The First Forty Years


Yesterday was one of those milestone personal anniversaries that leads to a little retrospective reflection. It was 40 years ago -- July 13, 1951 -- that I started working, as a reporter just out of journalism school, for a newspaper, a small daily in the South. Taking care not to become mawkish or lachrymose as often is the custom of journalists, I will share some of those reflections.

The changes that have come in journalism in those four decades could fill volumes, and in fact volumes have been written. But it seems to me that the changes I have observed fall broadly into two categories: the technology of journalism, and the substance. At times the two converge.

It can scarcely be doubted that there has been more technological change in the 40 years in which I have worked in newspapers than in the 500 years between the time that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and the time I started work.

When I began, an article such as this one would have been cast into type from molten metal. This meant that newspapers had to maintain large, highly skilled work forces in the composing rooms that were more costly to operate than the newsrooms.

Starting in the 1960s computers invaded newspapers in a big way, so that today I can, with a single keystroke, set this article in type a hundred times more quickly, and at one-hundredth the cost of setting the same column in hot metal type. The composing room has all but ceased to exist in the 1,626 daily newspapers now published in the United States, and no doubt will vanish entirely before the end of the century.

In practical terms, this means that newspapers can now devote far more of their resources to the gathering and editing of information than in processing it. Whereas the old method required for one reporter in the field gathering news and one compositor in the plant to set it into type, we can now put two people in the field to get stories.

This phase of the technological revolution is about over, but there's far more to come as we complete the convergence of computer technology and information technology. The day will come -- it may be in 10 years, 20 years or 40 years, but it will come -- when newspapers will no longer be printed on presses and delivered by trucks. They will not be printed at all; instead, the news will be delivered by telephone line on computer screens. The implications of this development are too vast to discuss in this short a space, but they are enormous.

The other major change which I have witnessed lies in the content and quality of newspapers. For all the nostalgia celebrated in Russell Baker's splendid little memoir, "The Good Times," which chronicled his newspaper career at The Sun in the 1950s, I know that he would agree that newspapers today are better then they were 40 years ago. They offer a greater range and scope of information, and stories are better written by better trained reporters who bring a healthy skepticism, but not cynicism, to their craft.

I say "craft" because I have trouble with classifying journalism as a "profession." The reason is simply that a profession, like law or medicine or even cosmetology, requires a license to practice, and an enforceable code of ethics, the breach of which can result in loss of license to practice. The First Amendment to the Constitution would never permit that kind of regulation of journalists.

And this is a continuing source of trouble. Through practice an precedent, we have developed, a pretty fair body of ethical standards in journalism; you wouldn't find a respectable journalist these days, for example, taking free movie passes, as I did as an established "fringe benefit" of the job when I reviewed movies as a sideline to my regular job as a reporter. Even if conscience would not now constrain us, there are excellent journalism reviews, such as the Washington Journalism Review published by the University of Maryland College of Journalism, which would quickly blow the whistle on miscreants.

But the problem is, no matter how scrupulously good newspapers may enforce standards, there will always be the scoundrels and opportunists who will live by their own ethics, or lack thereof. I guess the late Alan Barth of the Washington Post got it right when he remarked that if you're going to have a watchdog, you must be prepared to put up with a little extraneous barking.

So on this first day of the second 40 years, I can say with confidence that I look forward to continued improvement in journalism. I say that because each day I look at the talent, skill and commitment so abundantly evident among the young journalists. If you doubt that, just read any byline in the paper other than this one today. I'm glad I don't have to compete with these kids.

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