A half-century ago, newsrooms were loud. Alarm bells rang out over the steady clickety-clack of typewriters when breaking news came in over the wire machine. Children on bicycles delivered newspapers to front porches across the country and the information most people received was limited to what news anchors like Walter Cronkite told them during regularly scheduled broadcasts. Today, the news is delivered in real-time through a dizzying variety of sources, and thanks to smartphones and social media, every person is a journalist whose impromptu videos can go viral with the push of a button.
In between were 50 years of changes so dramatic and all-encompassing that the people—nearly all of whom were white men—who delivered the news in 1969 would scarcely recognize the industry today. Massive corporations own 24-hour news networks that serve as the intellectual home bases for a hyper-partisan and politically polarized nation. Americans largely consume news inside of intellectual and political echo chambers, where their social media feeds, go-to online news sources, and network news channels reinforce beliefs they already have while working to discredit or simply shut out alternative points of view.
Some of the most powerful and influential news programs in the country are parody shows that started as comedies designed to mock the news, but evolved into potent media watchdogs that the masses turn to for actual information. The print newspapers that once dotted the country's lawns, driveways, and front porches every morning at sunrise are hemorrhaging subscribers to new and emerging digital alternatives.
The media, which is simply the plural of "medium," have been demonized for generations as a catchall boogeyman in any instance where information comes to light that doesn't fit into the narrative of one echo chamber or the other. A sitting president recently called the media—whose place in American society is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—"the true enemy of the people." Here's a look at the news industry and how it has changed over the past half-century.
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Few working journalists today remember the days when newsrooms echoed with the constant clackity-clack of typewriters as reporters and editors furiously churned out copy in real-time on actual paper. Typewriters had mostly vanished in most newsrooms by the end of the 1980s, as they were replaced first with word processors and then personal computers. With them went spools of inked ribbon, Wite-Out correction fluid, jammed keys and arms, and sliding carriages.
Like so many advances in the world of publishing, Johann Gutenberg invented typesetting in the 15th century. The concept of arranging interchangeable cast-metal letters to print pages quickly and consistently endured through the 1970s. After roughly half a millennium, however, modern software finally rendered the technology obsolete.
Newsrooms were historically as smoky as even the dingiest pubs or bars, as stressed out, deadline-pressed reporters and editors smoked while they hustled. But as people became more aware of the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, newsrooms gradually and reluctantly became smoke-free facilities. The shift followed a national trend as smoking fell out of favor across the country.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, "the staffing of the American news media has never reflected the diversity of the nation." In the wake of race riots across the country in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned a study that lambasted the near-total lack of non-whites in U.S. newsrooms and the failure of the white media to accurately cover civil rights and other race issues. While things have improved dramatically over the past 50 years, the Pew Research Center reports that white men make up 48% of today's newsrooms compared with 34% of all workers.
In the 1960s, TV news was a second-tier industry that relied on big, expensive equipment that simply could not compete with slim, but effective radio broadcast operations, and didn't have the credibility of print journalism. That all changed, however, when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and his accused killer was murdered on live TV. Newspapers couldn't adequately capture the drama and radio couldn't disseminate the barrage of photos and videos that were emerging every hour—but television could do both and the medium became an equal chamber in the three-tiered media structure of the era.
Walter Cronkite broke the news of the Kennedy assassination, reported from the front lines in Vietnam, and beamed news of the civil rights movement into U.S. households. There was a time when Americans knew little more about world events than what Walter Cronkite told them. The anchor format required Americans to put extraordinary faith in the reporting of a single person, and they did—Cronkite was long dubbed "the most trusted man in America."
Although a lack of satellite feeds forced days-long delays between war reporting on the front in Vietnam to televisions in American family rooms back home, no war had ever been documented so closely. Graphic images of war and scrolling lists of the names of the dead stoked ferocious anti-war sentiment in the United States. Conversely, close reporting on the burgeoning protests in U.S. cities made their way to soldiers fighting a war that they knew from first-hand reporting was growing increasingly unpopular back home.
By the 1970s, TV news had gained mainstream credibility and was now considered a reliable and professional source of information. It was also big business. News divisions by then were among the most profitable cash cows of major TV networks.
While national news programs held true to the trusted anchor format, local stations and affiliates in the 1970s headed toward a new paradigm. Stations began assembling news "teams" with specialists like meteorologists, and news, sports, and traffic reporters to deliver the news in formulaic segments while engaging in affable, happy chatter in elaborately decorated studios.
Also in the 1970s, the advent of tape began to replace film, which made getting images on the air a much faster and easier process. Historic delays were shortened and news coverage made a giant leap forward toward the instant coverage of today.
One of the most consequential developments in the history of television news was the invention of the microwave truck. The massive, expensive, equipment-laden vehicles allowed news crews to race to fires, floods, and other breaking news events and report live from the scene as the drama unfolded.
In 1976, national television news was still delivered exclusively by white men. That all changed on Oct. 4 when Barbara Walters broke the glass ceiling. ABC brass called a news conference to announce that Walters had been named the first woman to anchor a nightly newscast, alongside Harry Reasoner—Walters recalled that "she had spent most of her time answering what she would wear for the first show," according to Variety. The duo lasted only two years and there wouldn't be another female anchor until NBC hired Connie Chung 15 years later.
Two years after Barbara Walters broke the national TV news gender barrier, Max Robinson became the first African-American hired as a network broadcast anchor. Robinson's contract with "ABC World News Tonight" signaled the first time in history that people were informed by a national news anchor who wasn't white.
When Walter Cronkite retired from "CBS Evening News" in 1981, Dan Rather took his place. Rather was known for in-depth investigative reporting on longtime news show "60 Minutes," a new genre of media called the TV news magazine. They were among the most successful and influential programs on television, including such programs as "20/20" and "Dateline NBC."
In 1971, during what The Atlantic referred to as "the glory days of journalism," the New York Times and Washington Post ran a series of articles exposing a massive conspiracy that proved the government and military had been intentionally lying to the American public for decades about the war in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep any more leaked documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, from coming out. He lost, and the role of journalists as constitutionally empowered guardians of the truth was enshrined—but the worst was yet to come.
Journalists have long served as a check on the powerful, investigating corruption, following money trails, exposing malfeasance, and providing transparency—but that role set journalists on a collision course with the most powerful man in the world. In 1972, journalists from the Washington Post reported on a break-in at the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. The story would topple President Richard Nixon, elevate journalists to the status of celebrity culture warriors, and turn the news media into a boogeyman that many conservatives associated with liberalism and bias.
Founded in 1982, USA Today is the most widely circulated newspaper in the United States, and in 1984, it brightened up the world of print media. That year, it printed its first full-color edition across all its sections. The industry, which found black-and-white photos to be more dignified, derided the publication with the nickname McPaper, but when USA Today succeeded, the paper was quickly copied—in 1997, the New York Times, long known as the "Gray Lady," became the final major newspaper to cave in and print color photos.
The same year that USA Today changed print journalism in 1982, the show "Crossfire" ushered in a new era of television news. The format featured conservative and liberal pundits arguing about the topics of the day, and although it was billed as a forum for debate, it often degenerated into a series of talking-point battles between ideological extremes. The format would endure in the 21st century as antagonistic partisan bickering became a standard feature on all major cable news networks.
The 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger unified a nation in mourning. The event was witnessed by millions as it happened on live TV, including countless schoolchildren, who tuned in to support Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. It was the start of the modern media era where people expected to see news—even the most difficult and upsetting—as it happened in real time.
CNN was founded in 1980, but the station's watershed moment came in 1991 when the Gulf War broke out and CNN was the only U.S. news organization able to broadcast from the front. The so-called "Big 3" networks—long the dominant forces in the news media—were humiliated and CNN emerged as the most credible organization with the farthest global reach. The era of network cable news had begun.
Another major change stoked by CNN's coverage of the Gulf War was the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle. Television news had historically been delivered in the morning, evening, and night in half-hour segments, complemented by TV news magazines and specials. In 1991, however, audiences tuned in 24 hours a day to witness the country's awesome military might on display, and when the war ended, the country expected—and got—nonstop cable news.
FM radio was the dominant force in the 1980s, thanks to its high-fidelity format that sounded much better on both high and low notes than AM ever could. Mid-range human chatter, on the other hand, does not require high fidelity broadcasting to sound good. In the late 1980s, the decades-old Fairness Doctrine—which required public stations to devote equal time to competing points of view on controversial topics—was repealed as part of President Ronald Reagan's massive deregulation push. The moment paved the way for hyper-partisan conservative AM talk radio, most notably the national syndication of "The Rush Limbaugh Show."
World War II was broadcast over the radio and through heavily censored newsreels. Vietnam was a war told through the medium of film. Thanks to the literal and figurative rise of satellites, however, the war in the Persian Gulf became the world's first televised war.
The murder trial of O. J. Simpson was dubbed the “trial of the century,” which wasn't an exaggeration if the level of coverage is the barometer. The public's appetite for the drama was insatiable and the news media delivered. The masses were glued to perpetual TV coverage of every twist and turn, as well as an endless ocean of coverage from news magazines and radio broadcasts—the hardest-hitting, most-watched drama in the world was officially the news.
When CNN's business model proved successful, others followed suit. Fox News and MSNBC were both launched in 1996 and, along with CNN, became the new "Big 3" that most Americans turned to for information.
The rise of cable news networks launched an unprecedented era of media-driven political polarization. Conservatives tuned into Fox News and progressives flocked to MSNBC, each network tailoring its content to the leanings of its audience. The networks quickly became places where people turned not to challenge or enhance their political beliefs, but to confirm their existing ideologies.
New technologies emerged in the 21st century that gave Americans unprecedented control over what news they consumed and how they consumed it, and just like the talk radio and cable networks had in the previous decades, they were drawn largely along partisan lines. People on either side of the political divide were now listening to podcasts or talk radio that confirmed and reinforced their beliefs on the drive to and from work, only to come home and turn on a news network that did the same. Throughout the day, every day, their social media feeds fed a nonstop stream of bitterly divided partisan information, misinformation, and prejudices that suited their politics—the political echo chamber was born.
Generations of children earned a few extra bucks by waking up early and delivering newspapers on their bicycles. Every few weeks, the paperboy would knock on his customers' doors to collect the tab for the papers he delivered. The American paperboy, however, is now largely the stuff of nostalgia as most papers today are delivered by adults in vehicles who subscribers don't know and will never meet.
On Feb. 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite broke from traditional straight news delivery to opine on the carnage of the Vietnam War. Cronkite editorialized that the U.S. government had long painted an unrealistically rosy picture of the conflict and that in reality, a stalemate was the only realistic option in a war that was simply not winnable. The moment—a single statement from a single newsman—signaled a major shift in U.S. sentiment about the war.
Local newspapers, long a mechanism for informing communities and holding local power brokers accountable, are becoming one of the most critical casualties of the decline of print journalism. Towns and cities across the country exist in what Bloomberg refers to as "news deserts"—entire regions with no reporters digging through municipal records, attending city council meetings, and prying into the dealings of politicians. Studies show that news deserts have lower voter turnout, more government corruption, less transparency, and a loss of a sense of community.
Independent newspapers and TV networks became harder and harder to come by in the latter part of the 20th century as massive mergers and acquisitions led to an unprecedented era of media consolidation. By 2012, just six companies controlled 90% of the U.S. media.
President Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was one of the most sordid scandals in presidential history, but it wasn't a network or cable news outlet that broke the news. Blogger Matt Drudge was instrumental in breaking the story, which led to a presidential impeachment. Bloggers, in the eyes of Americans, went from losers playing journalists from their parents' basements to a potent and credible force in global media.
In 1973, during the golden age of newspapers, nearly 63.15 million Americans subscribed to daily newspapers. Those numbers had held fairly steady since the 1950s and remained strong through most of the 1990s. By 2017, however, that number had dropped by more than half to around 31 million—the digital age had directly caused a death spiral for print journalism.
As publishers struggled to replace revenue lost by declining subscriptions, the concept of the paywall emerged as an alternative to ad-based monetization, and by 2018 was the rule, not the exception. Established, credible, and long-running online publications began offering some content for free while locking their most valuable content behind so-called paywalls, which are lifted with paid subscriptions.
One of the most consequential developments in the age of digital media was the rise of news aggregators. These apps and websites allow users to sign up—for free in most cases—for news content from an endless variety of publications. Now, users could read many points of view on the same event without subscribing to multiple publications.
Programs like "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live" and later "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," were designed as parodies that mocked the corporate media's delivery of news in the United States. They quickly became powerful cultural forces, however, that challenged the narratives offered by powerful media organizations and personalities and actually served as primary sources of information for many people—especially the young and politically engaged.
By the end of the 1990s, the internet was becoming a fixture in U.S. homes. Longtime journalists in print, TV, and radio were overwhelmingly slow to realize the impact the new technology would have on their industries. It quickly became clear that the giants of the formats that dominated the 20th century would have to evolve or die.
The reality is that most news does not command 24-hour coverage, but the events of 9/11 certainly did—and then some. The news networks covering the attacks introduced crawling news tickers, or chyrons, that scrolled a constant stream of updates at the bottom of the TV screen to supplement emerging news as it broke during those frantic first hours and days. Nearly two decades later, the news ticker remains a fixture on all major networks.
The war in Iraq was one of the most controversial and heavily reported events of the 21st century, and like all wars before, it marked a sea change in how news was gathered and delivered. In cooperation with the Pentagon, journalists were embedded with fighting units to report on the war as it happened from the front, side by side with active military personnel.
In 2007, 32 people were murdered in a mass shooting at Virginia Tech. The gadget-savvy students who attended the university unwittingly showed the world how news would be delivered in the future. Although there were no news crews, cameras, or broadcasting platform, the news broke instantly as survivors used social media to deliver images, videos, and written narratives in real time as the events unfolded—it was a watershed moment for the citizen journalist.
By the 2010s, the mobile era was in full effect and the masses had instant access to apps or websites that gave them real-time updates about weather, traffic, sports, and breaking news from around the world. The tradition of sitting down at 6 p.m. to watch news that was hours old felt archaic and unnecessary, and the friendly chatter of local news teams became mostly the domain of older audiences.
The glory days of investigative journalism that exposed war crimes and toppled a presidency in the 1970s had faded into obscurity as formulaic news delivery and the rise of editorial opinion shows dominated the new media that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. The internet, social media, and smartphones, however, enabled a new generation of investigative journalists, who could pry into malfeasance, corruption, and shady dealings at all levels in every corner of the world with little investment in equipment and no need for the support of a newsroom team.
Self-directed freelancers might not have needed news companies to break news, but they also didn't have their support or money, either. This compelled independent journalists to launch donation-based models that let their loyal readers reward their efforts with donations through services like PayPal.
The rise of instant, real-time digital news distribution made it more important in the eyes of many to be first instead of being accurate. Several high-profile rush-to-publish scandals eroded the credibility of some of the most prominent journalists and news organizations in the world and stoked a general feeling that people couldn't believe everything they read.
Headlines were always the most important entry point for any news story, but in an era where profits were measured by clicks, good headlines were sometimes seen as more important than good stories. Compelling, but often misleading headlines persuaded readers to click on a story, only to find that the actual content didn't justify the sensationalized headline.
The rise of Facebook in the mid-2000s changed forever the way people communicated with each other and shared news. Social media by and large replaced traditional media outlets as the go-to source for up-to-date information. Words like "viral," "trending," and "buzzworthy" were the new measurements of a story's value and the masses could keep up with the news they cared about simply by following the right source.
The invention of live streaming gave citizen journalists the most powerful tool ever wielded in the fight against police brutality. Now, people who believed that law enforcement had behaved poorly or acted excessively could broadcast the incident as it happened through social media. Since the videos are uploaded live in real time, there's no camera to confiscate or alternate narrative to present.
Twitter emerged as the go-to choice for direct, unfiltered communication between powerful, influential people and their audiences. Everyone from corporate bosses like Elon Musk to politicians like President Donald Trump sidestepped traditional media and used Twitter as a direct-connect medium for speaking straight to the masses.
As alternative news sources emerged in the digital age, a new phrase became the clarion call for some conservatives who denounced what they perceived to be a liberal bias in traditional news outlets: the mainstream media. Attacked as Democratic shills, the so-called mainstream media (MSM) was targeted so heavily that proponents of the theory assumed that anything they saw or read in the news to be a lie—or at least a distortion. Personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity, along with organizations like Fox News, were well known for sounding the alarm the loudest, even though they were the highest-rated networks and personalities on television and the radio, ironically making them the very definition of mainstream media.
Conservatives have demonized and scapegoated "the media" as a collective since the Washington Post exposed Richard Nixon's crimes and toppled his presidency. The past decade, however, particularly under the current administration, has witnessed an unprecedented rise in hostility toward journalists. In October 2018, roughly 130 years after the founding fathers enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, President Donald Trump publicly condemned the media as "the true enemy of the people."