By Ross F. Collins, president, American Journalism Historians Association
One of AJHA’s long-term goals from its founding in 1981 emphasizes raising awareness of journalism and mass media history as a significant and important field of research within the larger history discipline. In its efforts to showcase the work of American journalism history scholars, AJHA has I think raised scholarly awareness of media history, and certainly has raised the bar for high-quality research. But we are not alone in efforts to do that.
In the last Intelligencer I introduced many of our members to work of our journalism history colleagues in France. Le Temps des Médias, the scholarly research journal of media historians writing in French, has appeared since 2003. According to Christian Delporte, its director, the journal’s founding rests on a goal similar to that of AJHA. In 2000, when the sponsoring Société pour l’histoire des médias (SPHM; Society for Media History) was founded, “the research area was still little recognized in the French academy,” says Delporte. “Even the expression ‘media history’ had not really acquired respectability.”
Despite that, French scholars certainly had produced towering achievements in media history. The five-volume General History of the French Press from the 1970s is an immense reference far beyond anything ever produced for any other country’s journalism that I’m aware of. But since that time I thought media history research in France had seemed to lose some steam. In 1996 Jean-Noël Jeanneney published his one-volume A History of Media from Its Origins to Today. “We were familiar with historians of the press,” said Delporte. “We saw the appearance of historians of television, even of radio. By then the idea of a ‘historian of media’ was no longer surprising, and we were delighted.” But he and other French scholars deplored the absence of university structure or scholarly organization for media history study. “We never met without raising our incantation: ‘Something must be done!’”
Jeanneney brought greater public awareness to French media history study as well-known Radio France director, politician, and from 2002 to 2007 president of the Bibliothèque Nationale (French National Library, equivalent of Library of Congress). In 2000 Delporte, along with prominent French media history scholars Gilles Feyel, Michael Palmer and Hélène Eck, met to formalize a plan. They proposed a group open to media history study of any aspect, economic, cultural, social or political, technical, industrial, and open to researchers of all disciplines, both French and international, who worked to advance interest in scholarship of mass media history. SPHM was born in 2000.
Today, Delporte believes media history study has evolved. “It is no longer identified only as history of the press.” It has extended to questions of media culture and cultural exchange, has reached to studies of image and sound, and has led to exploitation of new archives. In sum, media history has moved to “the heart of the field of contemporary historical study.”
But, Delporte admits, still, universities do not always recognize the vitality of what he calls a young discipline. He credits SPHM still for moving media history into the mainstream.
I have been a member of SPHM since its inception, but I admit I’m still part of a small group of United States mass media scholars who are reaching out internationally. In fact, according to the SPHM directory, in this group we comprise three. One is Jeremy Popkin of the University in Kentucky, the monumental English-language scholar of French revolutionary-era journalism who was a founding member of SPHM. I like to keep good company.
This group did not offer international research conventions until 2016—at which research papers in English were accepted. Despite a Ph.D. in French history, my ability to write French at a scholarly level is pathetic, so I jumped on the opportunity to present in English. The June conference in a Paris suburb turned out to be a delightful occasion to meet with media history scholars from around Europe, and to see how media history has grown from mostly a topic of interest to U.S. scholars to one of general appeal throughout Western culture and beyond. SPHM is on the verge of publishing a book based on this conference, Penser l’histoire des medias (Thinking of Media History, CNRS Editions), in which I have a modest contribution.
Next year SPHM will be meeting in Switzerland. And in case you’re wondering—most of these international scholars can speak English. As unfair as that is, the language of global scholarship has become that annoying Anglo-Saxon tongue.
In welcoming English-language presentations and meeting outside of France SPHM is trying to internationalize its reach, just as AJHA is making efforts to build interest in transnational journalism and international research. We have a lot in common, our efforts to build media history into a central and important historical discipline. You can check out SPHM (English language version available) at http://www.histoiredesmedias.com.