(Editor's Note: The Intelligencer asked Dr. Matthew Pressman, recipient of AJHA's Blanchard Prize for best dissertation to tell us more about how and why he chose his doctoral dissertation topic, why it's important and interesting, and what he's working on now.)
By Matthew Pressman
Generating ideas has never been my strong suit. When I worked at Vanity Fair, I always dreaded editor-in-chief Graydon Carter’s monthly call for story ideas from all staffers. Each time, I tried to pitch at least one investigative article, one column, and one spotlight (250 words accompanied by a photo). But it was a rare occurrence for me to be satisfied with my “ideas memo”—it was even rarer for one of those ideas to make it into the magazine.
As a historian, I still struggle with idea generation, but it’s a different kind of challenge. Although the pressure is less constant, the stakes are higher—especially when the idea is for a dissertation or book. A research project like that is a multi-year commitment that can have a tremendous influence on career prospects.
Mulling over ideas for my dissertation as a second-year graduate student in 2012-13, I wasn’t thinking strategically about it. All I knew was that I wanted to fill a gap in the scholarship about a big, broad topic in American journalism history. I landed upon the question of how and when the mainstream press became contemporary—that is, when it adopted the values and practices that most people associated with it at the turn of the 21st century. The eventual result was my dissertation, “Remaking the News: The Transformation of American Journalism, 1960-1980,” which I am proud to say won the AJHA’s Blanchard Prize last year.
As I worked to refine my dissertation topic, I didn’t think much about how it might relate to the issues of the day. Having spent the previous eight years in magazine and online journalism, it felt indulgent to be able to write about something that wasn’t pegged to the latest news. Besides, as a grad student in history, I wanted to avoid the sin of “presentism.” But it turns out that my topic—changing journalistic values at a time when traditional media faced unprecedented criticism, and when technological and cultural shifts threatened newspapers’ economic survival—was quite relevant in 2016 (and remains so today).
I’m glad that’s the case. For one thing, it probably helped me get a contract to adapt my dissertation into a book, which is due out this fall (tentatively titled On Press: The Liberal Values that Shaped the News, to be published by Harvard University Press). But more importantly, it forced me to think about how the history I’m writing can help inform our understanding of the present. And it will, I hope, enable me to participate in the ongoing public discourse about journalistic values and the press’s role in society.
When casting about for my second book project, therefore, I expressly sought out ideas that would fill a gap in the scholarship and have some contemporary relevance. I think I’ve found one. I am in the early stages of researching a history of the New York Daily News in the mid-20th century. Considering that it was the highest-circulation newspaper in American history (over 2 million copies daily, over 4 million on Sundays), remarkably little has been written about it—there is a yawning gap in the scholarship. Plus, the paper’s coverage in those days reflected a nationalistic, right-wing populist viewpoint that bears striking similarities to that of President Donald Trump and many of his supporters. It’s a history that can help us better understand the present.
However, it isn’t enough for a research topic to be underexposed and relevant; it also has to be feasible. And for a historian, that means primary sources must be available. Researching my dissertation spoiled me, in a way. I used the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times as my two case studies. The voluminous, meticulously catalogued records of both newspapers are held in archives (the Huntington Library and the New York Public Library, respectively), and the back issues are entirely digitized and easily available via ProQuest (via subscription). Moreover, since I was writing about relatively recent history, I was able to conduct oral history interviews with many of the journalists who worked at those two papers during the 1960s and 70s.
The Daily News will present a greater challenge for research. Archival materials from the paper’s history are scarce, and they are scattered in multiple collections throughout the U.S. The back issues are not digitized, and very few libraries have the microfilm in their holdings. But I really like this idea, and given how rarely that happens, I’m sticking with it.
P.S. If any AJHA-ers have leads/suggestions on Daily News research material, I’m all ears!
Dr. Matthew Pressman is an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Boston University.