Sixty years ago, the first issue of Nieman Reports was published, beginning a conversation about the rights and responsibilities of journalists that continues to this day.
The decision by Nieman Fellows in the winter of 1947 to publish a quarterly magazine "about newspapering by newspapermen" had received a nudge from the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press whose report was about to be released with a sharp comment about the absence of a regular forum for serious criticism of the press.
A brief commentary on the back of the magazine explained that Nieman Reports would have "no pattern, no formula or policy except to serve the purpose of the Nieman Foundation ‘to promote standards of journalism in America.’" During 60 years, Nieman Reports has been remarkably faithful to that purpose, even though the intent to limit the magazine’s scope to American journalism soon gave way to realities such as the onset of the cold war and the inclusion of international journalists in Nieman classes beginning in 1951.
The stories filling the 20 pages of the initial issue in February 1947 were written by Nieman Fellows from their experiences in a news world that was much simpler than the one we know today. The lead story carried the headline, "What’s Wrong With the Newspaper Reader." Its author, Newsweek’s William J. Miller, a 1941 Nieman Fellow, observed that in discussions among fellows, "many reasons have been advanced for the publishers’ cussed persistence in continuing to publish newspapers that are far from being as honest, as fearless or as outspoken as most of their writers would wish them to be.
"If newspapermen could own and publish their own newspaper, and make it as honest, free and unbiased as their various lights could agree upon, it would be a mistake for them to undertake to tell the public how to think. It prefers to be entertained. So let the perfect newspaper be short, simple, sexy and full of pictures. Let it devote one fourth of its space to a lavish coverage of sports, including who is bribing whom, and another fourth to comics. I predict it will sell like hell. If, on top of that, it is also honest, unprejudiced and unslanted, the public won’t mind. The press the American people get is pretty bad, and it is just what they deserve."
Ernest Linford, a 1947 Nieman Fellow, wrote about his time as a crusading editor at The Laramie Republican-Boomerang in Wyoming, where he learned that it isn’t enough to be right. "No town wants to be bossed by even a good newspaper. It is best to ‘let others take the credit.’"
There are passing references to "communism" and musings about what was learned at Harvard, where Linford became "sensitive to the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’" An amusing short story by Ed Edstrom, a 1945 Nieman Fellow, told of a heavy-drinking reporter describing his city editor as "a fat-jowled, big-bellied, rump-sprung sadist … who fondly imagined that Hollywood had formed its city editor type from a mold much like his own." And the magazine took some pride in publishing a summary of a "secret government report" by Senator James E. Murray of Montana, which addressed "the trend toward concentration of ownership of American newspapers and the handicaps of the small paper."
"One great threat to the survival of an American free press … is the vice-like grip of monopoly-big-business newsprint manufacturers upon the 15,000 small newspapers published in the country." It is a monopoly, Senator Murray asserted, that is supported by such corporate giants as Hearst, McCormick-Patterson and Scripps. "The newspaper is not only a private business venture, but it is also a basic institution of democracy. With each disappearance of a competitive local newspaper, some vital part of democracy is lost."
Thumbing through the yellowing pages of the first issue gives a clear impression that the Nieman Fellows had introduced a valuable forum for journalists to talk seriously about their responsibilities. [Click on the cover image above to view a pdf of this issue.] The quality and heft of Nieman Reports have grown over 60 years, and journalism’s problems seem to have expanded exponentially in that time. But the critical focus of that first issue on the principles that guide us still defines the direction of our magazine. And the conversation continues.