Old Newspapers Lead Students to New Discoveries: A Valuable Collection of Historic Newspapers Is Used to Put 'Journalistic Skills to Work on News Long Dead.'

By Cumming, Doug | Nieman Reports, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Old Newspapers Lead Students to New Discoveries: A Valuable Collection of Historic Newspapers Is Used to Put 'Journalistic Skills to Work on News Long Dead.'


Cumming, Doug, Nieman Reports


Journalists learn a lot on the job, but one thing they don't learn is good journalism history. In newsrooms, reporters tend to absorb a local house history, a slapdash script full of legends that instruct and inspire and might even be true. But it's a narrow, parochial history.

When I worked at the Providence Journal-Bulletin in the 1970's and '80's, I heard folk tales about the noble crankiness of our city editor, Al Johnson, going back four decades. I was intrigued that two of the most skeptical critics of American journalism, A.J. Liebling and Ben Bagdikian, began at the Providence papers. (The Providence Journal, to its credit, produced an impressive official history on its 150th anniversary in 1980.) Later, at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I could trace that newspaper's house history by way of a miniature brass cannon in the lobby. Editors Henry Grady and Ralph McGill each fired that cannon in turn when the Democratic Party retook the White House, first in 1884, then in 1960. Their successor on the editorial page, Cynthia Tucker, aware of the racist background of the era that forged the cannon, declined to keep the tradition in 1992. When Bill Kovach was editor there in the 1980's, he restored and used the roll-top desk that had been Grady's and McGill's. Such is journalism history in the field.

I'm in academia now, where journalism history is more fussy and monkish, resting on agate footnotes and bibliographies. Not many journalism programs require media history for undergraduate majors. Here at Washington & Lee University, for instance, it was not even offered when I joined the department three years ago. We require ethics and law to round out the other requirements in reporting, writing, editing and production. There is little room for media history, since the bulk of a journalism student's education must be in other departments, to provide a strong liberal arts grounding. We would prefer that our students learn history in the history department. But if it could be squeezed in, journalism history could inspire and instruct future journalists in more sustaining ways than the parochial history they will pick up around the newsroom.

Learning the social history of news as a practice shines a whole new light on the so-called core values of the profession--objectivity, independence, fairness and all that. Historically viewed, these are not commandments divinely revealed, or platonic forms, but practices that emerge and change opportunistically over time. The study of media history shows a mass market not as inevitable, but an amazing evolution, infinitely rich and random. And the firewall between advertising and newsgathering is seen as the improbable miracle that it is. Or was. This understanding is the essence of a liberal-arts cast of mind, and it should be what we expect of an educated journalist.

Teaching history in a journalism department can have another side benefit, as 1 learned in designing a course 1 taught last fall called "Discovering Early American Newspapers." History, I have found, can be approached as a reporter would stalk a story, a search for revealing documents, tips, evidence and anecdotes. This is the way historians and their graduate students approach archival material. …

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Old Newspapers Lead Students to New Discoveries: A Valuable Collection of Historic Newspapers Is Used to Put 'Journalistic Skills to Work on News Long Dead.'
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