Month: September 2016

Whose History Do We Preserve?

Fifty years ago, in 1966, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Its aim was to preserve historical and archaeological sites in the United States. The act created the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks, and the State Historic Preservation Offices.

A half century later, the NHPA still regulates preservation in the United States—but whose history does it preserve?

9781625342140In Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation, fifty scholars meditate on what historic preservation will look like in the future. The essays ask: “If the ‘arc of the moral universe . . . bends toward justice,’ how can preservation be a tool for achieving a more just society and world?”

The emphasis on social justice through historic preservation echoes a similar trend within the wider realm of public history. Just as museums choose which stories to tell and how to interpret them, historic preservationists choose whose history to preserve. Recent work within the field of public history has made an effort to include marginalized voices, amplifying histories that have been frequently ignored or overlooked.

Choosing what to preserve is always that: a conscious choice. We choose what stories to tell in history books and what interpretations to include in museum exhibits. Whether it be documents stored in climate-controlled archives or the familiar buildings that we walk past every day, we need to reexamine not only what needs to be preserved, but why we are choosing to preserve it. Historic preservation is always an act of legitimizing someone’s history, and, potentially, delegitimizing someone else’s.

As many of the contributors in Bending the Future suggest, the NHPA has inherently privileged the history of the majority, reinforcing systematic racism, sexism, and colonialism. For a building or a district to be considered worthy of preservation, it must meet the standards stipulated in the NHPA. While the act aims to preserve historical sites, it also makes it difficult to preserve sites that might be recently built or architecturally uninteresting but still historically significant.

Public historians are working to preserve the histories of all Americans and historical preservationists should follow suit. Society is changing while the NHPA has remained largely stagnant. In 2016—and in the coming decades—we need theories and methods of historical preservation that are particular to the challenges of preservation in the twenty-first century.

RebekkahRubinRebekkah Rubin is a graduate student in the history department at UMass Amherst. She is specializing in public history.

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Thinking about news in the post-newspaper age

By Dan Kennedy

Will the struggling newspaper business survive? No. And yes.

Let me explain. Several days ago, the New York Times media reporter Jim Rutenberg wrote an elegy for the age of newspapers, by which he meant ink spread across the reconstituted pulp of dead trees and trucked hither and yon to be deposited on the porches of grateful readers. News will survive, Rutenberg told us, but the medium through which that news appears will soon be entirely digital.

Yet, as Rutenberg also pointed out, here we are some twenty years into the era of digital news—and advertising revenue from print editions continues to be what keeps newspapers afloat. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the industry whose majority revenue is not still print,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune publisher Michael J. Klingensmith told him.

9781625340054Print is dying, but it pays the bills. Many if not most readers have shifted to online, yet digital ads bring in pennies compared to the dollars earned by their print counterparts. It’s an existential crisis, and it’s one that I explored several years ago in my book The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

Much of The Wired City is devoted to the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit website founded in 2005 by the longtime New Haven journalist Paul Bass. Taking advantage of the savings realized by not having to produce a print product, Bass was able to support a staff of four full-time reporters, raising money from foundations, local institutions, wealthy individuals, and reader contributions. And if four reporters doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that of the dozens of journalists employed by the New Haven Register, a chain-owned daily paper, only four of them were assigned to cover New Haven.

The Independent was my major focus, but I examined other growing news projects as well. In Hartford, both a for-profit website, CT News Junkie, and a nonprofit, the Connecticut Mirror, were covering politics and public policy. In Batavia, New York, a former newspaper executive named Howard Owens was publishing The Batavian, a for-profit website festooned with well over a hundred local ads. On the West Coast, the nonprofit Voice of San Diego was seeking out new ways of reaching readers and making money, and had formed a partnership with a local for-profit television station.

Meanwhile, large metropolitan newspapers continue to struggle. According to the Pew Research Center’s latest State of the News Media report, the newspaper business in 2015 experienced its worst year since the Great Recession, with advertising revenue dropping by nearly 8 percent.

The one great exception to the downward trend is the Washington Post, which, under the ownership of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has bolstered its staff and attracted the largest digital audience of any American newspaper. (I examined the Post under Bezos in a paper I wrote earlier this year for the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Harvard Kennedy School.) But if there is a solution for regional papers such as the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, or, for that matter, the New Haven Register, it has not yet appeared on the horizon.

Meanwhile, every online-only project that I wrote about in The Wired City continues to thrive and even expand. In the summer of 2015 I visited the New Haven Independent to report on a story for the Nieman Journalism Lab about Paul Bass’s latest venture: a community radio station, WNHH, to be broadcast online and over the air via a low-power FM (LPFM) license.

Today, the Independent and WNHH complement each other. The radio station features a large staff of volunteer broadcasters representing every demographic group in the city: African American, Latino, white, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Highlights from their shows are regularly featured in the Independent, making the site feel like a true reflection of the community.

Will newspapers survive? No. Will the news survive, as Jim Rutenberg assures us it will? Yes. But the large commercial ventures that support the news may not. Rather, the future may belong to grassroots projects, both nonprofit and for-profit, that can raise money locally and live off the land in a way that large-scale publishers simply can’t—or won’t.

dan-kennedy-croppedDan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on Beat the Press, a weekly media program on WGBH-TV in Boston. He also writes regular media and political commentary for WGBHNews.org. His blog, Media Nation, is online at http://www.dankennedy.net.