U.S. journalism after the early 20th century was marked by remarkable and fast-paced technological developments, which fostered the conditions for significant industrial change. However, although change remained a constant during this time, there was also remarkable continuity. For example, many of the transformative new technologies that were introduced in the mid to late 20th century resulted in journalism that, at least initially, looked an awful lot like what was already available: Radio news initially had presenters reading newspapers; television news initially sounded just like radio news, but with images of the presenter before a desk and microphone; and news websites tried to mimic the newspaper format.
Nevertheless, these technologies would intersect with broader social, cultural, political, and economic shifts in the United States to produce different ways of not only thinking about journalism but also practicing it. Put another way, technology played a major role in spurring change, but it was its intersection with broader phenomena that shaped the journalism we see today.
Regular evening radio broadcasts in the United States began in 1919, and they were mostly operated by small organizations at first. Radio content at the time primarily consisted of broadcasts of lectures, political speeches, and music. However, in 1926, the first major U.S. company dedicated to running a broadcast network was founded. It was called the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC.
By 1930, NBC was operating its first regular news program, a 15-minute weekday segment led by Lowell Thomas. At first, much of radio news consisted of presenters simply reading the major stories from the day’s newspapers. This resulted in a press-radio ‘war’ in which newspapers and news associations sued radio broadcasters to limit their ability to distribute news on the radio.
Those attempts were largely unsuccessful, and by 1935, wire services — organizations that focused on gathering news and licensing it to other organizations to publish — were becoming major content providers to radio programs. Increasingly, radio operators also began to develop their own news operations to differentiate themselves, and thus became competitors in their own right with newspapers.
As small newsrooms grew within radio stations, they also began to cultivate a distinct news communication style. Radio copy (news) was written with a distinct fluidity and tailored for the ear, unlike the newspaper copy that stations had previously relied upon. At first, radio news bulletins were usually just five minutes long and consisted of seven to 10 stories, each of which was rarely longer than 75 words, with the exception of the top story of the day.
News and commentary programs greatly expanded at the beginning of World War II. Technological advancements allowed radio reporters to bring the sound of war to listeners, and radio began to flourish as a news information source. Entertainment programs were frequently interrupted to bring news reports from various cities around the country and the globe. Some radio journalists and news presenters, such as Edward Murrow and William Shirer, became household names around the nation.
While radio created many new opportunities for journalists, it also allowed newsmakers to bypass journalists in ways that were not previously possible. Radio provided a means for elected leaders and other powerful actors to communicate directly with citizens, rather than to have their words interpreted and/or partially re-broadcasted by journalists. This was aptly illustrated by the so-called “fireside chats,” or radio addresses, that President Franklin Roosevelt held throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Roosevelt used the radio to communicate directly with Americans in order to calm national fears and promote support for his policies. The addresses, which would reach up to 58% of U.S. households, were credited with bolstering his popularity during that time.
By 1948, the invention of the transistor and its subsequent development for use in radio sets allowed radios to become even smaller and no longer dependent on a fixed electrical connection. This increased radio listening away from home, which became especially important with the proliferation of automobiles in the Post-War period. The development of FM radio technology would lead to a growing body of radio stations, including all-news radio stations and new formats for radio news. By the 1960s, National Public Radio, or NPR, would also be established as a network of noncommercial radio stations that were funded in part by listener donations and government subsidies.
Another major technological advancement was the television. One of the world’s first television stations (W2XB) began broadcasting in New York in 1928. However, regular TV newscasts would not begin in the United States until 1941, when CBS started airing 15-minute daily news programs. At the local level, stations initially hired employees who would simply be filmed as they read wire news copy — much like the early days of radio. However, stations would later go on to hire teams of reporters and videographers who would produce original content for broadcasters, and thereby make television news its own form.
NBC’s Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze is often considered to be the first major national TV newscast, and it began in 1949. (Camel, a cigarette company, was the sponsor of the program and thus had considerable influence on the show.) However, it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that television journalism exploded in popularity. This was due in part to the extraordinarily fast adoption of televisions in post-war America. In 1950, just 9% of households had a television set. By 1960, that number had grown to 87%. This was a truly remarkable pace for technological adoption, and television news capitalized on it.
Throughout the 1950s, the 16-millimeter camera gained widespread adoption and made TV news production more mobile. This not only magnified the value of immediacy in television news, but it also increased the need for television news to have compelling visuals. Put another way, stories that lacked compelling visuals became less likely to be featured in television broadcasts. Additionally, the 1950s saw the invention of the teleprompter, which allowed news presenters to look straight into the camera while reporting the news. This made viewers feel like they had a more personal connection with television journalists, especially in relation to the comparatively anonymous radio and newspaper reporters.
By the early 1960s, television was establishing itself as the primary source of news information for Americans. Televised newscasts were becoming immensely profitable, and both local and network newscasts were adopting longer formats between 30 minutes and one hour. Moreover, several critical events throughout that decade glued Americans to their televisions. One key event was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. An estimated 96% of American households tuned in for news coverage of that incident, which completely captivated many Americans for more than four days. That decade was also marked by vivid images of civil rights protests, the Vietnam War, and the Apollo moon landing. CBS’ Walter Cronkite had, by the 1960s, become one of the most trusted people in America, and his evening broadcasts would command extraordinarily large audiences for nearly two decades.
Starting in the late 1960s, television news outlets turned to news consultants to increase their viewership and commercial success. This led to the development of the eyewitness news style of reporting that is more action-oriented and visually appealing (e.g., by placing reporters outside of crime scenes or in the middle of a weather event). Moreover, television news transformed during this period to include more entertainment news, shorter sound bites, and reduced coverage of government and public affairs — things that news consultants believed would increase the appeal or profitability of news programs. In important ways, the commodification of news during the late 20th century was most acute in mainstream TV journalism.
Starting in the 1970s, nationally distributed television channels expanded in the United States via cable technology. The first 24-hour television news network was CNN (Cable News Network), which launched in 1980. Although CNN was commercially successful throughout the 1980s, it was not until the early 1990s that it distinguished itself and became a major player in the news industry.
CNN made war coverage an international viewing experience by broadcasting directly from Baghdad in 1991 as U.S. troops invaded the city during the Gulf War. CNN was not only able to provide live, around-the-clock coverage of the war, but it was also able to leverage satellite technology to reach audiences around the globe. CNN also helped pioneer portable satellite newsgathering equipment that allowed small reporting teams to report live under distressed conditions from many parts of the world.
CNN’s success was so great that it led to the coining of the term CNN effect to denote a phenomenon wherein 24-hour news networks had become so powerful that they could influence the political and economic climate. Scholars have since found that 24-hour news networks are particularly influential among policymakers and so-called political junkies that consume disproportionate amounts of political news. Critics have argued that 24-hour news networks promoted the needless dramatization of less-important news in order to make even the mundane seem riveting (and worthy of attention at all times of the day), and hyper-activated a culture of chasing episodic, breaking news. Such developments have been lamented in light of its disproportionate influence on the political class. Indeed, throughout the 1990s, the phrase “wag the dog” gained popularity, in part due to the episodic and increasingly pack-driven nature of mainstream TV news coverage. The phrase is intended to capture the phenomenon wherein individuals (mainly politicians) create a diversion from a politically damaging issue — as with a president launching a military strike, which will inevitably receive ample news coverage, in order to distract from allegations of impropriety.
CNN’s success also spawned more 24-hour news networks, including Fox News and MSNBC. Fox News, in particular, branded itself as a moderate (and later conservative) alternative to what it called “the liberal mainstream media.” Within a decade, Fox News would have the nation’s largest viewership of any cable network as it established itself as the centerpiece of conservative journalism. Fox News also helped popularize opinion news show formats that are more akin to entertainment than journalism. (Fox News has repeatedly defended itself in legal cases by arguing that key figures on such shows are entertainers providing opinions, and not journalists making factual claims.) Seeing Fox News’ success, MSNBC subsequently attempted to establish itself as a liberal alternative to Fox News, but with far less commercial success.
While the proliferation of satellite technology helped spread U.S. news channels to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and other parts of the world, it also made it easier for international outlets to distribute its journalism to global audiences. Among these are Japan-based NHK World, Qatar-based Al Jazeera English, and Turkey-based TRT World. As a result, non-Western perspectives on world issues have gained a wider audience in recent years.
Although it was initially developed in the 1960s, the Internet did not gain widespread adoption until the early 1990s. Internet access was at first quite slow, which largely limited websites to showing text and some images. Moreover, traditional journalistic outlets generally failed to see the internet as a transformative technology and were very slow to react. Newspaper websites were made to look very similar to the newspaper themselves, with the content placed online for free (even as that same content was charged for in print). Industry analysts attribute some of newspapers’ current financial challenges to their slow response to the development of the Internet — though other missteps and societal shifts also played a part.
However, the Internet has challenged the foundations of journalism in ways few previous technologies had. First, it arguably democratized news production and distribution, enabling any person to create a micro news outlet without investing the vast sums of money required to start a newspaper or broadcast station. That, in turn, drastically increased competition and created a seemingly endless menu of consumer choices. Second, it upended the advertising market, giving advertisers more non-news options where they could reach audiences. It also allowed advertisers to reach audiences directly through the advertiser’s own websites and social media channels, thereby bypassing traditional media. Third, it made journalism interactive and even more instantaneous, altering audience expectations for when and how often news is published (including expectations for personalized, on-demand content). It also enabled shorter, incremental forms of news productions, such as live tweeting. Finally, it increased the distribution range for journalistic outlets, enabling local U.S. publications in Massachusetts to reach expats in Asia while enabling Asian publications to reach immigrants in Massachusetts.
In understanding the recent developments of journalism — and its major challenges — it is thus helpful to understand its historical trajectory. It took about two hundred years for the technology that facilitated the development of the modern newspaper to emerge. This allowed journalism to adapt more progressively to the country’s changing social and cultural character, and the resulting economic opportunities and challenges. In contrast, the past century has been marked by a much faster technological revolution that has significantly disrupted journalism’s economic underpinnings. As such, U.S. journalism is likely to reinvent itself again in the coming years, as it has in the past. What is certain, however, is that journalism’s future will be shaped in part by its long history, and may yet come to resemble aspects of its past.
Radio journalism began developing its unique traditions in the 1930s and became a major source of news for Americans during World War II. It was also one of the first technologies that allowed elected officials to bypass journalists when speaking to mass audiences.
Television journalism began developing its unique traditions in the 1940s, but it was not until the 1950s that it became a major news source for Americans. Today, most people in the U.S. get their news from local and national television broadcasts.
Twenty-four hour cable news networks were only established in the 1980s, but quickly entrenched themselves as major news sources in the 1990s. Today, Fox News is the most widely watched 24-hour cable news channel and is a major player within the conservative news ecosystem.
Journalistic outlets — and newspapers in particular — responded very slowly to the development of the Internet, which has since played a major role in disrupting the economics of commercial journalism in the U.S.