While it is quite well known that Max Weber conducted questionnaire surveys on rural conditions and on factory workers, few know that he had also outlined a survey of the press. The enquiry was to have probed deeply into the then current trends in the organization of news and its reporting. It was to be a joint project with other academics from the newly formed German Sociology Society, but being Max Weber the necessary collaborative amity failed to materialize.
Nevertheless we do have the outlines of his research design (from 1910) and it rings eerily true to the conditions of the press today. How could this be? Newspapers, then and now, are capitalist enterprises and therefore subject to the pressures of rationalization. Newspapers have to embrace advances in technology, and mass readerships have to be assessed in terms of their buying habits. Journalists are a profession, but one caught between the profit-seeking of newspaper owners and the standards of good journalism. Weber noted tartly that the public judges all journalists according to the standards of the lowest. In today’s phone-hacking scandal all journalists are likewise judged by the antics of the tabloid journalists and their profit-seeking proprietors.
Weber went further and asked how the average reader is shaped by the current daily fare of news – how it is presented, how it is diluted by features and trivia, and how it is affected by the needs of advertisers. Today that is equally the case as expanding digital media with new content and the exploitation of the momentary now are transforming readerships and how they form their opinions and attitudes.
13.2 is a special edition on the press, edited by Isabelle Darmon (Edinburgh) and Carlos Frade (Salford). It is the result of a seminar held by the Max Weber Study Group of the British Sociological Association in its series ‘Thinking the Present with Max Weber’. Gilles Bastin (Sciences-Po Grenoble), Aeron Davis (Goldsmiths College), Roger Dickinson (University of Leicester) and Siegfried Weischenberg (University of Hamburg) provide fresh insights on the current dynamics of the press as well as the possibilities for renewal of the terms of the analysis – in the sociology of the media and journalism and in communication studies.