the economics of journamalism, 1

The future of journalism has attracted a lot of attention lately, what with all the pressure the online media have been putting on traditional print and broadcast organizations. But some kinds of pressure haven been around a lot longer. From William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance (1882):

[Bartley = Bartley Hubbard, a reporter who once had aspirations to becoming a lawyer; at the time of this conversation he has been working free-lance in Boston, but hoping to find a permanent position]

Witherby = Mr. Witherby, owner of The Boston Events, an evening newspaper]

“But of course my idea in starting the Events was to make money.”

“Of course.”

“I hold that the first duty of a public journal is to make money for the owner; all the rest follows naturally.”

“You’re quite right, Mr. Witherby,” said Bartley. “Unless it makes money, there can be no enterprise about it, no independence,–nothing. That was the way I did with my little paper down in Maine. The first thing–I told the committee when I took hold of the paper–is to keep it from losing money; the next is to make money with it. First peaceable, then pure: that’s what I told them.”

“Precisely so!” Witherby was now so much at his ease with Bartley that he left off tormenting the things on his desk, and used his hands in gesticulating. “Look at the churches themselves! No church can do any good till it’s on a paying basis. As long as a church is in debt, it can’t secure the best talent for the pulpit or the choir, and the members go about feeling discouraged and out of heart. It’s just so with a newspaper. I say that a paper does no good till it pays; it has no influence, its motives are always suspected, and you’ve got to make it pay by hook or by crook, before you can hope to–to–forward any good cause by it. That’s what I say. Of course,” he added, in a large, smooth way, “I’m not going to contend that a newspaper should be run solely in the interest of the counting-room. Not at all! But I do contend that, when the counting-room protests against a certain course the editorial room is taking, it ought to be respectfully listened to. There are always two sides to every question. Suppose all the newspapers pitch in–as they sometimes do–and denounce a certain public enterprise: a projected scheme of railroad legislation, or a peculiar system of banking, or a co-operative mining interest, and the counting-room sends up word that the company advertises heavily with us; shall we go and join indiscriminately in that hue and cry, or shall we give our friends the benefit of the doubt?”

“Give them the benefit of the doubt,” answered Bartley. “That’s what I say.”

“And so would any other practical man!” said Witherby. “And that’s just where Mr. Clayton and I differed. Well, I needn’t allude to him any more,” he added leniently. “What I wish to say is this, Mr. Hubbard. I am overworked, and I feel the need of some sort of relief. I know that I have started the Events in the right line at last,–the only line in which it can be made a great, useful, and respectable journal, efficient in every good cause,–and what I want now is some sort of assistant in the management who shall be in full sympathy with my own ideas. I don’t want a mere slave,–a tool; but I do want an independent, right-minded man, who shall be with me for the success of the paper the whole time and every time, and shall not be continually setting up his will against mine on all sorts of doctrinaire points. That was the trouble with Mr. Clayton. I have nothing against Mr. Clayton personally; he is an excellent young man in very many respects; but he was all wrong about journalism, all wrong, Mr. Hubbard. I talked with him a great deal, and tried to make him see where his interest lay. He had been on the paper as a reporter from the start, and I wished very much to promote him to this position; which he could have made the best position in the country. The Events is an evening paper; there is no night-work; and the whole thing is already thoroughly systematized. Mr. Clayton had plenty of talent, and all he had to do was to step in under my direction and put his hand on the helm. But, no! I should have been glad to keep him in a subordinate capacity; but I had to let him go. He said that he would not report the conflagration of a peanut-stand for a paper conducted on the principles I had developed to him. Now, that is no way to talk. It’s absurd.”

“Perfectly.” Bartley laughed his rich, caressing laugh, in which there was the insinuation of all worldly-wise contempt for Clayton and all worldly-wise sympathy with Witherby. It made Witherby feel good,–better perhaps than he had felt at any time since his talk with Clayton.

“Well, now, what do you say, Mr. Hubbard? Can’t we make some arrangement with you?” he asked, with a burst of frankness.

“I guess you can,” said Bartley.

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3 Responses to the economics of journamalism, 1

  1. eric says:

    I love that book.

  2. […] By the time Bartley Hubbard found a place with Mr. Witherby on the Events, he had already learned something of the relationship between business and the press.[…]

  3. andrew says:

    So do I, though I have to admit I didn’t think that while I was reading it.

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