Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism

By Christopher B. Daly. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. 546 pp. $49.95.

From the earliest days of European colonization of North America, the settlers were by and large literate and able to afford reading materials. That was the backdrop for the birth of the press in what eventually became the United States. Historian and one-time reporter, Christopher B. Daly provides a narrative history of journalism, of its major figures, institutions, and industry from 1704 to the early 2000s. He devotes much of his narrative to the lives of individual publishers, such as printer Benjamin Franklin, publisher James Gordon Bennett, and editor William Randolph Hearst, describing the organizations they built, the publications they produced, and the effects they had on the profession of journalism. The book is organized in two parts, the first covering events from 1704 to the 1920s, the second where he focuses on the media from the 1920s to the present. The first was all about print publications, from broadsides to newspapers and magazines, while the second in addition included radio, television, and most recently, the Internet.

While narrating the evolution of the press into the profession of journalism, he pays considerable attention to their business organizations: how they made money and who bought their products, because the vast majority of the work done by this sector of the American economy was conducted by private enterprises. As with other industries, media evolved in response to changes in the American economy, political attitudes, desires of their customers (readers), and events in the life of the nation. Technologies came that also altered the events of this industry, from the introduction of the telegraph in the nineteenth century to the arrival of the Internet in the twentieth.

Daly argues that the history of journalism went through five cycles. The first (1704-1832) involved a highly politicized and partisan press, while the second (1832-1900) saw the commercialization of a national news industry with large newspapers, a national readership, and the development of specialized workforces, such as full-time reporters. The third era (1900-1974) witnessed the professionalization of news gathering and reporting, both of which occurred during a time when electronic media came into its own. The fourth period (1965-1995) Daly characterizes as the time when media businesses conglomerated, with newspapers and radio and television becoming parts of much larger enterprises, often run by executives with little or no background in journalism. The fifth era (since 1995) introduces the period of the PC and the Internet.

Most readers familiar with the history of American newspapers, magazines, and journalism will find no surprises in this synthetic well-written history up through World War II. The chapters covering the next six decades, however, are some of the best in this book, providing a history of journalism through the Cold War, the Vietnam period, and recent national developments, most notably the arrival of the Internet. It is these later chapters that provides much new material, and offers a synthesis of developments on the part of the media, but that also contributes an analysis on the expanding role of citizens in using their content. Consistent across all periods is his attention to technological innovations, the economics of the media industry, the culture of the profession, the political environment in which they operated, and finally on the work values of the profession. He includes discussions about the African-American press and the role of women in each period, beginning after the Age of Jackson and extending to the present. In the process, he demonstrates that these communities initially had an alternative, yet parallel, development alongside mainstream journalism that during the twentieth century increasingly became more intertwined with the activities and institutions of American journalism. This was particularly the case with African American journalism. However, he barely discusses Hispanic journalism of the late twentieth century, possibly because it may not yet have developed sufficiently to warrant attention in such a broad treatment of American journalism.

This is a useful, very up-to-date one volume narrative summary of the story. It is not a book based on archival research; rather, Daly relies extensively on secondary literature, which he documents in notes and in a bibliography. For students of the history of information, this is a welcome addition to the literature on who supplied many types of publications to the American public and how they functioned. It is a practical volume for both students of American history and for participants in American media, such as journalists, editors and publishers. In the vernacular of today’s media, it is also “a good read.”

James W. Cortada, IBM Institute for Business Value