Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

The Revolution of the Fourth Estate

As a journalist, I've used the phrase, "fourth estate" to describe the press for as long as I can recall. But when thinking about this blog, I realized that I couldn't clearly track its origin. A few minutes on Google, and I found what I wanted:

It was Thomas Carlyle, a British historian of the 19th century, who popularized the term "fourth estate" in reference to the press. Carlyle credited an earlier man of letters, Edmund Burke, with the phrase, saying that Burke had observed that in addition to the "three estates" represented in Parliament -- king, lords and commons -- there was a "fourth estate," the press, more powerful than them all.

Now, more than 150 years after Carlyle memorialized the power of the press, that power is being threatened by economics. Scott Lewis , the new CEO of , knows that the revolution in the news industry is here. Newspapers are disappearing as advertising revenue shrinks and readers do not have a history of & paying for content . According to Slate Magazine's founder, Michael Kinsley, what readers have paid for are paper and distribution.

But Scott Lewis believes that people will decide how much news is worth to them and will figure out a way to support investigative news, analyses, contextual and in-depth reporting. His organization has done away with the expense of newsprint. Certainly San Diego is becoming replete with online news services. There are targeted publications to news with a San Diego focus to more global services .

The theme of that conversation with Scott Lewis tells me what the future of the Fourth Estate could be once the revolution is over and the dust has cleared. It might be modeled on what KPBS has pioneered & ndash; a paperless nonprofit enterprise supported by people who voluntarily contribute to its support. Their choice to willingly pay for content is directly motivated by the quality and value that content offers to the individual and the community. What began on the campus of San Diego State more than 40 years ago has survived several troubled economic periods of downturns and recessions. In fact, that experiment in journalism and personal choice has succeeded and prospered, and may very well lead the way for the next iteration of Carlyle's powerful press.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.