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History rapping, gently tapping…

February 16, 2011

All month, I’ve thought about what to blog (to write for a blog?) Then, perhaps as a result of the recent rather impassioned responses on the SPIG listserv to a call for that old chestnut history to take its turn on the heap, I’ve worried about the challenge to the centrality of history in a journalism-education process..

My thinking’s not always clear, often not even reasonable. Round and round: history/technology, technology/history/journalism. Repeat. Reverse. Repeat.

No matter how I approach these elements, I end up at the same point. Isn’t much of journalism history basically the story of how technology has changed the production and delivery of news?  And isn’t much of history about how technology has changed and how been harnessed to maintain a power structure, ANY power structure.)

So, if the developing tool angle is a useful point of view, why wouldn’t both techies and tree choppers find history—especially communication history—absorbing and fascinating?  For, in its simplest form, history is, quite simply, the story of how cultures and peoples have created, adapted and used technology.

To do our own adapting, then, writing a news story includes the same refocusing process. Take the 5 W’s (please, someone…) When my students first learn about writing a lede, I suggest that they think of those hackneyed stalwarts Who, What, When, Where, Why. In writing their lede, I suggest, pick the one that is primary. Is WHO said or did something what matters most? Or is the central concern WHEN? If the story concerns the time or a change of time, then don’t tell us WHO is giving the information. We need to be told about the change in WHEN.

Just as journalists routinely refocus the readers’ attention toward what is currently most important, so do historians–just not as quickly or as often. And I’m guessing that you don’t need to have much of a history to acknowledge that we’ve been here before.

If it’s not the internet and social media, it’s cold type and offset presses or matrices and type cases. These are not just news-delivery systems; these are developing technologies and once they were the new in communicating what was news. And as delivery systems change, so the importance of understanding the past becomes more critical, crucial even.

Julie Williams, one of my colleagues from the American Journalism Historians Association, recently reported that she’d been told that three prospective students said that the aspect of communication that they’d most like to study is history. Not the internet, not social media, not blogs.

Three cheers for those prospective students. And three cheers for us, too, because luckily history is something we can offer them. They already know as much (or more) than we about the interactivity of delivery systems called social media. What our new students need is guidance in applying political and cultural understandings to the study of these (and any) communication systems.

What they need is an understanding of the past so that the future is indeed the future and not an instant replay on newer technology. What they need, dare I say, is more history as well as more opportunities and challenges to apply that knowledge and understanding.

Ann Mauger Colbert
Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne

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