W. Joseph Campbell

A nod to ‘Big Years’

In 1897, Year studies on December 13, 2009 at 8:21 pm

The “Outlook” section of today’s Washington Post carries an interesting look at recent books about important years.  “Year studies,” as they’re known in the academy.

The Post article, by the “Outlook” editor Carlos Lozada, noted that several studies were published in 2009 about years that changed the world or changed everything. “In an homage to anniversaries divisible by 10,” Lozada wrote, these books “focus on 1959, 1969, 1979 and, of course, 1989 (though ’99 is absent. Too soon?).”

As it turns out, he added, “there is plenty of competition in the Big Years department; identifying history’s most consequential calendar is a well-worn genre for journalists and historians, producing books such as David McCullough’s ‘1776,’ Margaret MacMillan’s ‘Paris 1919,’ Ray Huang’s brilliantly titled ‘1587: A Year of No Significance’ and countless more.”

Lozada might well have mentioned the first year study about U.S. media — my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

Philadelphia street scene in 1897

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Significantly, 1897 was the year when American journalism came face-to-face with a choice among three rival and incompatible visions, or paradigms, for the profession’s future. The emergence of these rival visions is central to the exceptionality of 1897. The choices that materialized then were to set a course for American journalism in the twentieth century and beyond.

“The most dramatic of the three paradigms was the self-activated, participatory model of [William Randolph] Hearst’s yellow journalism. Hearst called it the ‘journalism of action’ or the ‘journalism that acts.’ It was a paradigm of agency and engagement that went beyond gathering and publishing the news. Hearst’s New York Journal, the leading exemplar of the activist paradigm, argued that newspapers were obliged to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence. …

“The antithesis of the ‘journalism of action’ was the conservative, counter-activist paradigm represented by the New York Times [of Adolph Ochs] and its lofty commitment to ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’ The Times model emphasized the detached, impartial, yet authoritative treatment of news. Unlike its conservative counterparts such as the New York Sun, the Times was not reluctant to adapt innovative technologies of the 1890s. The Times in 1897 made memorable use of halftone photographs in its upscale Sunday magazine supplement, presenting the images in a sober, restrained manner quite unlike the flashy treatment typical of Hearst’s yellow journalism.

The Year That Defined American Journalism: About the 'Big Year,' 1897

“The most eccentric of the three paradigms was non-journalistic, even anti-journalistic: It was a literary approach pursued by Lincoln Steffens upon his becoming city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser in late 1897. Deliberately, and even demonstratively, Steffens shunned veteran newspapermen and instead recruited college-educated writers who had little or no experience in journalism. He then sent them out to write, to hone their talent by telling stories about the joys, hardships, and serendipity of life in New York City.”

Eighteen-ninety-seven also was the year of publication of what became American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial, the New York Sun‘s “Is There A Santa Claus?” It also was the year when the term “yellow journalism” first appeared in print, in the old New York Press. And the Times motto, “All the news that’s fit to print,” was given a permanent berth on the newspaper’s front page in 1897.

Moreover, the cinema in 1897 was in its “novelty year.” The presidential inauguration of William McKinley in March 1897 was the first to be captured on film.

But back to Lozada: He closed his article by ruminating about whether 2009 eventually will be recalled as a “Big Year.”

At this point, of course, who can tell? Lozada’s take: “it may not be a 1776 or a 1989, but 2009 seems destined to go down as a year of at least some significance. What for? Who knows. We just live here. Fortunately, it needn’t be for something that actually happened in these past 12 months, but perhaps for some future event that will be linked to our calendar.”

Not everyone finds the year study very appealing. A snarky review published during the summer in Canada’s National Post began by noting:

“Lately, it seems not a year goes by without a new book proclaiming a certain 12-month period the Most Important Year Ever.” That’s a fair point.

But in mild defense of the year-study approach, allow me to say that The Year That Defined American Journalism brought a measure of methodological freshness to journalism history. Before then, the single-year study had been neglected or overlooked in the field.


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