The things that change,
and the things that endure

Tom Goldstein

Predicting the future is a perilous enterprise. Look back nearly a century ago when Joseph Pulitzer set forth the guiding principles of a journalism school at Columbia in an extraordinary article published in the North American Review.1 As high-minded as Pulitzer was--his school was to "exalt principle, knowledge, culture, at the expense of business if need be"--no evidence suggests that he foresaw the physical and demographic transformation of the school that he had endowed or the emergence of a host of new media, including radio, television, and the Internet. Nor did he--or could he have been expected to--predict the convergence of those media.

When I was a student at the journalism school nearly 30 years ago, back in the manual-typewriter-and-rotary-telephone days, one of my shrewdest professors predicted the demise of magazines within the next couple of decades. In fact, magazines, particularly those that have identified niche markets, have prospered as never before. Another shrewd professor was closer to the mark: He could not predict what journalism would look like in the next generation, but for him the point of education was to prepare us in fundamentals and imbue us with enduring values--similar to those articulated by Joseph Pulitzer in 1904--that would permit us to excel in whatever new media came along. That remains the guiding philosophy of the school, even as new media have blossomed. As we try to integrate the glorious possibilities of the new media with the values set forth by Pulitzer, journalism--and journalism education, in particular--can be a useful lens to study the pedagogic potential of the digital future. Journalism education remains wedded to the primacy of the written word, but we are dazzled by the possibilities not only of attractive visual presentation of material but also of interactivity.

Nineteenth-century journalism celebrated the lonely pamphleteer. Twentieth-century journalism borrowed from large complex organizations and became exemplars of hierarchical decision-making. A strong-willed, often quirky editor ruled his domain (and until recently, it was usually a he). Now the Internet has changed the rules of engagement for the 21st century. With an inexpensive computer and modem, everyone can become a reporter and editor. The underlying premise of the Internet--that information should be freely available--alters fundamentally the economic basis of journalism; not until the economics are figured out will journalism flourish in the digital age. With interactivity, the users can literally talk back to their screens, and immediate feedback has increasingly changed modes of reporting. The boundaries between journalism and history have also become increasingly blurry; with the ease of retrieval combined with ubiquitous indexing and bountiful archives, journalism can become much more than a story that occurred yesterday.

In less than a generation, we have moved from a news environment of relative scarcity to one of surfeit. With round-the-clock media, we have a steady stream of news. The public's expectation of "all news, all the time" makes it hard to report that nothing much interesting happened today. We risk losing the notion of what is important. The digital future, in short, has great possibilities for richer, deeper journalism--and possibilities for a journalism where editorial judgment is missing. Clearly, the protocols of journalism have not yet caught up with some of the technological changes, and that is why it is so important for us at Columbia Journalism School to return to Pulitzer's guiding principles to establish standards for a digital age.

In the twilight of the 20th century, we are blessed with boundless opportunities. But in the midst of the beguiling claims of an online future, it is also bracing to be brought back to Earth once in a while. Fifteen years ago, a major journalism school (not us), impressed by the new technology of that era, allowed students to major in teletext, only to abandon it a few years later when the marketplace was considerably less attracted to the allure of endless printed scrawl on a television screen. Teletext faded quickly, though audiotex, a low-tech telephone system providing customized information to targeted audiences, has thrived commercially. (Of course, lest we get too caught up in the future, it is useful to note some of technology's humbler uses: A promotion at the Augusta, Ga., newspaper recently yielded in one day an extraordinary 9,000 participants in a "Tom Turkey" contest, imitating a turkey call over the telephone.)

Journalism in this century has taken its place among the academic disciplines as well as the professions, and journalists' concerns over the relations between evolving media and enduring values are mirrored by an increasing awareness of language technologies in related fields. To historians, literary theorists, philosophers, critics of the arts, scholars of the education process, archivists, information scientists, and countless others, changes in the means of communication affect the material and intellectual substance of their professional lives. But if the scholar or researcher takes a special interest in the shifting forms of written language, every citizen has an interest in these processes as well, since language is the common medium of all our minds.

The recognition that Johannes Gutenberg's invention changed nearly every aspect of human life is much more than a matter for detached analysis. Likewise, as today's commentators ask how databases and interfaces help shape consciousness--for better, for worse, or perhaps only for faster--it is worth observing that no other research subject may be better-suited to widespread dialogue among specialist communities and the public at large, for these debates involve everyone's consciousness.

1. Pulitzer, Joseph. The School of Journalism in Columbia University: The Power of Public Opinion. NY: Columbia University Press, 1904. Reprinted from North American Review, May 1904.

Related links...

  • Technology of Writing page, Voice of the Shuttle

  • Richard Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1995)

  • Media History Project, American Journalism History Association

  • David Shenk, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (NY & SF: HarperEdge, 1997)

  • David Shenk, "The Disease of Images," HotWired

  • Sven Birkerts, Carolyn Guyer, Robert Stein, and Michael Joyce, "Page versus Pixel," Feed Dialog on electronic text

  • Stuart Ewen ("Archie Bishop"), "The Decoration of Independence," Feed (manifesto/parody on electronic communications, first presented at Media and Democracy Congress, New York)

  • Sam Lipsyte, "Sex, Lies, and E-Mail," Feed

  • Project Gutenberg: Fine Literature Digitally Re-Published

  • Journal of Electronic Publishing

  • The Electronic Labyrinth

  • Gutenberg and Beyond: Books, Libraries, and Changing Technology, exhibit at Georgetown University Library, 1996

  • John Suler, "The Psychology of Cyberspace"

  • "CyberSpaces: Pedagogy and Performance on the Electronic Frontier," special issue of Works & Days, 1995
    (full disclosure: includes article by editor of 21stC)

  • Jon Katz, "Finding a Mental Ecology," HotWired (on retreating from information overload)

  • Daniel Chandler, "Processes of Mediation" (from The Act of Writing: A Media Theory Approach, priv. pub., U. of Aberystwyth, Wales, 1995)

  • Ellen Strenski, "Electronic Epistolarity: E-mail as Gift Exchange," Fourth Annual Cultural Studies Symposium, Kansas State University, 1995 (on e-mail in Ovidian tradition of epistolary art)

  • Literary Resources on the Net, Jack Lynch, U of Pennsylvania

  • Switched-On Gutenberg, online poetry journal

  • David Futrelle, "The People are Always Wrong," Salon (on electronic voting and mob opinion)

  • Scott Rosenberg, "R.I.P., Word -- but Don't Get Out Your Handkerchiefs for Content,'" Salon (on the purported "death of content" in online publishing)

  • John Tolfa, "(P)remediation: Notes toward a Genealogy of New Media" (essay series on visual and verbal media)

  • Ronald J. Deibert, "Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia: Communication in World Order Transformation," Columbia International Affairs Online

  • Roger B. Blumberg, "Ex Libris," reprinted on MendelWeb from The Sciences, Sept./Oct. 1995

  • Merlin Donald, "Symbolic Technologies: Challenges and Dangers for the Humanities," keynote paper, Joint International Conference of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Association for Literary & Linguistic Computing, 1997

  • Charles A. Gimon, "Heroes of Cyberspace; Claude Shannon," InfoNation (on information theory, entropy, and media)

  • Speed: Technology, Media, Society (e-zine based at UC Santa Barbara)

  • TV-Free America

  • TOM GOLDSTEIN is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia.