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Aug. 5, 2013, 10 a.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “Late City Edition” by Joseph Herzberg (1947)

“There are those in this dawn of the Buck Rogers era who maintain that the newspaper is on the way to join such institutions as the bustle and the five-cent beer.”

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.

Late City Edition, by Joseph G. Herzberg and members of the New York Herald Tribune staff

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The 29 chapters of Late City Edition examine every facet of a 1940s newsroom in turn, from “Police Reporter” to “Girl Reporter” to “Putting the Newspaper Together.” Its final chapter is titled “What Next?” and written by Fitzhugh Turner, the Middle East correspondent-turned-diplomatic correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune.

He speaks to the anxieties of newspaper publishers when faced with competition from new distribution methods — here, television and radio. By the time Turner was writing this, some shifts had already become apparent: world-shattering events were trumpeted by radio announcers, not by the headlines on extras, and newspapers were forced to think more and more about context and interpretation when a story would be a day old by the time it reached the printed page the next day.

How to translate those shifts into revenue was less clear — a reminder that the news industry has been fretting over competition for advertising dollars for a long time, and that resistance to change didn’t begin with the advent of the Internet.

There are also some lessons in here for publishers fond of slash-and-burn tactics to reach profitability: “Suffice it to say here that the publisher or broadcaster willing to corner the market and peddle a second-rate product is assuring himself only of eventual demise,” he wrote.

There are those in this dawn of the Buck Rogers era who maintain that the newspaper is on the way to join such institutions as the bustle and the five-cent beer — that the printed page is doomed by the approach of television, facsimile broadcasting, and heaven only knows what else. Maybe so, but the day that Mr. John Citizen runs an antenna out of his collar, swallows a pill, and subconsciously absorbs the news is probably some time off. Nobody now in the newspaper business expects the profession to blow up in his face during his lifetime.

The prospect, rather, is that technological developments, while they will change newspapers, will stimulate, not supplant them. Evidence to support this outlook can be found in the industry’s recent rather embarrassing experience with radio. As a preface to a discussion of the future, it might be well to give this experience brief examination.

Back in the 1920s, viewers-with-alarm, heeding the first broadcasts of news events, looked into the future, and cried gloomily that this new thing, radio, some day was going to put them out of work. With the news available first hand and early, they argued, who was going to bother to read it second hand and late?

Anxiety at first was confined largely to editorial departments, but with the depression years it moved into business offices. Hard-pressed publishers, accustomed to viewing the news as something much like personal property, began to give way to jealousy of the growing slice radio was cutting from the advertising dollar. As a result, many newspapers banned radio publicity, and some even refused to publish bare program listings, probably on the theory that if they pretended radio wasn’t there, it might go away.

POSTED     Aug. 5, 2013, 10 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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