Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers

Article excerpt

Nord, David Paul. Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. 293 pp. $29.95.

In twelve beautifully written essays, all previously published, David Paul Nord examines journalism as a vital component of communities. By nature, journalism is public; publication means to make public, he explains. He points out that communities are built, maintained, and wrecked in communication. Yet the role that journalism played in American society has not been contained in the purely public realm. He critically notes that the technical nature of the printing press clearly favored and centralized the one-way point to mass dissemination. Too, the commercialism of the penny press overshadowed the connection between newspapers and associations that Alexis de Tocqueville recounted.

Nord notes that in static communities the most potent forms of communication are traditions-religion, myth, ritual, and habit-which helped to shape American society. In several essays he demonstrates the power of the religious roots to journalism. Yet, when community building is active, as it has been during much of American history, communication becomes more conscious, more formal, more organized. He explains how.

Nord's public communities are primarily active with religious elites, political arenas, reform associations, ethnic communities, cultural interest groups, urban communities, reform efforts, and nation-building groups. To tie this wide-ranging set of essays together, he approaches journalism from two parts to explain the public role of journalism. Deeply rooted in the New England seventeenth-century religious culture, the producers, the institutions, and the content of journalism form one part. The second part concerns the consumers, the readers.

As an example of the first part, New England journalism, which was an extension of British culture, spawned the characteristics of American news. The publication of unusual occurrences in almanacs and sermons were what Nord calls reportorial empiricism and authoritative interpretation. The subject matter and the method of reporting became contingent upon the social contexts of the time and place. Such news in the beginning was religious and public as well as directly accessible to individual people. Yet, by the early eighteenth century news was no longer teleological (divine, according to God's perfect plan) but rather two-fold: the early newspapers distinguished between what was important (official public actions) and what was interesting (unusual public occurrences).

In another essay, he adds to the concept of the public role of journalism with a new interpretation of the John Peter Zenger case. Nord argues that the case was religious in nature over the disputation on truth and how truth is revealed to man. The individual had the right only to serve the truth because men were free to serve God.

In each of his separate essays, Nord gives a model of not only deeply developed ideas but a careful use of the primary media sources complemented by the latest historical studies with many explanations in his endnotes. More than almost anyone in the field, Nord intersects journalism and history, the news and the interpretation. He points out that historians look back for origins while journalists look ahead for outcomes. In contrast, historians begin at the beginning, and journalists begin at the end.

To combine both fields, Nord's third essay begins in the historical middle with the early national period newspapers. To be an American was to participate in the revolutionary dialogue begun by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The early Republic newspapers played an important role by amplifying the hostilities and intensifying the state crises; by doing so publicly, they made the dialogue of nation-being possible.

In another essay, Nord argues that the 1830s marked a lush first flowering of democratic journalism in America-associational, participatory journalism much as de Tocqueville had heralded in 1831-32 but with the abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. …