Tribute to History News Network’s founding Editor Rick Shenkman
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
This December, History News Network’s (HNN) founder and Editor-in-chief Richard Shenkman announced he was retiring and that HNN was moving from its home server at George Mason University to George Washington University. The announcement was a shock, I belonged to the HNN family for six years and could not imagine HNN continuing without Rick Shenkman’s vision. HNN was his creation bringing together two elements of his professional background as an award winning journalist and best-selling historian. Already, George Washington University (GWU) was making chances that would alter HNN; the new Editor-in-Chief Kyla Sommers is a newly minted PhD, a graduate of GWU also graduating her doctoral program this upcoming spring, now filling very big shoes in her new role. In addition, during their orientation session last week at GWU, they were looking for students from within their history department to work on the publication. Back in 2001, when the internet was still young and HNN started, it managed to bring together historians and history students from all over North America and give them the opportunity to contribute, work, and intern for an online publication centered in Seattle, Washington, I know I was one of them and I am internally grateful for that opportunity.
In August 2004, when I graduated from my first Masters degree in Library and Information Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and started working on a second Masters degree in Judaic Studies at Concordia University, inspired by one of my former professors, who wrote for HNN, I applied for internship. Nowhere in Montreal could a graduate student have an opportunity to have an internship in a publication, which focused so much on American history. Rick treated his interns as professionals, and gave them opportunities to write and to be published side by side with historians. For me, it was the first time I had the opportunity to see my writing published. In my first year, I wrote 25 articles on a range of historical topics, I learned not only about history but also about writing. Rick’s encouragement towards every intern made everyone feel like a professional.
I was fortunate that because of my efforts in May 2005, Rick promoted me to Assistant Editor and I remained part of HNN’s staff until 2010, where I rose up to be a Editor / Features Editor. During my time at HNN, I learned so much from Rick and had liberties to create successful and enjoyable features from “History Buzz” and “Political Buzz” with the best history political news headlines of the week to my favorites the profile features Top Young Historians and History Doyens. Working on the “Top Young Historians” and “History Doyens” features were a dream come true for a graduate student.
With the “History Doyens” feature I was able to virtually to meet many of the big name historians assigned in my undergraduate history classes. The historians, who shaped the American historiography including Bernard Bailyn, James McPherson, Gordon Wood, David Brion Davis, Bernard Weisberger and Eric Foner among others, and many who unfortunately are no longer with us, David Herbert Donald, Edmund Morgan, Robert Rermini, Joyce Appleby, and Bertram Wyatt-Brown. While with the “Top Young Historians,” I met some rising stars in the field that in the years since I profiled them have only shone brighter and loomed larger in the historical profession. They are award winning and best-selling historians who have excelled beyond academia including, Timothy Snyder, Julian Zelizer, Joanne Freeman, Jill Lepore, Thomas Sugrue, Kevin Boyle, Kevin Kruse, Jeremi Suri, Caroline Elkins, Peniel Joseph, Timothy Naftali, Jeffery Engel, and 2018 Cundill Prize winner Maya Jasanoff, among the over a hundred historians profiled. For a graduate student in her mid-twenties, profiling these historians was a humbling experience. Centered in Montreal, Canada, I would never have had the opportunity to meet most of these historians if not for Rick and HNN.
Nothing taught me more about writing both professionally and academically as when I wrote the “On This Day in History” feature. When we are young and we are in the moment, we never appreciate constructive criticism but it is those lessons that make one a stronger writer. Rick was not only a great editor of a much-needed publication that made history accessible to academics and to the public alikebut also a greater teacher to all the interns that went through HNN’s program, and I am proud to call him my mentor, his teachings and my time at HNN have shaped my career. I hope the changes at HNN will not commercialize the publication; we have too many corporate takeovers wiping out local mom and pop businesses and the like. HNN’s mission went beyond its tagline of “Because the past is the present, and the future, too” but an opportunity for all to write, learn and love history. Thank you and best wishes Rick on your retirement but do not stay away from the historical world too long, we are all looking forward to your next book, I know I am.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has over a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.