Friday, July 23, 2021

Will Mari's "The American Newsroom: A History, 1920-1960"

Will Mari is Assistant Professor of Media Law & History at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and author of A Short History of Disruptive Journalism Technologies: 1960–1990.

Mari applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The American Newsroom: A History, 1920-1960, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Gelb observed that his new companions in a Lower East Side police station’s reporters’ “shack” had been hired for “their street smarts and ability to ferret out facts swiftly.” Many were the sons of Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants, had not finished high school, and were “dese, dem, and dose kind of guys.” They often shared the same backgrounds as the police and criminals they covered. Communicating with the newsroom could be challenging, as some of the field reporters had thick accents. Once, a leg man’s report that a woman had died at the hands of a “poisson” (person) or “poissons” unknown had translated into the headline “Funeral Follows Inquest with Verdict of Death by Poison.” Gelb, having gone to college, was initially regarded with suspicion in this environment. He had to show that he could report despite his education. Work in the field, and hunting down facts for the crime beat, was considered such a part of the job that “legging” became shorthand for this kind of reporting.

Others distinguished leg men from “the routine men,” “the specialists,” “investigators,” and “dynamiters”—while the latter group could “blast out the stories that are hard to get,” members of the first group “do the running around” needed to find details about breaking-news stories. Despite the humble status of the leg man, he or she was expected to travel constantly from one news source to the next, “and is always expected to be miraculously on the scene of every newsworthy incident practically immediately on its happening.” Sometimes also called a “district” or “beat” reporter (though not to be confused with an older and more educated beat reporter), he or she would occasionally work alongside a dedicated police-beat reporter. Familiarity with sources, including the constant making of rounds, was crucial foundational work for a good leg man. Knowing ordinary police officers, neighborhood-level politicians, local shop owners, and the various individuals who hung out at quasi-legal watering holes could lead to solid sourcing when the time came. Relying on carefully cultivated friendships with police officers, but also knowing when and how to bluster, bully, or appeal to their bosses, fell within the general sphere of the leg man or woman.
I think this short selection of text from page 99 of the book works rather well, to capture some of the main missions of my book -- I'm very focused, for example, on the community (or rather, communities!) of news workers toiling in and out of the newsroom during the midcentury in the United States. This group of workers transitioned from a largely working-class to a more white-collar community, over time, and I think that socioeconomic shift is a bit underappreciated. My media history tries to move the conversation back to how the backgrounds of news workers mattered, in the production and reception of industrialized journalism during this era.

When thinking about newsroom work culture, I also think the temptation for media historians (including myself!) was to think about the period from the 1920s through the 1960s as sort of static, with journalism not really changing -- that was definitely not the case -- this half-century or so chunk of time was fully of dynamic changes, including the introduction of key technologies, such as the radio car and early experiments with portable ("mobile") tools, like microphones and typewriters, but also movements like unionization and college education for news workers. I would be remiss if I didn't point to the work of scholars such as Julia Guarneri, Matthew Pressman and Michael Stamm, who've also looked at this transitional period.
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--Marshal Zeringue