The Fourth Estate is subverted by the modern media it helped to create

By Sydney Owada

Indulge in the image of a breakfast table strewn with the daily newspaper, a reclining man enjoying his steamy morning coffee with his nose buried in the latest stories and kids eating up the comics section. Visualize the cliché of the paperboy’s wheels whirring as he bicycles through the neighborhood, chucking papers onto porches (and not always making his mark).

This is the romanticized view of the printed newspaper’s place in society.

Now distributors work through the night, cars stuffed full of newspapers, driving long hours to make the daily delivery to their subscribers. Back in the newsroom, there is the constant process of generating print-worthy stories and journalists striving to pursue the truth and inform the public. The newspaper as a form of tangible mass media requires this method of circulation in order to fully penetrate society with the most recent takes on events of local, national, and global scale. Print papers are a vehicle for full immersion into societal affairs, keeping readers up to date with world relations and views. The place of print media extends further than the armchairs of a suburbia viewed through a nostalgic lens. Printed press has historically carried so much power it has become the Fourth Estate of the realm. However, despite the newspaper’s global influence on the exchange of information, it may soon be engulfed in our developing digital age by its newer, sleeker counterpart: the Internet.

The rise of journalism to its status as a fourth power in society is largely due to a small number of major organizations that dominated the world of traditional press prior to the growth of non-traditional journalistic media on the Internet. The newspaper is a physical manifestation of the press as the Fourth Estate, every printed issue a representative of each news organization, serving as a collection of that organization’s daily work in one neatly folded and satisfyingly hefty folio of newsprint. It is the role of this Fourth Estate to not only inform the other three (the church, the government, and the general population), but to keep them in check as well. Journalism is ideally independent of the other Estates, though not entirely subversive due to the necessity of maintaining a respectable foothold within these sections of society. Yet, the press has the flexibility to either challenge or support the other powers; each organization’s particular stance is supported by the fact that the press has well established foundations within print media. These foundations are tangible and widespread as physical forms of the news are circulated through society, headlines catching the eye at each distribution stand and grocery store line. The paper is there in full view. There is no need to go out of your way to search for a story on your phone; the print media has done that for you by assailing all distribution points for your convenience.

For centuries, print media has been at the forefront of the exposition, excavation, and explanation of society’s daily issues. A simplified version of American history would credit the printing press with the foundation of our country due the large role it had in circulating colonial opinion despite the government’s many attempts to suppress independent papers. However, the increased dependence on technology in the expansion of media has turned this centuries-old process into an industry warped by the reliance on sound bite-like chunks of information that give way to the shallow understanding of a deeper story. This is not to say that technology is destroying journalism — it is in truth cultivating a culture that is widely receptive to the press due to increased accessibility through developments such as online editions of print newspapers and increased opportunities for global dialogue. This dialogue occurs in the realm of the fifth social power which is almost entirely dependent on the Internet. The Fifth Estate, created in the spirit of 1960s counterculture and its strings of underground newspapers, is the unruly, minimally supervised child of the Fourth Estate. This fifth power is a community of networked individuals who are empowered by the Internet and utilize tools such as blog and social media to check the other Estates; this group forms a niche similar to that of the Fourth Estate at the time of its emergence in society and holds a similar sway as it influences policy-making processes, grassroots movements, and even fundraising.

Nevertheless, the convenience and inexpensiveness of the Internet creates the possibility of a full shift to online content in the name of cutting costs. While the growing middle class, literacy rates, and infiltration of technology allows for the popularity of online media to swell, revenue for print papers plunges and competition from internet media tightens its grip on surviving print publishers. The result has been bankruptcy, cutbacks, and, since 2001, a fifth of U.S. journalists exiting the mainstream industry (Bureau of Labor Statistics). This occurs at the cost of our ability to skim a story as our thumbs swipe and scroll down our phone screens in search of a line that will reveal the gist of the article, saving us the apparent hassle of reading the story in its entirety when our bustling lives do not provide the patience to do so. We settle for information bites and nibble on headlines in hopes that being partially informed will satisfy our hunger for knowledge rather than immersing ourselves in the full course meal of print media with all its complex flavors that enrich the palate.

Some say that the shift to technological media is part of the evolution of journalism. How long, though, before its fundamental support — print media — becomes extinct?

Leah Darnell/Pioneer Log
Leah Darnell/Pioneer Log

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