NHC Sponsors Sessions on Newspapers, Jews of Europe, Oral History, and More

Marian J. Barber, February 2013

The lessons of history for American newspapers, early warnings of Hitler's menace, and the current legal challenges facing oral historians were but a few of the themes that animated the 10 sessions sponsored by National History Center of the American Historical Association (NHC) at the AHA's 2013 annual meeting in New Orleans.

Historian of journalism David Paul Nord challenged journalist members of the roundtable "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers" to consider several previous turning points in the history of metropolitan papers. He noted that contrary to conventional wisdom, they did not move to daily publication in response to civic needs, but to meet the demands of businesspeople for up-to-date information on subjects such as crop conditions, prices, and shipping. Stirred by the New Orleans Times-Picayune's decision to cut its daily print schedule to thrice weekly, the panel was moderated by veteran newswoman Geneva Overholser, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). It focused on the changing world of print journalism, including magazines and quarterly journals. Panelists also included David Westphal of the foundation-funded Center for Health Reporting at USC; James Amoss, editor of the Times-Picayune; and Steven Lagerfeld, editor of the Wilson Quarterly.

Amoss recalled a "revelatory moment" during Hurricane Katrina, when most of the newsroom had gone dark. He saw a faint light in one corner and discovered there a small space filled with reporters and editors who were using cell phones to put the news onto the Internet. As the crisis led into months of recovery, when in large parts of the city "there were no doorsteps to put a newspaper on," the Times-Picayune developed what is, four days a week, its flagship product—NOLA.com.

While most of the discussion centered on such recent events, Lagerfeld pointed to the demise decades ago of general interest magazines such as the Saturday Review, Life, and Look, replaced by a wide array of publications catering to narrower interests. Westphal, formerly of the Des Moines Register and McClatchy Newspapers, talked about how reporting is shifting to entities such as the Center for Health Reporting. These organizations feed publications that can no longer afford large staffs, providing expertise in specific subject areas that in the glory days would have been covered by a paper's own beat reporters. The session was recorded by the History News Network.

Another highlight of the center's sessions was a conversation about Bernard Wasserstein's recent book, On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War, moderated by Marty Kaplan of USC's Norman Lear Center. The Lear Center is a partner with the NHC and the AHA in the initiative, "Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right." Wasserstein outlined his findings, which were discussed by Ann Millin, historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft; and journalist Andrew Nagorski, author of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power. Millin pointed out the challenges to historians attempting to get this period right: in preparation for war crimes tribunals, the Allies locked down documentary evidence left by the Nazis, while most such evidence of the Jews was lost. In response to a question from Kaplan, Nagorski noted that Dorothy Thompson was among several respected journalists who initially got the Nazi story spectacularly wrong: She initially doubted in print that the Hitler she met would ever lead Germany, though she was later among those who recognized his menace. Brief video excerpts from this panel are available on the NHC's website.

An international roundtable on oral history featured the president of the International Oral History Association, Miroslav Vaněk of the Czech Republic; Regina Fitzpatrick of the Oral History Network of Ireland; the president of the Oral History Association of the U.S., Mary Larson; and historian of the U.S. Senate, Donald A. Ritchie, a past president of the Oral History Association. Vaněk and Fitzpatrick discussed the past and present state of the field in Europe; Fitzpatrick illustrated her talk with vintage photos of historians recording the recollections of the Irish in the 1930s. Larson and Ritchie covered current legal issues, focusing on efforts to shield oral historians and their subjects from subpoena and to exempt oral history from U.S. federal regulations intended to protect human research subjects.

The center also sponsored well-attended sessions on the idea of the "Progressive Era"; how environmental historians address the subject of war; the special challenges of biography; new approaches to the history of decolonization; the West and Islam in historical perspective; and the origins of the Eurozone crisis.

Marian Barber is the associate director of the National History Center.