The Golden Age Of Journalism Never Was

News institutions face radical headwinds and collapsing business models. Not surprisingly, many are quick to cry foul over change while reminiscing about the good times past. "Kiss goodbye the golden age of journalism," the cliché goes. People and their livelihoods are in question, so that's a natural, if protectionist, reaction.

But was there ever a golden age of journalism? No. The very notion of a golden age is of journalism is, itself, inaccurate. I conclude that simply because I can't decipher why any one period over the past two centuries was significantly better or worse than any other. Different? Yes. Better or worse? No. Moreover, my own quick survey among several friends in the news business suggests that there is no consensus on any single period of greatness.

Perhaps the biggest reason there's no such thing as a golden age of journalism is that every period in our country's history holds its own meaningful share of bad and inaccurate journalism. This is explained well by Eric Burns, author of "All the News Unfit to Print," a catalog of journalistic misdeeds dating back to the American Revolution. He said in a recent interview with Brook Gladstone of On The Media: "There never was a golden age. From the very beginnings of journalism we've had people who, because of ideological bias, who, because of laziness, who, because of a lack of respect for the profession, did not care enough about their story to make sure that it was accurate."

Many argue that a world without legacy news institutions will do us harm by creating an environment that breeds inaccuracies. The absence of these institutions will threaten democracy and our American way of life. Valid claim? No, and Burns explains:  "One of the reasons that the republic is not imperiled by irresponsible journalism is that we have had such an explosion in journalistic outlets -- yes, we're losing newspapers but we're certainly gaining on the Internet -- that irresponsible journalism is going to be detected today more easily than it ever was before."

But won't many more independent news voices simply equate to far more erroneous coverage? Burns says: "So we have two things going in contrary directions at once. Because we have so many journalistic outlets, the odds are greater that we'll have erroneous coverage. Because we have so many journalistic outlets, the odds are greater that some of that coverage will point out the errors in some of the other coverage."

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution acknowledges freedom of speech and freedom of press - cornerstones of our democracy. While changes in the news business may be unpleasant in the near term, the cornerstones that many claim are at risk are actually being cultivated through more voices, more fact-checking and more open, intense debate.

Despite conventional wisdom, the Golden Age of Journalism is yet to come. What do you think?

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14 comments about "The Golden Age Of Journalism Never Was".
  1. Autom Tagsa from Canadian Consulting Firm , May 15, 2009 at 12:49 p.m.

    Interesting view.

    Yes, I believe that a new breed of journalism has been evolving since the visible advent of social media. It would be ideal to wish for this evolution to come to a state where it is indeed worthy of the term 'golden age'.

    Nice piece. 1 tiny 'Oops' - "The very notion of a golden age is of journalism is, itself, inaccurate." pls correct typo.

    Cheers! Autom

  2. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service , May 15, 2009 at 1 p.m.

    Max: One of the great things about your pieces is that they illustrate the things we all may be thinking but haven't really formulated into words. I've looked at the huge brown block building of the Columbus Dispatch for years wondering what on earth they could possibly need so many offices and so many employees for. And that's just the Dispatch.

    The unassailable ivory tower of 'journalism' is in the process of being engulfed by true freedom of the press; for the first time in human history the means to inform millions of other humans is in the reach of the average person. Newspaper, Radio and Television were not; the common people could only consume and never create communication on that kind of scale. Now every 13 year old kid with a decent phone can be the one to break massive, earthshattering news if he happens to be standing nearby when it happens.

    The crying, in my opinion, has everything to do with the collapse of the tower, rather than the collapse of journalism itself. It is as healthy as it has ever been; messy, yes, but when the coin of the realm is accuracy then the millions of interconnected reporters of the internet do a much better job than the dozens of interconnected reporters of half a century ago who had to share pay phones to get their stories in to the bureau.

    We don't decry the death of the payphone (unless we used to make money off of them). Newspapers now kill millions of trees to tell me nothing unique. Quaint that I can read them in the bathroom when a computer or phone are not so convenient, but is that now the sum total of the value of print media? That I can read it in the bathroom?

  3. Jeff Cole from JJC Communications LLC , May 15, 2009 at 1:02 p.m.

    I agree that there has been an explosion of information on the Internet.

    What worries me - as a former reporter - is that the people posting that information have no training. They don't know how to source, how to ask the right questions and what constitutes libel.

    Bloggers can get a lot wrong. There is no check or balance, no editor to ask questions about a story. Plus, newsrooms are always of ideas. Reporters trade ideas, critique each others copy and generally keep each other honest. You do not get that working alone.

  4. Adrienne Obrien from NYIT , May 15, 2009 at 1:20 p.m.

    Most readers of a blog on journalism probably saw journalism grow from print to both print and electronic. Definitions change with time. "Print" to some means ink on paper; "electronic" ...radio and TV. What remained the same, until now, was the origin was a single source and the dissemination massive. The Web has the potential of every receiver in the mass audience becoming the source.

  5. Steven Threndyle from media tent , May 15, 2009 at 1:23 p.m.

    Hmm, maybe the Golden Age of Journalism was - marketing spin coming up, here - 'back in the day' (2006, anyone?) when Sunday papers were crammed with entire sections devoted to real estate, cars, computers, cell phones and other high-ticket items, and newsprint prices were low. Newspapers were, in fact, so profitable that they become major media conglomerates. Unfortunately, those conglomerate - like Time/AOL-Warner - were funded on huge amounts of unsustainable debt. That is where many of the problems lie.

    Having just watched "Gonzo" on the life and times of Hunter S Thompson, there definitely was a golden age of magazine writing from the mid 60s to late 70s, when magazines were NOT glorified catalogues and 'service writing' - whatever the hell that is - did not exist.

  6. Mike Azzara from Content Marketing Partners , May 15, 2009 at 1:41 p.m.

    I'm a veteran newsman who, despite my fabulous youthfulness, remembers hot lead being molded in the back room into plates for the press. And every member of the Newhouse family (which owned the paper) had to learn every job, even plate making.

    As a trained professional reporter, it is crystal clear to me that your column is a bull's eye. Journalism, and its role in democracy, will be elevated by the new tools and may finally achieve its golden age. One major issue is that the ability to manipulate the press is diminished when there are so many more presses. But as a 51-year-old human being at the height of prowess in a defunct business, I sometimes whine myself to sleep at night wishing that the destruction had held off another decade or two.

    Then I tell myself what I'll tell any other whiners: suck it up. As the wise man (in this case, Bob Dylan) said, "He not busy being born is busy dying." Learn the new rules, invent the new rules if you can. Re-imagine yourself in that new context and then make it happen.

  7. Richard Monihan , May 15, 2009 at 2:14 p.m.

    More like there NEVER WILL BE a Golden Age of Journalism, for all the reasons you cited.

    The best you could say is that we're moving into a Golden Age of Published Opinion from a Golden Age of Manipulated Opinion. Not that the press has a terrific success record of manipulating opinion (save the last election), but there is no question the overwhelmingly well known and recognized papers and voices have pushed agendas relentlessly....sometimes to their embarrassment and detriment.
    Today, the fractured nature of news and opinion means that these agendas are usually laid bare and exposed for the scams of "journalism" they are - regardless of whether you agree or disagree with them.

    I haven't read a newspaper in print in over 3 years, and I'm not interested to do so, either. Most of them are garbage and have been for some time.

  8. John Fredette from Alcatel-Lucent , May 15, 2009 at 2:20 p.m.

    I remain concerned about the loss of professionalism in the profession of journalism. How are people going to get paid to do the work. Also, as has been said many places, entertainment is winning over serious reportage. I saw a special on PBS this week about Michelangelo that purported to be art history but was in fact, subpar scholarship masquerading as a real-life DaVinci Code story. On PBS!!! I read about the Scottish spinster songstress Susan Boyle three different times in the New York Times recently. Truth is sacred and it is not always entertaining. Some insititutions need to be dedicated to presenting the truth to the best of their ability but I don't see them.

  9. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields , May 15, 2009 at 2:47 p.m.

    The very term and discipline of 'journalism'
    may be replaced by the more succinct practice
    of 'reportage'. In time, more stories may be
    reported by 'vital witnesses' than 'professional
    reporters'.
    There have been pinnacle periods for various
    media sources, ergo the golden labels
    should be more media specific.

  10. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc. , May 15, 2009 at 5:16 p.m.

    I agree: There never was a "golden age" of journalism but don't know if there will ever be one.

    We need a revenue model, because to get good journalism, there have to be expense accounts for reporters to travel to where the news is and to have the equipment to capture words and images about it and to be able to transmit them. We also need to be able to pay skilled editors. Journalism without editors is very, very bad journalism.

  11. Bob Frumpe from Race Point , May 16, 2009 at 4:19 a.m.

    I'm not saying the situation is "un-golden" today. But look, it's easy to knock down the idea that there have been great ages of journalism through an argument that all along there have been instances of inaccuracy and imperfection. But that's like saying there is not a golden age of movies or actors because next to DeNiro and Pacino you have some really bad soap actors. It's a fallacious argument.
    A more historic look at journalism would show several golden ages of American journalism. Go back to the Civil War and the rise of wire services and the concept of objectivity. Chart the rise of the New York Times in the early 20th or the Wall Street Journal in the mid-20th. These were great, great surges of improvement and innovation. Check out the television and newspaper journalism of the civil rights movement. Sixty Minutes for more than two decades. Regionally, look at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which produced writers like Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down), Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights) and Richard Ben Cramer (What it Takes.) Look at the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1960's with Tom Wolfe and others. Again, I'm not knocking the new breed. It's going to be interesting. But golden ages happen when the right people circumstances and biz model converge.

  12. Robert Mayer from Just Good Songs Inc. , May 17, 2009 at 10 a.m.

    Its hard to read an article like this that is so biased against sitting down and reading a newspaper that is well put together and provides a range of relevant information. Of course there have been abuses in the past. Same with the banks, the drug companies, etc. But good reporting has done more to help this country retain some sort of ethical base than not. You can't cure everything with the internet. And being able to monetize good reporting, and being willing to sit down and read the reporting will remain critical to being informed citizens.

  13. Jon May from Time Warner Media Sales , May 18, 2009 at 8:22 a.m.

    There never was and never will be a "Golden Age" for two main reasons:

    1) Human beings are inherently INCAPABLE of being objective, no matter what they say. Subjectivity is unavoidable, since our experiences and thoughts permeate everything we do or say.
    2) Journalism is public expression. Those who are more prone to expression tend to be more prone to opinions abd feelings. They feel strong enough ABOUT their thoughts and opinions as to take the time to express them.
    Therefore, it is unavoidable that those opinions would not affect their writing.

    Simply put, there is no such thing as journalisitic integrity. Humans write to express their OWN integrity, not humanity's.

  14. Michael Strassman from Freelance , May 27, 2009 at 10:28 a.m.

    ok, so maybe there wasn't a golden age, but are things grim now, yeah, and here's why:

    1) the 'explosion' of independent news sources can't replace the sources/connections news organizations have built over decades (and access far outweighs the negatives cited by knee-jerk cynics, that the media is in bed w/ institutions...occasionally slanted reportage beats uninformed or non-existent coverage)

    2) People's attention spans continue to shrink, even as the complexity of issues across the board increases. Web-based reporting only accelerates this and usually trades depth for immediacy. The questionable skills of bloggers and other online writers doesn't help the situation.

    3) The vast resources of an established organization allows reporters the time and freedom necessary to investigate and understand complex issues, far more freedom than some guy in his apartment who needs to post 3 pieces a day on his blog to keep-up readership.

    4) The explosion of sources only makes it more difficult to find sources that are both reliable and well-reasoned. While trad'l outlets were guilty of drowning out independent voices, they filled an important role in terms of quality control.