The Postwar Decline of American Newspapers, 1945-1965. David R. Davies. 200 pp. $109.95 hbk. Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. James Brian McPherson. 256 pp. $139.95 hbk. (The History of American Journalism Series, James D. Startt and Wm. David Sloan, eds.) Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.
These two slender, richly packed volumes complete a seven-book hardcover set that is a terrific graduate-study reference source and useful for specialized undergraduate history courses. The series was designed to consolidate the latest gains in scholarship in a field that has been challenged every decade since the 1950s to be more something or othermore like what "real" historians do, more sociological, more theoretical, deeper, more skeptical, more humanistic, more intellectual. This project favors the broadly humanistic path, not the way of theory or social science. But the books in general also avoid the opposite extreme, the Whiggish and Progressive sins of looking through the lens of some ideal form of a free press or professional journalism. The series synthesizes the latest, more stable findings of journalism history in the broad era-sequences of American history. The first five volumes all use "Press" in their titles, and even these final two shy away from "communication" and "media" as their subject.
The Davies and McPherson books, like the others, follow chronology and themes by chapter, with some overlap. A final ninth chapter in each provides "Reflections" on the era, and this is followed by a bibliographic essay, notes, references, and an index. In Davies' Postwar Decline of American Newspapers, the themes are primarily about the newspaper business-the rising costs of production, the slow adoption of new technology, the relative flattening of circulation, the competition from television, the suburbanization of readership, and the lazy growth of profits that soothed the industry's worries about such problems. Sub-themes take note of the flowering of press criticism in the late 1940s, the challenge to white Southern journalists posed by the civil rights movement, and President Kennedy's two-faced courtship of the press.
Davies has compressed a vast amount of information that lies moldering in the two decades of trade publications like Editor & Publisher and documents of the profession such as the annual proceedings of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Davies suggests that newspapers were in a kind of unacknowledged decline, even in crisis, and provides plenty of details about strikes and newsprint prices. But the book does not actually make a strong argument to support its thesis of decline. Indeed, it is not always clear whether the thing in decline is the industry, the profession of journalism, or the vitality of a free press in a democratic society. …