By: John Zogby Forbes.com Contributor
Long before “journalism” became a noun and the concept of the “Fourth Estate” was even developed, newspapers and pamphlets were the media of choice in the early United States. And these publications were not pretty at all. In the 1790s and early years of the 19th century, newspapers were the mouthpiece of burgeoning political parties and the rhetoric was ugly by any standards. Jefferson was a “whoremaster” and “an atheist”; Adams was “his rotundity” and was deemed redundant. It was a Hamiltonian news editor who circulated gossip about Aaron Burr and his daughter that would even make the Weiners and Leathers of today blush.
Then there the “penny posts”, news on the cheap and later the corporate, union-busting mouthpieces that were anti-union, anti-labor, anti-immigrant, anti-black – you get the picture. By the 20th century, the notion of journalism as an independent purveyor of truth began. First there were the muckrakers, then the likes of Walter Lippman and H.L. Mencken provided tough commentary and analysis for readers.
But dominant newspapers were still family-owned and pretty foul. “Never argue with anyone who buys ink by the barrel”, Mark Twain once famously wrote as a warning to anyone who might dare challenge the local media moguls. These men – and they were men – could destroy a career and often did. Newspaper supremacy and media moguls faced serious obstacles after World War II. First, there were the powerful chains that bought local newspapers and tried to create their own brand’s standards. Then came television, a different kind of medium to be sure, but by the 1950s tens of millions of Americans watched one of the three networks’ 15-minute broadcasts to get their news. Television killed the afternoon newspaper editions, then cable news forced serious changes in the role of newspapers in presenting breaking news and offering “post-game analysis”.
But nothing presented itself as a greater challenge to newspapers than the internet. Instant news at our fingertips, blogs, social media and networks enabled people to build their own personalized news networks. Sites like Craigslist, e-Bay, and Amazon have forced newspapers to scrounge for new sources of revenue – not entirely successfully. Newspapers can still be profitable but their functions and relevance have truly changed.
With all respect to the Grahams and Weymouths, the sale of the Washington Post to one of the nation’s true innovators, masters of the new media, successful entrepreneurs, and all-around good guys is a marriage made in heaven. They will continue to lead the journalism product, but Jeff Bezos and his team will get to move the entire concept of journalism/Fourth Estate/newspaper business into a new era. This is an industry and profession that has known serious changes over the decades. No one is better equipped to define the new product better than Mr. Bezos.