Jules Molenda: Newspapers’ mission has changed over last two centuries

Jules Molenda

If you look at the news stories in a daily newspaper, most of them begin with a word or two that tell the reader where the story comes from. This information is known as the dateline, a term that dates nearly to the beginning of newspaper publishing in the U.S.

Originally, the dateline also told the reader when the story was filed (hence the name). This information was once valuable, when news traveled slowly and items from the outside world might take days, weeks or longer to reach a local newspaper.

Last week, I was reminded of this while watching a play at Thespian Hall in Boonville , Mo., called “The Editor is Absent”. It was put on by members of the Missouri History in Performance company and sponsored by the Missouri Press Association. It was held on July 12, exactly 200 years after the first edition of the first newspaper in the state was published.

That newspaper, launched in 1808, was published in St. Louis and was called the Missouri Gazette. Attendees to the performance last week received a replica of the third edition published on July 26th of that year. (Apparently the first two numbers have been lost to history.)

Datelines for the out-of-town stories showed that such news printed in this edition – from London, Boston, Paris and Philadelphia - was as much as three months old. This was still pretty fresh for out-of-town news in the days before radio, television or the telegraph.

The editor, Joseph Charless, had to rely on the postal service for his news copy, which came from a variety of east-coast periodicals to which he subscribed.

It’s interesting to put the early Gazette into its historical context. When the first edition appeared, Thomas Jefferson was president of the 16 United States. The Louisiana Purchase had occurred five years earlier and Lewis and Clark had been back from their famous expedition for only two years.

Missouri was still 13 years from statehood; in fact, the address on the early issues of the Gazette read: St. Louis, Louisiana.

Because he relied so heavily on the mails, Charless’ news columns frequently complained about the irregular delivery by the postal service. This is a complaint as old as the postal system. We mail copies of our newspaper these days to vacationing customers in Arkansas, Nebraska, Florida, etc.

The delivery is frequently slow and unreliable. (Our circulation manager says it isn’t the additional cost of delivery that keeps driving up the postal rates – it’s the increasing cost of storage.)

In 1808, however, there were few roads leading to St. Louis from the U.S. and those that existed were very poor.

The mail traveled in large part by boat over rivers that flooded in certain seasons and froze in others. The wonder was that mail arrived on any sort of schedule.

Today, of course, newspapers get their non-local news from a variety of electronic sources. Many of these sources are also widely available on the Internet and to audiences of television and radio news programming.

What this has done, largely in our lifetime, is change the mission of the daily newspaper. Until the middle of the 20th century, no matter how slowly a newspaper editor received the news he dispensed, he was largely the first and just about the only source for news.

Newspapers today are neither the first nor the only source of news. The speed of radio and television outlets in bringing late-breaking news to the public has been impacting newspaper circulation for decades.

Lately, the instantaneous nature of the Internet and its ability to provide news on demand has seriously eroded the audience of broadcast news programming.  It seems to me that the current role of newspapers is to take advantage of what we still do best.

First, in most communities we have the largest news-gathering staff available. We cover community’s news better than anyone else. On a local level, we provide items of news not available anywhere else.

Second, we have become the obvious answer to the problem of news clutter. Today’s citizens are bombarded by news – from 24-hour news channels to Internet news services.

Many people even receive news bites on their cell phones or iPods. Much of this news comes from dubious sources.

Every day, editors at our nation’s newspapers sort through a massive chaff of news items, press releases, wire reports, blogs and e-mailings in order to provide readers with the grains of reliable reports of most interest to them.

It’s not exactly what Ben Franklin or Joseph Charless envisioned, but it’s what we do now.    

Lake Sun Leader