Many a teacher of journalism history has heard students complain about how dull or inaccessible they find any one of several available media history textbooks. And many a journalism instructor has agreed with his or her students’ complaints about de-contextualized dates and names of publishers and their historically significant newspapers strung through those tomes. Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism addresses these complaints. In Covering America, Christopher Daly has wrapped the story of American journalism from the colonial period through the digital age into a carefully researched, beautifully written, and memorable account of how news reporting mostly has grown as well as improved during the span of three centuries as innovators have exploited new technologies, constitutional protections, government subsidies, cultural trends, and business formulae to maintain their financial independence and journalistic standards while serving their readers and audiences ever more efficiently.
Daly, an associate professor of journalism at Boston University with twenty years of experience covering New England for the Washington Post and writing for the Associated Press, concentrates in Covering America on newspaper, television, and digital news with only occasional references to early twentieth-century magazines and rare mentions of public relations and advertising. His focus is the changing and expanding definition of news over time. Daly admits that in Covering America, unlike Frank Luther Mott’s or Edwin Emery’s geographically broader approaches to journalism history, he emphasizes journalism originating in New York— although Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago receive some attention when media in these cities contribute to the overall narrative. This exclusion of examples of western and southern journalism, however, contributes in two ways to the success of Covering America. It greatly reduces the clutter and detail that overwhelms so many students, and it allows Daly to hold the social, political, economic, and technological context constant as he explains the challenges and opportunities printers, for example, faced at roughly the same time and place. Rather than grasping at data, the reader finds the overall historical patterns of journalism more apparent and memorable.
In describing his history as narrative, Daly accurately describes his method of organizing this book, which is apparent from the opening paragraph of his introduction through his final chapter on “Going Digital.” Covering America, not unlike other journalism history texts, begins with Benjamin Franklin, but does so with a narrative lead one might expect from a short story or magazine feature:
On an early spring night in 1722, a young man hurried along the narrow streets of Boston, trying not to be seen. He was not a spy or a thief. He only wanted to be a writer. Just sixteen years old, Ben Franklin was hoping to get his writing published for the first time, and he had chosen a risky, roundabout route to do so.
Daly then notes that young Franklin was “skulking” around the shop of the New England Courant, owned by his brother James, in order to slip a manuscript under the door for his older brother to discover and, he hoped, to print. In this description of Franklin’s actions, Daly finds several defining characteristics of American journalism still at work today: printing was a private business, journalism was open to the young with raw talent, and the pleasure of publication drives journalists into the field.
In the first chapter on the “Foundations of the American Press, 1704-1763,” after explaining the organization of the print shop, its products, and its method of production, Daly returns to Franklin as an example of printers during this period of six decades before the American Revolution, devoting eleven of the chapter’s twenty pages to detailing his biography, readings, head for business, popular writings, and principles of journalism in his “Apology for Printers.” Within this chapter, Daly also describes the John Peter Zenger trial and acquittal for seditious libel, noting that Franklin helped Zenger obtain his attorney. Franklin receives briefer mentions in several more chapters, reminding readers the interconnections always present as journalism is transformed over time. This pattern of focusing on one or two individuals as representative of journalists from particular periods is a device of narrative compression that Daly uses in each of the chapters in Covering America. As Daly develops an overarching narrative to describe 300 years in the development of American journalism, he inserts short narratives of innovative journalists and publishers who exemplify traits of the period being described. This is how readers receive substantial information about Benjamin Day, James Gordon Bennett, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Paine, Horace Greeley, Joseph Pulitzer, Ida B. Wells, William Randolph Hearst, Adolph Ochs, Henry Luce, Harold Ross, David Sarnoff, William Paley, Walter Winchell, Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle, John Hersey, A.J. Leibling, David Halberstam, Truman Capote, Gloria Steinem, Katherine Graham, Ted Turner, Al Neuharth, and other journalistic innovators who so comfortably populate Daly’s story of the news.
Covering America would vastly improve the student experience of an often unappreciated journalism history course, particularly at the undergraduate and master’s levels. Journalism students will leave a class after reading Daly’s book with a clear understanding of the methods and values of the field they will soon enter. They will also gain some confidence that journalism will continue even if paper and ink disappear.
Joseph Bernt, Ohio University