Q&A: Pribanic-Smith Mixes History, Media

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Recently, Assistant Professor Erika Pribanic-Smith (Communication) was installed as president of the American Journalism Historian Association – one in a series of accolades she has received in the past several years. COLA Communications Coordinator James Dunning sat down with her to talk about assassinated newspaper editors, partisan press and the future of a blossoming career.

Q: Congratulations on being named president of the AJHA. What does this say about you and the research you have been doing for the past decade?

A: I think it says I’m fairly well respected in the journalism history community. They have a fair amount of confidence in me to ask me to be their leader and run the organization as well as represent journalism historians to other historian organizations. It’s a big role.

Q: What do you have to do as president? Any changes you want to make?

A: Apart from the business side, I will represent the organization at Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) events next year. I’ll go to New York City in March, then San Francisco in August. I’m also representing my group to the American Historical Association, writing some things for their newsletter and publications. I will be trying to forge the bond between those organizations. We’ve already got good a relationship with the AEJMC, but our bonds are a little shaky with the general history associations. I want to strengthen those.

The main thing I want to work on as president is improving communication, the website and our social media presence. I want to see us attract younger members and newer scholars while maintaining high energy among our existing scholars from convention to convention. We only meet once a year. We leave those conventions reinvigorated; we’re excited about history, we’re excited about journalism, we’re excited about the organization. But that wanes as the year goes on. I feel like if we can do more things and keep up the communication, we can keep up the energy and get more people involved in the organization. That leads to better scholarship, better relationships. That’s my goal.

Q: Apart from your responsibilities as AJHA president, no doubt you’ll be spending significant time in the coming year working on your own research. What projects do you have in the works?

A: The paper I presented [at the recent AJHA conference] was about a newspaper editor named Jason Clark Swayze, who was assassinated. During Reconstruction, he had been run out of Georgia by the Klu Klux Klan for his political views. He was threatened; his print shop was burned to the ground. He did not feel safe in Georgia, so he moved to Kansas and continued to be outspoken. He eventually fell into trouble there and was assassinated by a rival. I wrote a book chapter about what Swayze did in Georgia and the paper I presented as about the issues surrounding libel that came up during his time in the Midwest.

I’m also working on a book based on some papers I have written and published about the 1844 U.S. presidential election. It’s very interesting. There was an abolitionist running as a third-party candidate who was taken pretty seriously and thought by many historians as someone who spoiled the election and changed the outcome. I’ve been interested in how that election was covered because during that era, the press was highly partisan. With a third-party candidate, I was interested in how the partisan press viewed him. I was also interested to see how the abolitionist press treated him.

I’ve received two research grants for the project, including one I received from the AJHA last year. Recently, I was awarded a grant from Kappa Tau Alpha, a journalism honor society. So I’ll be spending a lot of time at the University of Michigan where the abolitionist candidate’s papers are. No one has written about this from the perspective of his campaign and how the media covered the election.

Q: As you are reading about the partisan press in the 1800s, do you see similarities to today’s media?

A: Definitely. The state of the media and state of politics is similar. When you look at the partisan press [of the 1800s], you see how they are very passionate about their point of view. And to see how the two different sides approached the same policy or platform issue during an election campaign, it’s very similar to what we see today. You get to see two different parties address the same issue, and they are both very passionate about it and both think they are right. It’s hard to maintain objectivity at times because I can see what one side is saying and think, “This makes a lot of sense.” But I need to look at the other side and consider those arguments, too. It’s the same today with talk radio and the political pundits you see on TV. The difference is they used the medium of newspapers to present their case to the public.

Q: I know you studied journalism as an undergraduate and worked as a reporter and editor for a number of years. How did you get involved in journalism history?

A: I’ve always been really interested in history. I nearly took on a history minor as an undergraduate, but there were some issues where I was, so I stuck with the journalism route. When I got to the University of Alabama, I was assigned as a research assistant to William David Sloan, one of the founders of the American Journalism Historian Association. He’s written a number of journalism history textbooks for use in classrooms and is a prolific scholar. I was assigned to him serendipitously and realized, “Wow, there is such a thing as journalism history.” This takes two things I love and puts them together.

The work I did for him was pretty rudimentary. He was creating a supplement for a teacher’s textbook. So I learned about all these different aspects of journalism history and making supplement materials. It was very pedagogical, how you could create these teaching tools. I found it all so fascinating.

He was my advisor for my master’s project and I wrote a chapter for one of his books. It was my first serious foray into doing historical research and it was so much fun. Then the chapter I wrote began to be cited and people would come up to me and say, “I read your chapter and use it in my classes.” That really lit the fire and made me want to pursue it.

Q: What kind of impact do you think your research makes, either on journalism or history?

A: I feel like the research I do now and the topics I choose help to fill in gaps. For instance, I won an award a year ago for a paper I wrote on the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and how they used magazines to raise support to save Mount Vernon. It was a story that had never been told. A lot of people had written about the effort, but no one had written about the impact of the magazines. And I discovered there was a six-month chunk of meeting minutes from the group that was only saved in these magazines. No one would have known that had I not studied it. It’s amazing to be able to find those sorts of things and add to the historical record and help tell the story of our past. Our research can also inform the present and things that are going on in today’s society.

Q: In addition to digital storytelling and feature writing, you teach graduate students a Communication History course. How much of your passion about this field of study do your try to impart on your students?

A: I don’t get to teach the history seminar often, but when I do, it’s almost a struggle to get students to register. Often, students don’t have that passion for history or realize how powerful it can be. The focus of the course is on historical methods, teaching them how to be historians, to take a subject they’re interested in and investigate its past. That’s how I hook them. I’ve had two students this past semester that had no interest in pursuing a historical thesis before my class, and now they do. To me, that’s a success. I try to encourage them to be critical of scholarship, understand how it’s written, how it’s done, and be conscientious scholars as they do their own research.

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