Making the American Newsroom

Will Mari is Assistant Professor of Media Law & History at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. His new book, The American Newsroom: A History, 1920-1960 was published this past July.

Guild Reporter, Oct. 1, 1942, 12. In this cartoon, the American Newspaper Guild (ANG) is portrayed as a positive force for quality-of-life benefits, even in the midst of World War Two.

When turning a dissertation into a book, any (fairly!) young scholar has to make some hard choices. That was certainly the case with this project.

My research had taken so long (starting in 2012) and had been so—at least initially—over-ambitious, that I had to learn to stop at a certain point. That process has thus been an important part of this book and its journey to publication.  

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I had originally hoped to write the entire history of the American newsroom, from the mid-nineteenth century through the present. I had been inspired in my initial work on journalism textbooks, and before that, on British journalism in the eighteenth century, during a brief year away at the University of Cambridge, to think big and bold. Maybe too bold, looking back on it all.

Editor & Publisher, April 21, 1934. In this cartoon by Denys Wortman, of the New York World-Telegram, an ambitious reporter is kvetching to a fellow about their editor.

My dissertation advisor, the gracious and brilliant Richard Kielbowicz, had encouraged me to limit my scope, to finish, perhaps, in the mid- or at most the latter-third of the century, with my newsroom history. Richard’s wise advice was to write on a more banded time period, basically lead up to the initial computerization, and later, the internetization, of the newsroom space, focusing on its work culture and its internal life. Instead of telling all the stories of where the newsroom had come from, I would tell the main story of how it had formed during the era of “industrial journalism” in the midcentury, following the research of such smart scholars such as Aurora Wallace and Michael Stamm.

At first, I confess, my prideful, young, grad-student mind wanted to push Richard’s wise admonition to its limit, and when I starting reading journalism trade publications such as Editor & Publisher and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Quill, along with the American Newspaper Guild’s Reporter, I really thought I could still write “at least” a history of news workers and their workplace experiences (i.e. in and out of the newsroom) from the First World War through the end of the 1970s, when such newsroom ethnographers as Herbert Gans (with his Deciding What’s News) and Gaye Tuchman (with her Making News) changed journalism studies (and thus ultimately media history) in positive ways, with their focus on the sociology of news and daily work practices. Michael Schudson’s now-classicDiscovering the News, published in 1978, along with the work of Bonnie Brennen, Linda Steiner and ‪Ted Curtis Smythe, also influenced my dissertation, and later, my book’s, scope. I have long loved how they can all tell good stories, and do good scholarship. That’s something I’m still working on, for sure, as I learn to accept some of my limitations.

Louis A. Paige, “The other fellow’s job,” Editor & Publisher, April 18, 1936.

But back to the story of this book. Quickly, my lofty aspirations hit the tall, rocky wall of reality, when I got my first academic posting at a teaching-focused university. There, while trying to balance (many!) courses and service obligations, I realized, rather late, that a more-limited project would still, I hope, have its merits. And thus my book’s focus moved to the 1920s through the 1950s, from the interwar period through the early Cold War. I began to love the value of focused research. That helped the project in two ways. First, it made me think hard about how news workers had evolved, perhaps due to their proximity to one another in large, industrialized newsrooms, from blue collar to more self-consciously white-collar workers. The impact of unionization and college education on journalists became more important to my research. Second, I had to confront the impact of technology tools on news workers and newsrooms more explicitly, in the transition from analog to digital technologies, and the paths-not-taken between them. Basically, I had to think about how news workers felt and then responded to the use of devices such as the telephone, radio car, and later, the first use of computers in the newsroom, more than if I had taken that “grand” view of newsroom history.

“Grin and bear it,” Guild Reporter, Sept. 26, 1952.

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