Daily newspapers shuttered. Radio and TV networks swimming in red ink. Reporters and editors enduring widespread buyouts and layoffs.
This was the landscape of the news business that Boston University professor Christopher B. Daly confronted as he began researching the history of American journalism about eight years ago. It occurred to him that he just might end up having to write the obituary of American journalism.
“The dark days seemed so dark,” Mr. Daly, a summer Aquinnah resident, said in a recent interview. “But actually . . . I stayed at it long enough to emerge with a feeling of great optimism. I actually feel we are on the verge . . . of a great period of journalism.”
A former Associated Press reporter and Washington Post correspondent for New England, Mr. Daly begins his new book, Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism (University of Massachusetts Press), with a simple instruction: to understand the news business, one must understand news as a business.
And so the current economic tumult in news can be placed in historical context, in which journalism has had to periodically adapt to social, economic and technological change. As he writes in the book, “Each new phase of journalism history contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction and renewal.”
Both journalist and scholar, Mr. Daly writes that he combines “an insider’s knowledge with an outsider’s skepticism.” He left daily journalism for teaching in 1997 amid the tectonic changes rattling the industry; his job at the Post has since been eliminated.
“There is always a shakeout, yes,” he said last week. “And there are winners and losers. There have been terrible times recently in our field. I think we’ve reached the bottom — I sure hope so. But what I think is easy to lose sight of . . . are those brand-new, online-only ventures that are both doing good journalism and making money, which is no small thing.”
Mr. Daly has had one foot in journalism and the other in history for much of his adult life. As an undergraduate American history major at Harvard, he wrote for the college newspaper. He then worked for several years as a journalist, returned to academia to get a master’s degree in American history from the University of North Carolina and came back to daily journalism. But when he started teaching full-time at B.U., the journalism history course was an orphan, a course no one else wanted to teach.
“I did a really quick immersion in the history of journalism,” he said. “And it turned out I loved teaching the courses.” Now there are anywhere from 60 to 120 students in the classes each semester.
He eventually saw a place for a book that would blend the best examples of journalism and the industry’s changes over the centuries into a sweeping narrative. Mr. Daly has largely succeeded: The book is a welcome addition to the journalism history shelf, with crossover appeal to general audiences due to its narrative power and elegant writing.
As a result of his research, he has come to advocate for the importance of journalism history among other genres — political, military and social histories — that attempt to explain America. You can’t begin to understand the American revolution, for example, without appreciating the power of Thomas Paine’s argument for independence. A history of the Civil War is incomplete without an explanation of the role newspapers played in helping divide the country, he says.
“And again, and again, and again, you see it down through the generations, the newspapers, then radio, TV, photography, the Web, all of these things are really central to how this country came to be,” Mr. Daly said.
Along the way are stories of pivotal figures, including Benjamin Franklin and his business acumen and World War II columnist Ernie Pyle and his evocative prose about the G.I. (The late Katharine Graham, John Hersey, Art Buchwald and Mike Wallace, all summer Vineyard residents, also merited entries.)
Mr. Daly underscores the point that journalism is essential to the health of the country. What gives him hope are the better and cheaper tools available to journalists, as well as the lowest barriers to new publishers since Franklin’s time. You don’t need a printing press, barrels of ink and rolls of newsprint. Power up the laptop, and type in your blog’s web address.
“A journalist today, with the things you can put in a briefcase or a handbag, can go further, see more, record more, more accurately, more vividly than at any time in history,” the author said.
“When I was starting out in my own career in the seventies, to produce a multimedia package — it wasn’t even a concept we had — you would have needed a truck full of gear and specialists,” he said. “You would have needed Disney Studios, basically, to follow you around on assignment.”
What remain as challenges for the future, he added, are a press whose independence is linked to its economic health and a commitment to originally-reported news that transcends the celebrity gossip, public relations fluff and partisan bloviating that often passes for journalism today.