Press Box

Keeping the Fizz in the Journalism Biz

Thanks to technology, we may be entering a golden age.

Mark Sullivan

Your average journalist usually begins his career with a pop, like a big bottle of champagne. He effervesces about his profession, intoxicating all who encounter him. The party goes on for years as the young journalist conquers deadlines, corrupt politicians, and hidebound editors. But by the time a journalist hits his mid-30s, the music begins to dim and the dancing stops. He starts complaining about falling standards, muttering about the decline of the business, and griping about his place in the journalistic pecking order. Once a happy drunk, he’s now a sad drunk—or worse, a mean one. It’s not that the future has been canceled; he just can’t see it rising over the horizon anymore. The flat and warm champagne at the bottom of his bottle has turned to vinegar.

Muckraking pioneer turned Washington columnist Mark Sullivan seemed infected with this mind-set in 1938, when as a 64-year-old he published his memoirs, The Education of an American. Slate contributor David Greenberg alerted me to this passage in which Sullivan pines for the glory days of journalism past, writing:

I am not sure that a young man beginning in journalism in 1938 would find opportunity in as great a mood of welcome as one who began about the turn of the century. About 1925 and after, advertising, which once fed the printed word alone, began to divide with the spoken word, the radio. The number of periodicals and newspapers began to contract. The little town of West Chester, when I started there in 1892, had three daily papers; by the 1920s it had but one. Philadelphia, when I spent a while on a paper there in 1900, had five important morning papers, four evening ones; by 1938 the numbers were two and two, respectively. In every city similar contraction took place.

The contraction of newspaper titles that so distressed Sullivan has, of course, continued, making his observations as relevant to 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998, and 2008 as they were to 1938. Sullivan is no outlier in making this observation. A.J. Liebling clucked his tongue like an overwound metronome lamenting the societal impact of newspaper contraction while serving asTheNew Yorker’s press critic. But just when you’re ready to dismiss Sullivan as another doom and gloomer, carping about modern-era disappointments and disruptions, he zigs from the normal zag to find opportunity in the decline of newspapers. He writes:

Not only did the market for writing shrink. New means of expression, of conveying thought and facts and description and narrative, came into the world. … I felt as if I were like one of those old monks, the scriveners, who continued to copy by hand long after printing had been invented. To young writers looking forward the lesson is as plain, and even more important, than to old writers looking backward. Learn the art of writing, of course, but learn also the art of the motion picture, and of the radio.

Both Sullivan and Liebling misinterpreted the impact that newspaper contraction would have on newspaper employment, and they failed to anticipate that the surviving “monopoly” newspapers would grow as fat as manatees and need additional newsroom hands (but not printer hands) to produce. One imperfect measure of newspaper employment during the late-period consolidation of newspapers is the annual newsroom diversity census, produced since 1978 by the American Society of News Editors. From a base line of 43,000 newsroom employees in 1978, the numbers steadily rose to a high of 56,900 in 1990 and hovered at about 55,000 until 2008 when they dropped to 52,600. The 2009 census results of 46,700 newsroom hands indicates a genuine decline, but the loss of newspaper jobs has had more to do with the shrinking of most daily newsrooms than the closure of newspapers.

What Sullivan got absolutely right in 1938 is that technology, culture, business, and audience tastes are always in flux, making it the job of writers young and old to grab the best available tools and get to the business of chronicling the world. If Sullivan were alive today, I’ll bet he’d be encouraging journalists to study PHP and Javascript, to hone their video-cutting skills, and to learn how to manipulate databases. The cheap tools and affordable devices the average Joe has at his disposal to produce precision journalism and distribute it around the world are enough to make the reporters of yesterday sob in envy. It’s the difference between digging ditches with a spade and excavating a canal with dynamite.

Let me say it another way: The barriers of entry into the journalism business have been battered down, making it easier than ever to enter the profession. That will read as small consolation to the journalists who have had their publications shot out from under them—the Rocky Mountain News,the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Ann Arbor News (come July 23), and magazines too numerous to tally. But please notice that I’m not saying there has never been a more lucrative or prestigious time to become a journalist. The cash and status associated with the profession are fairly recent. Until the early 1970s or thereabouts, the average journalist made an average salary (if that), and his societal standing was modest.

If the downside of the battered-down barriers to entry is less pay and lower status, the potential upside is that a flood of new entrants into the field could portend a journalistic renaissance. No, I’m not saying that every junior blogger and pint-size videographer will immediately stand as tall as Barton Gellman and Errol Morris and that the Washington Post and NBC News should be flushed. But journalism has generally benefited by increases in the number of competitors, the entry of new and once-marginalized players, and the creation of new approaches to cracking stories. Just because the journalism business is going to hell and it may no longer make economic sense to maintain mega-news bureaus at the center of war zones doesn’t mean that journalism isn’t thriving.

From where I drink, the champagne is still dry, cold, and fizzy.


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