50 ways the news industry has changed in the last 50 years
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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Typewriters were doomed to history
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.
Typesetting ended its 500-year run
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 went smoke-free
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.
Newsrooms diversified, but still remain behind the times
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.
TV news hit the big time
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.
The anchor format dominated for decades
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."
Vietnam changed journalism and journalism changed Vietnam
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.
TV news became big business
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.
The anchor format shifted toward news teams
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.
Tape sped up news coverage
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.