co-ops rather than corporations.

Robert G. Picard said...

Unionization itself wasn't the wrong turn. The wrong turn was allowing companies to develop without managerial participation--something that probably would have made unionization unnecessary. Once unionized, journalists typically only negotiated only salaries, benefits, and a very small part of their working conditions. This gave managers the ability to control the strategic, tactical, and financial choices in the company.

Advanced Editing Spring 2009 said...

The comments other people are leaving are only serving to support your argument Robert. Journalism is either a business (in which I get paid for my writing) or a charity (in which I give my writing away), and I for one refuse to give my services away. The sustainable answer is that we need to develop business models for every publication that come down to one simple formula.
That formula is: Deliver a well-crafted, valuable message to a well-defined audience.
Whether you are in news or in advertising, that formula is all that it takes. (I said simple, I didn't say easy.)
Unfortunately, we leave the decisions of which message and what audience to the managers. Too many journalists feel that if they get involved in those decisions, they are somehow tainted by money. But, as you said, that is how we got ourselves into this mess.

Well said.

Centennial College said...


I think Journalist's role is very important in Communication or Media industry. They provide us latest world news. Sometimes they provide latest news within a second.

Communication Program

news said...

I agree with much of what Mr. Picard has to say, but I also wonder if, as a business school professor, he has trouble seeing things from the other point of view from his academic ivory tower.
What happens when the newspapers' business side doesn't bother passing down any of the benefits it reaps because of the efforts of journalists like myself?
We are expected to do more, do it differently, and do it better so the company will benefit. But what benefits do the journalists derive from this? Not much that I can see - other than seeing editorial resources frozen or cut while at the same time those remaining are being told to do more.
I wonder what he would be saying if his business school employer started a slash and burn policy and told the remaining staff they had to double their teaching duties while their salaries and benefits were being frozen or cut?