Short Relief: Nothing pretty about the evolution of journalism

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In Orson Wells’ 1941, black-and-white film classic “Citizen Kane,” Charles Foster Kane uses some of the money he inherits at the age of 25 to buy the New York Inquirer because he thinks it will be fun to run a newspaper.

I don’t know how much fun it is these days.

It’s no secret that the newspaper industry is in transition, largely because of the Internet. On one hand, the Internet has deprived print journalism of a major source of revenue: the advertisements that traditionally come bundled together with the news, sports and society pages. On the other hand, the Internet has provided people with an alternative and relatively inexpensive means to obtain information.

Newspapers were slow to perceive the challenge and to regulate access. They are now racing to catch up by erecting pay-walls. In the meantime, newspaper circulation and ad sales have plummeted. Journalists have been laid off. And people got used to getting their news online for free.

The person who solves the problem of how to extract the value from providing news in the current environment is likely to profit handsomely while providing an essential service for democracy.

The Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke called the news media the Fourth Estate of the English Realm. Although less official, it was more important than the other three components of Parliament (the Lords Spiritual – bishops elected by the Church of England; the Lords Temporal – peers selected by the British monarch, and the House of Commons – members popularly elected by the people) because it provided the information that the other three needed to govern. In the United States, the press is sometimes referred to as the fourth branch of government for the same reason.

But more and more, we bypass the traditional press and get our news online, using computers, tablets and smart phones. We conduct our own investigations by making keyword searches. It may not always produce the most accurate and reliable results, but it is quick and cheap.

The news business has weathered other changes and challenges since the first newspaper was published in Boston in 1690. Partisan newspapers appeared when the party system emerged in the late 17- and early 1800s. The first penny press newspaper, The New York Sun, was published in the 1830s. The first telegraph line, from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, was installed in 1844. The rotary press, capable of printing 8,000 pages per hour, started operating in the United States in 1847.

The first news service started in 1849 to bring news of Europe to the U.S. In the early 1900s, muckrakers investigated and reported on improprieties in business, government and medicine in order to advocate for change.

In 1887, William Randolph Hearst became the editor of the San Francisco Examiner and went on to amass a media empire that owned papers in most major cities. He became famous for selling newspapers by printing thinly supported stories about scandal and crime, and for blaming Spain for sinking the USS Maine in Havana Harbor.

In the 1920s, courts began to interpret the First Amendment as we think of it today, protecting the free exchange of even offensive ideas because it is the best means of ascertaining the truth. Prior to that, Alan Dershowitz has said, the words of the First Amendment were “essentially dead letters” and the courts allowed government to suppress controversial speech.

Commercial television began broadcasting in 1941. Walter Cronkite anchored the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981. Such was his influence that many believe the space race was won because he championed it and the Vietnam War was lost when he turned against it.

In 1971, The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, a history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam that revealed, among other things, how four administrations had misled the public about their intentions and the extent of the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

In 1988, the Internet, which had been created by the military, was made available for public, commercial use. In 1995, Craig Newmark started Craigslist as an email distribution list for friends in the San Francisco area.

In the past month, Amazon’s Jeffrey Bezos bought The Washington Post from the Graham family for $250 million and commodities trader and investment banker John Henry bought the Boston Globe from The New York Times Company for $70 million.

Henry made his money by analyzing markets systematically and dispassionately. Bezos founded the Internet retailer Amazon and is known to micromanage the smallest details of a big business. Maybe they have the answer.

Part of it is providing people with what they want and need and will pay for. The other part is figuring out how to price it and get people to pay for it. Technology is bound to help.

Technology may make it possible to seamlessly integrate the news-gathering, -reporting, -editing, and –publishing functions with reading and providing feedback, billing consumers and paying reporters. Stories can be evaluated for their popularity in terms of the numbers of hits and the length of visits. Search engines and algorithms can be designed so that the most popular stories and comments rise to the top and earn the most.

It may not be pretty. Like democracy in action.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.