JOUR-296A Course Topics in News Media History: Discovering America's Early Newspapers

* This course was last offered in Winter 2009 - this is the listing from that course.

Prof. Douglas Cumming
Reid Hall 101
Office: 458-8208; Home: 462-2968
Office hours: by appointment (or drop by anytime I'm in)

Class meets: H - 3:35-4:30 p.m., M W F, in Prof. Cumming's office.

Overview: This course is designed to expand your historical-research skills and practice (it's not just for journalism majors) and to provide an introduction to journalism history. In these times of dizzying change in the news business, we will look for lessons, parallels and relevant contrasts from the early years of American newspapers. We will take advantage of a valuable collection of historical newspapers donated to W&L's Special Collections by Fred Farrar, '41.

Required Text: David Copeland, Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers.

Recommended and on reserve:

  • Emery & Emery. The Press and America (5th ed.).
  • The Farrar Collection of Historical Newspapers
  • Couper, William. Jackson Memorial Cemetery Survey.
  • Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism (3rd ed., 1962). A classic, readable history, the starting point of most research in journalism history.
  • Sloan & Williams. The Early American Press, 1690-1783 (1994).
  • Sloan, W. David. American Journalism History: An Annotated Bibliography (1989).
  • Humphrey, Carol Sue. The Press of the Young Republic, 1783-1833 (1996).
  • Marzio, Peter C. The Men and Machines of American Journalism: A Pictorial Essay.
  • Copeland, David. Colonial American Press (1997).
  • Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News (1978).
  • American Antiquarian Society. Three Hundred Years of the American Newspaper (1991).
  • Vanden Heuvel. Untapped Sources (ASNE, 1991).
  • Farrar, Frederick. Editor & Publisher - 100th Anniversary Edition, 1884-1984.
  • This Common Channel to Independence: Revolution and Newspapers, 1749-1789.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M. Sr.. Prelude to Revolution (1958).
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 43 (American journalists, 1690-1872).
  • Calder Pickett, Voices of the Past. Famous editorials.
  • Jeremy Black, The English Press in the Eighteenth Century (1987)

What you will learn:

  • Who some of the more colorful figures were from the early history of American journalism, and how women could flourish in this trade as well as men.
  • What impact the press had on presidential politics throughout U.S. history. (And knowing all the presidents in order, and a mental time map to put that list on.)
  • When the press was decidedly partisan and often violent - in the American Revolution and other wars.
  • Where our present-day notions of freedom of the press come from in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Including knowing the First Amendment by heart)
  • How to read and interpret very old newspapers, a valuable skill for primary-source research, in-depth reporting, and gaining a wider perspective on today's media.

I. Six projects:

  1. Find someone buried in Stonewall Jackson Cemetery prior to 1900, find obituary and at least one other documentary source to write a brief report on this person. [3 pages] 10 percent
  2. Select a single 18th century newspaper from the Farrar Collection. Examine it closely - text, news judgment, style of opinion writing, typeface, paper, layout and design, etc. (These are modern terms; the point is to notice how these were different before we even had such concepts as "news judgment.") Write a report listing and describing six differences between this paper and a typical newspaper today (whether the Lexington News-Gazette, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, or the New York Times) [3 pages] 10 percent
  3. Conduct a 10-minute press conference taking the role of a leading journalist from American history. You will be assigned your role within the first week. Every student in class must know facts about each journalist before the news conference in order to ask intelligent questions. 10 percent
    [James Rivington, William Bradford III, John Peter or Anna Zenger, Isaiah Thomas, William or Mary K. Goddard, Sarah Updike Goddard, Benjamin Franklin, Peter Timothy, Benjamin F. Bache, William Cobbet, Benjamin Russell, Hezekiah Niles]
  4. A report on "Life in America" based on primary sources from the Farrar Collection. Choose any 10-year period between 1700 and 1850 [3 pages]. 10 percent
  5. Flesh out indexing of newspapers in one of on-line web pages for the Farrar Collection website. Choose one of the following: PF2, PF5, PF6, PF8, PF9, PF10, of BV4. For example of how much is needed for indexing, see PF 1. 10 percent
  6. Final research paper, 10-12 pp. with footnotes, bibliography. Proposed topic due by mid-term. Use standard Chicago Manual of Style formatting. 15 percent

II. Two short exams, to check up on keeping up with reading and classes: Mid-term and final.

Expectations: I expect you to spend on average at least a couple of hours a day in a focused, creative effort to dig deep into the meaning of these original newspapers. This will involve reading secondary sources, finding sources not listed in the syllabus, and pursuing some original research. This is not your typical history class: We are not starting with digested material from historians and their textbooks, but with primary material which we will explore the way an archeologist explores a dig. Actually, the skills I bring are those of an investigative journalist as someone trained in historical research. I expect you to practice these skills in doing the six assigned projects. I also expect that your reading for this course will show in the quality of your participation in class discussion and in how well you do on the midterm and final exams.

The exams are not long or difficult. Neither one should take more than an hour. I am giving these exams to add a little extra motivation for you to pay attention in class and in the readings. If you've kept up, you shouldn't need any more than a brief review to do well on the exams. The final exam will cover readings and discussions from the second half of the course.

Attendance will be counted as a major part of your participation grade, unless you have an excuse before missing a class.

All papers should be typed, double-spaced, and pledged. Spelling and grammar do matter. The final research paper should have a cover sheet and follow Chicago Manual of Style formatting for footnotes or endnotes.


  • 10 percent for each project above except final research paper, which is 15 percent.
  • 10 percent for each of the two exams.
  • 15 percent for class participation.