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Technology and Culture 43.2 (2002) 438-440

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Book Review

The Form of News:
A History

The Form of News: A History. By Kevin G. Barnhurst and John Nerone. New York: Guilford Press, 2001. Pp. x+326. $35.

Communications historians who read this book will never look at newspapers the same way again. Despite some flaws, The Form of News makes two notable contributions: First, on a descriptive level, it charts shifts in newspaper design. Second, Kevin Barnhurst and John Nerone strive, with considerable success, to explain the relationship between news forms and society. Their explanations, however, expressly relegate technology to a tertiary role.

News form "is everything a newspaper does to present the look of the news," including layout, design, typography, "habits of illustration, genres of reportage, and schemes of departmentalization" (p. 3). But form also has an ideological dimension, Barnhurst and Nerone argue; it "embodies the imagined relationship of a medium to its society and polity" (p. 3). Their elaborate narrative discusses four basic formations that governed news from American colonial times to the present: printerly (Revolutionary and Early Republic), partisan, Victorian, and modern. These basic news formations overlay three other levels of analysis. Each formation encompassed two or more stylistic design phases. Each formation had one or two dominant [End Page 438] modes of production; for instance, Victorian news forms first embodied publishers' interests and then served industrial goals. And each formation's societal function—actual and idealized—is captured and summarized in a convenient master metaphor.

Although some of the categories and periodizations will sound all too familiar to historians of journalism, Barnhurst and Nerone creatively rethink them. The master metaphors in particular have considerable heuristic value in linking design shifts with changes in newspapers' fundamental roles. For instance, the authors characterize the industrial newspaper of the Victorian formation as a department store whose front page offered a smorgasbord of items about society and politics without imposing much order. In contrast, the professional paper of the modern formation provided a social map for readers through a design that hierarchically ordered news, signifying journalists' claims of expertise.

Unlike many studies in journalism history, The Form of News aims to provide reasonably precise causal explanations for the changes it charts. At times, however, the explanations remain frustratingly murky; for instance, the design elements of modern news forms are ascribed to "accretions of broader cultural movements" (p. 20). Historians of technology will note that the authors' most emphatic causal observation, one reiterated several times, is that technology was mostly a "background player." At no point, they say, "did technology drive the changes we have discussed. Instead it acted as a tertiary force, providing the props and backdrops for broad sociocultural factors like politics and economics and for the design sense of printers and publishers" (p. 111). For substantiation, the authors point to a number of stylistic and design innovations that preceded technological breakthroughs.

This book is unsurpassed in alerting historians to the significance of newspaper design elements. The authors find compelling evidence that innovations in advertising design influenced the look of the news columns—their headlines, white space, typography, and ornamentation. They treat the emergence and evolution of bylines as an important barometer of changes in the relationship between the reporter and reader. And the book's welcome coverage of newspapers' visual elements includes a wonderfully clear account of the engraving process required to ready illustrations for publication.

The Form of News skillfully blends secondary works from the history of journalism, culture, and design with the authors' own insights gleaned from a close reading of newspapers. Much of their evidence derives from sets of different newspapers they sampled for different periods and types of analyses. Although they provide details about the sampling process, they often fail to indicate the number of papers upon which a particular analysis is based. And surprisingly few newspaper trade journals—a likely source of discussions about design changes—were consulted. [End Page 439]

One of the most ambitious journalism histories in decades, The Form of News offers a new approach useful in exploring the relationship...


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pp. 438-440
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