Historians and the Public(s)
A News Service by Historians
James M. Banner Jr., May 2000
Historians have often written opinion editorials, or "op-eds," that throw historical light upon current events. But until recently their efforts were entirely individual and directed at single newspapers. Many, like I, knew the pleasures of being published on the editorial pages of national and regional newspapers, but we also knew the inefficiencies and frustrations of single submissions. It always seemed to me that there ought to be a better way for historians to help a wider range of newspaper readers understand issues in the headlines rather than through such hit-or-miss efforts. But I never conceived of what that means might be.
So when in 1996 Joyce Appleby, then president-elect of the AHA, asked for historians to step forth to write op-eds for newspapers, I seized the chance to work with her to see whether we could create an effective system of syndicating historians' writings about current events. The result was the History News Service (HNS), which went into operation in early 1997 and has recently celebrated its third anniversary.
HNS is premised on a few simple propositions that historians will not gainsay. No human events can be understood fully unless understood historically. For want of historical contextualization, the full significance and implications of breaking news events often escape us. Professional historians have a responsibility to help people understand events historically, for if they don't, others less knowledgeable than they will surely try to do so and probably make a mess of it. Historians ought to offer their knowledge to others without waiting to be asked for it—and then hope that others will disseminate that knowledge for them.
HNS acts on these convictions by distributing op-ed pieces directly and simultaneously to a growing list of noncompeting daily metropolitan newspapers in the United States, Canada, and Bermuda, and indirectly through three small wire services that distribute articles to other papers—all of which (now numbering 90) have a potential combined readership of over 15 million people. It does so entirely through e-mail—that miraculous medium that has made it possible for HNS to operate without raising a cent of funds or holding a formal meeting of its steering committee at O'Hare Airport.
HNS contributors, who have been Canadian and British as well as American, must pass no litmus test except that of being historians—whether it be as graduate students or senior professors, whether independently, academically, or otherwise employed. All articles are submitted via e-mail to both Joyce Appleby and me (to her at email@example.com and to me at firstname.lastname@example.org). Their subjects can be and have been wide ranging—on European and Asian as well as American topics, set in ancient as well as modern contexts, concerning social and cultural as well as political and diplomatic issues. Once we approve submitted articles, often after revision, articles are edited (with the author's full involvement) and then distributed electronically to editorial page editors.
Compensation? Since decisions to publish depend upon the discretion of editors, publication can't be guaranteed. But when publication occurs, the often ensuing letters to editors and responses directly to authors are the chief satisfactions. Informed citizens generally have a better record of candid responses to our writing than fellow scholars. Pay? Alas little, and that only occasional. Fame? Little, too. Professional contribution? We like to think, and so tell HNS authors, that going through the HNS acceptance and editorial mill is worth a line on a resume that the piece was a peer-reviewed text—even if a sometimes unpublished one.
It turns out, of course, that this little art form is challenging for many, perhaps most, historians. Like scholarly articles and books, the op-ed form has its own exacting requirements: timeliness, directness, clarity, compression—800 words at most. No footnotes, no references to others' work, no intramural arguments. No "hermeneutics," no "alterity." Just good, strong, Anglo-Saxon words and a concise argument that holds its focus steadfastly on current (not past) events while placing them in historical perspective.
It should seem easy, but it isn't. We try to provide what help we can in strengthening submitted texts. Perhaps only one in two submissions make it through our system. But when they do, they have more or less met the guidelines for writing these devilishly demanding articles that HNS has put up on its web site (http://h-net.msu.edu/~hns/), a site now registered with the major Web search engines. Sample op-ed pieces with explanatory comments about them, copies of recently distributed articles, and general information about HNS can also be found there.
What has been HNS's success after three years? Acceptable and increasing. It now distributes on average one article every two weeks. We would like that number to rise to at least one per week. HNS articles have been published in such representative dailies as the Sacramento Bee, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. HNS authors always receive bylines, and HNS itself increasingly receives credit as the syndicating source.
In addition, HNS pieces are distributed to the editors of H-Net listservs for dissemination at editors' discretion to list members. HNS articles also go to Bryan Le Beau of Creighton University, a member of the HNS steering committee and producer of "Talking History," a pioneering half-hour weekly radio program sent by satellite to public radio stations around the country. Le Beau frequently uses HNS articles as the basis of news stories or asks authors to record by telephone hookup brief talks based on their articles. HNS also offers its pieces to TomPaine.com, an online source of historical material for journalists and opinion makers (http://www.tompaine.com).
Recently, HNS has begun, on a highly selective basis, to send pieces to those national dailies that require exclusive one-time publication rights: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. In return, HNS is requiring (and hopes to receive) a 24-hour decision from these newspapers so that, failing acceptance, a rejected piece can then be distributed as usual to regular recipients of HNS texts for nonexclusive use.
It would be inaccurate to claim that HNS has met its full potential yet or that HNS exhausts the additional initiatives that might be taken to convey knowledge to a larger public. Since op-eds are intrinsically difficult to write, evidence of their publication hard to determine (despite the best efforts of Lexis-Nexis), compensation usually nil, and professional reward slim, writing them must be, as the creation of knowledge usually is, an act of faith—that an author's work may be published and make a difference to readers' knowledge and understanding. In addition, HNS has made recent arrangements through the Tallahassee Democrat to have select articles "sent up" to the Knight-Ridder news wire and thus distributed to editors of all Knight-Ridder newspapers.
As for professional historians themselves, HNS has identified, drawn out, and provided an outlet for talents and aspiration that in many cases lay dormant for lack of outlets. Some historians have written one article for HNS, others a number of them. Some have submitted articles that show practiced experience with the op-ed form; others have gained new skills. The work of all shows that it is possible and practicable for talented writers of history to bring their specialized knowledge to bear on matters of current interest and concern.
HNS always explores additional means of distributing historical knowledge. It has been suggested that HNS review historic sites for travel sections and provide reviews of books for those newspapers that don't or can't employ and pay regular reviewers. It might also be possible to distribute what could be called "editorial memoranda." These would be press releases—distinct from book reviews—carrying information about the contents of historians' books and articles that might serve as the basis of news stories and commentary by reporters and editorial writers. It is also conceivable that HNS would transform itself from an informal news service into a fee-charging syndicate with regular paid writers.
HNS has so far, we think, created a means to serve both history and the general public by mobilizing historians to apply their scholarly knowledge for general public benefit. I like to think of HNS's work as applied scholarly history. Invoking a distinction that Charles Grench, the history editor of Yale University Press, has made to me in another context, HNS op-ed pieces are learned without being scholarly. They are not—they cannot be, because editors won't accept them—history essays. Instead, they constitute a separate genre of historical writing and art. The more that are written and the better they become, greater will be the contribution of historians to public understanding and discourse.
—James M. Banner Jr., codirector with Joyce Appleby of the History News Service and an independent historian in Washington, D.C., has in process a work tentatively entitled "Being a Historian: A Preface to the Practices of History Today." Most recently, he is the coauthor, with Harold C. Cannon, of The Elements of Teaching and The Elements of Learning (Yale University Press, 1997 and 1999, respectively) and of "Federalism—Still in Need of Reconsideration," in Doron Ben-Atar and Barbara B. Oberg (eds.), Federalists Reconsidered (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 246–53.