From the News column of the December 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

The History News Service: Fourteen Years On

Joyce Appleby and James M. Banner Jr., December 2010

In 1996 we created the History News Service, an informal syndicate of historians who write op-ed pieces distributed to newspapers and wire services throughout North America. We did so in the modest hope that HNS would encourage more historians to bring their knowledge to bear on public affairs. Since we’ve recently turned the helm of HNS over to a new captain, we think that some reflections on what we’ve achieved and the difficulties that today confront any effort like this are in order.

As to achievements: HNS pieces (between 50 and 60 distributed each year) have appeared in most, possibly all, of the nation’s metropolitan dailies—the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Houston Chronicle, and the Seattle Times being good examples—that accept op-eds for one-time, nonexclusive use. Many have appeared in multiple papers at once. And we have been able occasionally to gain them publication in those newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune, that accept pieces only for exclusive use there. Equally important in an electronic age, since they are offered for free use as long as credit is given, HNS pieces appear soon after publication on web sites like that of the History News Network and often elsewhere throughout the world. HNS has thus proven able to amplify historians’ voices while introducing historical knowledge into public debates across the globe.

In addition, HNS has recruited to its ranks of writers many historians, graduate students being the most gratifying, who previously had not written for the public or tried their hands at the demanding little art form—a maximum of 800 nonscholarly words—that op-eds are. Many have gotten their first tastes of the public approval and sharp attack that sometimes often attends writing sharply argued, short articles for the general public. Some HNS writers have gone on to write published op-eds on their own. HNS, which works hard to shape pieces and then edits them vigorously, has thus proved to be a kind of training ground for historians wishing to write for audiences beyond their colleagues and students.

In recent years, however, HNS has been affected by its own successes and by the electronic revolution. Since web sites don’t impose the word limitations that newspapers do, some historians who originally gained public exposure by writing for HNS have instead chosen to write longer articles for posting elsewhere; some have no doubt sought to avoid HNS’s tough editorial shaping and oversight. Newspapers, themselves suffering from falling revenues and departing readers, have cut back on their editorial staffs and the space they allot to op-ed articles. One consequence is that even the best op-eds have become harder to place than before. Another is the discouragement that HNS writers sometimes experience when their relevant and deeply knowledgeable pieces don’t gain the exposure they deserve.

HNS is now in the practiced hands of David Paul Nord of Indiana University who knows at first hand of these challenges. A professor of journalism as well as of history and a highly respected historian of newspapers, books, journalism, publishing, and reading who has served as interim and associate editor of The Journal of American History, he brings a range of skills and experiences perfect for HNS. We are confident that he’ll find ways for HNS to adjust to an ever-changing world of print and electronic publishing and retain for it the place among historians that it has gained. We surrender HNS with mixed feelings. While our days will be somewhat less busy, we will miss the neverending interactions with those who, over the past 14 years, have submitted texts to us for review and distribution. We will also miss the support and encouragement of our HNS colleagues. Among them, James Boylan, Nancy Unger, and Christopher Bates have been among the longest serving and the most critical to HNS operations. They, along with many others, have our warmest gratitude. May David Nord gain from their continuing assistance.

Joyce Appleby (UCLA, emerita) was president of the AHA. James M. Banner Jr. is a founder, and currently the treasurer, of the National History Center.