A more carefully argued version of what journalists feel would be that, when done well, institutionally produced news has distinctive, socially advantageous qualities. It can pull together large groups of people with diverse perspectives and interests into a shared public conversation. Jürgen Habermas has presented the rise of the press as having been essential to the creation of the public sphere, and newspapers are also central to Benedict Anderson’s idea of nations as “imagined communities”. Journalism can provide verified, impartial information about public affairs, rather than offering up a cacophony of opinion and conflicting claims as the internet often does. Reporters can surface and present to the public important material that otherwise would not be available, for example about the misdeeds of the powerful.
One reason this view of journalism isn’t more widely accepted is that, as Brock says, it represents only a small, time-limited part of the overall history of the press. Brock’s account begins in the late sixteenth century. As he usefully reminds us, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that a commercially supported, politically independent, fully staffed, mass-produced press came into being. Before that, the press was a medium for the printed dissemination of free speech and for making public basic information about government and business. The term “journalist”, denoting a full-time livelihood, wasn’t used in Britain until around 1830. Interviewing, a socially impertinent American invention, became a standard British journalistic technique only in the 1880s. Newspaper journalism as we know it also required the invention of fast rotary printing presses and the growth of cities, and the editorial content that made news into a successful business had a generous complement of crime, sports, human interest and entertainment, along with more elevated material. In the early twentieth century, the elite newspapers, at least, began to depend economically on advertising and long-term subscriptions rather than on street sales, and this dovetailed with a stated editorial creed of sober, dispassionate objectivity. But successful newspapers were never completely high-minded. As Brock puts it, “there has never been a mass audience for serious news”. The economically viable material paid for the socially valuable material.