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Aug. 8, 2013, 1 p.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “News for All: America’s Coming of Age with the Press” by Thomas Leonard (1995)

“What was different was the spectacle of the whole public, not just a few, editing what was published. Also, the editor’s desk did not look the same when the reader sat at it.”

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.

News for All: America’s Coming of Age with the Press by Thomas C. Leonard

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In News for All, Thomas Leonard takes a look at America’s “love-hate relationship” with the news, going back to the habits of colonists in 18th century taverns. By the time he gets to the 1980s and ’90s, he focuses on the debates surrounding the personalization of news from services like AOL and CompuServe and then newspaper “audiotex.”

“Americans were safe from a narcissistic daily paper arriving on the front porch in the twentieth century. But the electronic off-shoots of the newspaper were a different reminder,” Leonard wrote — a reminder that simply being able to access articles without a printed page was considered by some to be the death knell of the editor.

Leonard’s example of choice for this push toward serving niche audiences is Pig Life magazine, which was supposed to make money for its media conglomerate owner by using subscriber lists to hold conferences and exhibitions. That’s an idea we’ve heard once or twice since then.

Media companies have wagered huge sums that text would someday be delivered on portable, interactive screens that would complete the dream of customization (with appropriate bills). At the Media Lab of MIT the name for this future edition is “The Daily Me.” This new age, if it was dawning, was really a return to the forgotten day when scrapbook makers checked their cosmic bank balance and entrepreneurs ordered their clippings on rats, lighting rods, and jails. What was different was the spectacle of the whole public, not just a few, editing what was published. Also, the editor’s desk did not look the same when the reader sat at it.

Many editors were not pleased by the specter of readers ordering up the news. Katherine Fanning, who has edited dailies in Alaska and Massachusetts, believes that “there is a point at which there is information people should have, even if they don’t know they want it and even if they don’t tell you they want it.” Ray Cave, managing editor of Time, said in 1987: “I hate reader surveys, and may be the only editor alive who has never attended a focus group.” This is indeed an eccentric view at the end of the twentieth century. Shouts that the reader is always right come form the center of business thinking in journalism. “Know Thy Reader,” managers plead: “There’s no reason not to give readers what they want — even if it means diverging from tradition.” Up-to-date editors of metropolitan papers, even in monopoly markets, told the profession that “the surest way to editorial failure is to impose upon readers our own sense of what they ought to know.” That rising force in the American press, Rupert Murdoch, has tackled electronic publishing with the determination “to put the ‘me’ back in media”…

If the past is a guide, some editors will have the last laugh over such marketing wisdom. The value of a point of view and a genius to organize information has never before been diminished by changes in technology or merchandising. These were skills that grew in the nineteenth century, uniting Americans with news in print. The explosive growth in information through new media can only increase the value of perceptive judgments for more people. What is likely to fade is the value of a pedestrian ordering of facts and ideas. Readers can now assemble these things for themselves with less help from professionals. With everyone his own editor, her own editor, journalists have to prove, all over again, that they know their job.

POSTED     Aug. 8, 2013, 1 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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