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Aug. 6, 2013, 10:45 a.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “Journalism Tomorrow” by Wesley C. Clark (1958)

“With improved methods of transmitting information, it may not be necessary to keep a man at police headquarters all day to write routine stories from the crumbs of information that come his way.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

Journalism Tomorrow by Wesley C. Clark

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Written in 1958 by the faculty of the Syracuse University School of Journalism in honor of the school’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Journalism Tomorrow looks through a long lens at the future of journalism. To do so is, as the forward explains, in the interest of the academic study of the media: “Its central and continuing interest is the broad foundation for the long-term needs of the future — the tomorrows not yet in sight. Thus there is a world of difference between a university classroom and on-the-job training. And the better the university, the greater the difference. It is not the business of a university to limit its vision to immediate goals.”

What Syracuse professors saw in the future was a very different media landscape than the one we currently inhabit, and brings to mind the creeping question of have things really changed that much after all? In the excerpt below, Professor Robert D. Murphy predicts that by 2000, daily newspapers will have had the sense knocked into them and abandoned the rush to break the news of the day before anyone else. Newspapers, Murphy hopes, will have become purveyors of analysis rather than just the facts, and will no longer preach that the latest is always best. He could still be right; analysis has grown steadily as a share of the traditional news media’s work.

Also of note is Murphy’s conditional: “if we have a democratic society in the year 2000.”

With improved methods of transmitting information, it may not be necessary to keep a man at police headquarters all day to write routine stories from the crumbs of information that come his way. Instead, the reporter’s talent may be used to perform the creative newsgathering which must be the rule if we have a democratic society in the year 2000.

This, then, will be one of the great changes in newspapers in 2000: editorial staffs will not ‘cover’ places to the extent they do in 1958. Instead they will keep asking, ‘What do people need to know?’ Then they will seek out the answers.

This will result in fewer stories in each day’s paper, but a more orderly development of each one. It will result, too, in fewer isolated bits of information out of context.

Closely tied in with this trend toward fewer stories, better developed, will be a different concept of timeliness. This change has been in the making since the turn of the century. In their lusty youth, some newspapers touted the ‘scoop’ and the ‘beat’ as their chef assets in the battle for high readership. Competition for the latest scraps of news rose to ridiculous heights in the Hearst-Pultizer battles of the 1890’s. This trend was on the way out, however, even before radio established itself as a superior purveyor of the latest tidbits of news.

The notion that the latest is the most newsworthy is so much a part of our newspaper tradition that it will probably survive long after the year 2000. To a certain extent, it is a valid concept. Certainly a newspaper exists to tell its readers what is new. History books and magazines can tell what happened last year or last week. Over emphasis on the latest, however, has sometimes resulted in the publication of newspapers full of relatively unimportant information about events of the preceding twenty-four hours while they ignored vastly more significant affairs simply because there were no last-minute overt events.

By the year 2000, newspapers will be wholeheartedly devoted to the idea that their job is something more than hurling at their readers the crazy quilt of surface events of the few hours before publication. They will strive to relate the events of yesterday and today into a meaningful pattern to help their readers make sensible preparation for tomorrow.

POSTED     Aug. 6, 2013, 10:45 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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