RepJ through the ages

Representative Journalism is a concept people in the journalism industry have been talking about at least since the nineteenth century, according to a New York Times obituary dated September 28, 1886.

“The [Boston] Post under Mr. [Charles] Greene’s management was a model of typography, good temper, refinement, moderation and independence, a combination of characteristics not too often met with in representative journalism.”

Col. Charles Gordon Greene, who founded the Post and worked as its editor for 44 years, died at age 82 and was a native of Boscawen, N.H. The Post folded in the face of competition in 1956, but won a Pulitzer prize in 1921 and once had a circulation of more than a million, according to an article on Wikipedia.

The obituary does not go on to define representative journalism any further, so it would be hard to say whether the term held the same meaning as it does today. However, it seems the obituary’s author might have been a skeptic as to the quality of most of the news that fell into that category at that time.

About a century later, an article published in Wired magazine titled “Mrs. and Mr. Roberts’ Neighborhood,” contained the term “representative journalism.” The celebrity subjects of the story exhibited much skepticism of the representative journalism notion.

“Cokie Roberts and her husband, Steven Roberts, were alarmed recently to learn that between 250,000 and 350,000 people log on to the Consumer Project on Technology Web site every day to monitor congressional activities in Washington,” Jon Katz wrote on April 16, 1997. “It did not strike the couple – one of Washington’s most influential and visible – as cause to celebrate a new and participatory electronic democracy that could reconnect Americans with their civic lives.”

“Cokie and Steven Roberts are Washington’s first couple of journalism,” Katz wrote. “She is the daughter of two former members of Congress, and is an NPR reporter; she also co-hosts, with Sam Donaldson, ABC’s This Week. He is a former New York Times reporter and writer and editor for US News & World Report.”

Katz went on to say, “People like Cokie and Steven Roberts have long decided what stories would be covered and what information we’d get. The idea that hundreds of thousands of Americans would presume to do the same isn’t a stirring idea to them, as the column demonstrates, but a terror discussed nonstop at Washington cocktail parties.”

Leonard Witt, who coined the term “representative journalism” on August 24, 2007, according to his blog, offered the following definition at that time.

“News operations…will have to join the niche movement. Rather than think in terms of a circulation of, let’s say, 100,000, they should think in terms of 100 niche markets of 1,000 each and form membership communities around those niches.”

“The centerpiece for each membership community will be the news and information tailored to each community’s needs, with a reporter and editing support devoted specifically to each community of 1,000. Online social networking, interactivity, face-to-face events will all be used to build group cohesion.”

“A network weaver will help to bring the groups together. The 100 individual groups can be diverse as a lawyers’ group, wanting local legally related news, to hunters to low level healthcare workers, wanting their information needs met by their own group’s Representative Journalist.”

“Then all these niche membership groups are aggregated under an umbrella news operation, which in turn might be aggregated further with other umbrella operations nationwide or internationally wide.”

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