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INTRODUCTION

It might seem presumptuous to write a book promising readers "what everyone needs to know about the news media" in the year 2016. After all, it seems to many outside observers that the last two decades have transformed the news from something solid and understandable to something amorphous, uncertain, and "postindustrial."[1] Journalism and "the news" used to be what journalists said it was, the story goes. It was created for recognizable news organizations with money generated by long-standing business models using traditional newsroom workflows. In the twenty-first century, on the other hand, everything seems up for grabs—how journalism gets produced, how it gets funded, what its public purpose is, and even what it is.

It is the contention of this book that, popular claims of indecipherability notwithstanding, there actually is a lot we know about the news media, and journalism. We know a great deal about journalism's past, for starters, and we know far more than we ever did before. The academic field of "journalism history" has grown by leaps and bounds in the past several decades and is now replete with its own specialty journals, conferences, and historical symposia. As the field of journalism history has grown, we have also learned that many of the profession's cherished myths, if not always entirely inaccurate, are far more complicated than they appear at first blush. This is not to say that journalism historians agree on everything, of course; like good academics, they constantly argue about a great many things related to the history of news. Nevertheless, it is one of the goals of this book to make leading historical scholarship available for and understandable by everyday curious readers.

We also, believe it or not, know a great deal about journalism today—and as a society we probably know more than seems immediately apparent. It is easy to look at newspaper companies teetering on the edge of insolvency, rapidly changing digital formats, and strategy memos from insurgent news organizations, and conclude that everything is unknowable and uncertain. But digital news, at this point, has been in existence for more than two decades and there has been a great deal of data and hard-earned wisdom accumulated along the way. There is more actual data available on news than ever before—just to name one example, the Pew "State of the News Media" reports have only been published since 2001 but have come out annually since then. And there is now a cluster of quasi-academic think tanks, ranging from the Reuters Institute at Oxford to the Tow Center at Columbia, producing a seemingly endless supply of reports for general, professional, and academic audiences that did not exist a decade ago. Beyond just data, however, there is a great deal of accumulated wisdom about journalism today. News industry professionals have actually learned a lot about their business in the past few years, and we hope to share some of that accumulated wisdom with you in the pages that follow.

We admit that we (along with everyone else) are on far shakier ground when it comes to the future of news, although there is perhaps no shame in this, given that future-prediction is usually the provenance of prophets and fortunetellers, not scholars. Even over the course of the writing of this book the authors saw new developments—such as the increased journalistic power of digital platforms like Facebook, or the massive leak of documents that became known as the Panama Papers and the unprecedented journalistic collaboration that helped publish them—become pressing issues in ways that we did not expect when we started our work. This should be a warning not to put too much trust in prognostication, no matter what the source. However, it would be a disservice to our curious readers to leave discussions of what we might reasonably expect to happen in journalism out of the conversation housed in these pages. And it is here that knowing a bit about the past and the present becomes useful. While it is impossible to know for certain what the years ahead will bring, a familiarity with both the history of news and the ways it currently works give us far more leverage to speculate about what might happen ten or even twenty years from now. And even if these speculations turn out to be entirely off base, we hope that the answers to some of the questions here about the future will spark good conversation at the very least!

Given all this, it will not come as a surprise that the book is divided into three chapters: "The Past," "The Present," and "The Future" of news. In the initial drafting stages, Michael Schudson took on the past, Leonard Downie the present, and C.W. Anderson crossed his fingers and tackled the future. However, over the process of writing, the authorial divisions between these sections blurred, and we are convinced that the final product stands as much as a unified distillation of our thought process as it would be reasonable to hope for.

We expect that different sets of readers will initially approach this book with different objectives in mind. General students may find a great deal of value in the discussion of journalism's past. Working reporters and journalism students, in particular, may come to this book most interested in chapter 2, "The Present." And who doesn't love a bit of future-of-news prognostication? But it is also our hope that readers who come for specific reasons will decide to stick around and learn things about the news that they did not initially expect. We hope busy news executives can learn about the history of their profession. We hope that journalism historians can get quickly up to date on the most informed speculation about what the twenty-first century might bring for the field. And most importantly, perhaps, we hope that all readers will walk away from this book with a sense that, although there is much we still do not know about journalism, there is much else that we do.

  • [1] Anderson, Bell, and Shirky (2013). Post Industrial Journalism: Adaptingto the Present.
 
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