The best books on the triumphs and struggles of American journalism

Who am I?

From my early teens I aspired to a career in journalism and publishing, manifest in my being editor of my junior high newspaper, my high school paper, and my college paper. After the army and grad school, I pursued my dream, covering Washington, D.C., for the Wall Street Journal for a dozen years and becoming an executive at Congressional Quarterly for 22 years, including 12 years as CEO. The great triumphs and struggles of the news business as it grew and evolved have stirred my consciousness throughout my life, and these five books provide some of the best narrative treatments on the topic that I have encountered throughout a lifetime in the publishing business.


I wrote...

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

By Robert W. Merry,

Book cover of A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

What is my book about?

A Country of Vast Designs is the story of James K. Polk, the 11th U.S. president, and his remarkable one-term presidency, during which he transformed America into a transcontinental nation facing two oceans and poised to dominate global politics in the next century. Polk was in many ways a smaller-than-life figure, but he harbored larger-than-life ambitions. And by dint of his vision, resolve, persistence, wiles, and prodigious work ethic, he accomplished all of the big goals he set for himself, including completing the annexation of Texas and acquiring California, Oregon, and what is now the American Southwest. He also slashed tariff rates (a highly emotional issue in those days) and created what was known as the independent treasury, a forerunner to today’s Federal Reserve. 

A highly controversial president in his own time, he remains controversial in history. But presidential historians consistently rate him a “near great” chief executive in the periodic academic surveys of presidential performance. How did he do all that in the single term he allotted for himself? The answer is grist for what I regard as a compelling human and political story. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism

Robert W. Merry Why did I love this book?

Burns brilliantly tells the story of those first potent American journalists, the pamphleteers, who brought to their craft lively, probing, acerbic, and often angry commentary and reporting. Some ripped into George Washington and the Federalists, thus establishing a tradition of journalism that extends to our own time. Others went after Jefferson and the fledgling Democratic-Republicans. And one, James Callender, broke the story of the now-famous Jefferson dalliance with his slave Sally Hemmings. 

By Ric Burns,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Infamous Scribblers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Infamous Scribblers is a perceptive and witty exploration of the most volatile period in the history of the American press. News correspondent and renonwned media historian Eric Burns tells of Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Sam Adams,the leading journalists among the Founding Fathers of George Washington and John Adams, the leading disdainers of journalists and Thomas Jefferson, the leading manipulator of journalists. These men and the writers who abused and praised them in print (there was, at the time, no job description of "journalist") included the incendiary James Franklin, Ben's brother and one of the first muckrakers the high minded…


Book cover of The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune

Robert W. Merry Why did I love this book?

This is primarily the story of three newspapers--James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and the merged paper under the ownership of diplomat and politician Whitelaw Reid and his heirs, including his daughter-in-law, Helen Rogers Reid, a firecracker of an executive and woman about town. But it is also a comprehensive story of New York newspapering from the 1830s to the 1960s and about the city and country that served as the focus for news coverage during those decades. It is a poignant tale of soaring triumphs and ultimate decline as new challenges beset the newspaper business and even large cities could no longer support multiple papers.

By Richard Kluger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Paper as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why did the newspaper with better writing and graphics than any other American daily go to an early grave?

Few American newspapers - and perhapsnone at all in the view of somestudents of the craft - have matched the many excellences of the New York Herald Tribune. In the crispness of its writing and editing, the bite of its criticsand commentators, the range of its coverage, and the clarity ofitstypography, the "Trib" (as media people and many of itsreadersaffectionately called it) raised newspapering to an art form. Ithad aninfluence and importance out of all proportion to itscirculation.Abraham Lincoln valued its…


Book cover of The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of LIFE

Robert W. Merry Why did I love this book?

No other magazine ever burst upon the national scene with as much financial and editorial force as Life, founded by Henry Luce in 1936 to exploit the new technology of high-shutter-speed cameras that could capture events and activities like never before. Luce’s vision (actually, it came initially from his future wife, Clare Boothe Luce) was to stir the human spirit with photos of sports stars in action, the magnitude of huge structures such as the Grand Coulee Dam, a baby being born, the agony of war. With such photography mixed with probing and discursive long-form journalism, Luce transformed American magazine journalism--and got very, very rich in the process.

By Loudon Wainwright,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great American Magazine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The well-known columnist blends personal reminiscence, historical reportage, interviews, and social analysis in an authoritative history of "Life" magazine and its unique thirty-six-year history


Book cover of Decline and Fall: The struggle for power at a great American magazine: The Saturday Evening Post

Robert W. Merry Why did I love this book?

Before Life there was the Saturday Evening Post, a roaring success capturing the spirit of Middle America at a time when Middle America defined the cultural ethos of the nation. But by the late 1950s the potent reach of television advertising undermined the general-interest magazine business model, and the Post slipped into an inexorable spiral of decline that its top executives could never quite handle or even understand. There’s plenty of pathos and human drama as they struggle with forces beyond their control. 

By Otto Friedrich,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Decline and Fall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uncorrected Proof Copy


Book cover of Paper Losses: A Modern Epic of Greed and Betrayal at America's Two Largest Newspaper Companies

Robert W. Merry Why did I love this book?

The big Detroit newspaper market eventually narrowed down to two newspapers--the News and Free Press--neither of which could knock out the other while neither could turn a profit in a competitive market. This is the story of the struggle of the two greatest newspaper chains--Gannett and Knight-Ridder--to forge a “joint operating agreement” allowing them to merge production and business efforts while retaining separate newsrooms. Few participants cared much about editorial standards as the rush for huge profits drove the process. In the end, it all came a cropper. It’s a sordid tale in many ways but a riveting one.

By Bryan Gruley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Paper Losses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gruley writes of the 25-year struggle between the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press--two proud, family-owned newspapers that became pawns in the hands of the largest newspaper chains of our time, Gannett and Knight-Ridder. A tale of greed and power, of Wall Street and the courts.


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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