This paper is concerned with the relationship between theory and history in the development of media history as a subject area, and in particular the way that it has come to conceptualise power. Contesting Media History argues that the history of the communications has become increasingly isolated within its related disciplines, cut off from the rich theoretical insights developed elsewhere and provincialised into the ‘story of the present’. The paper traces the roots of this intellectual isolation in the neologistic frameworks adopted to explain new media technologies, which have selectively appropriated media discourses and practices to underpin claims of the novelty of new media, and in the fact that much of media history is written from the standpoint of institutional actors. These two factors taken together, I argue, produce a history which is overly dependent on monolithic themes; teleological, insofar as an essential and eternal nature is imputed to successful forms and institutions; inadequately accounts for th e relationship between changes in media production and changes in media texts; and neglects to place communications history in the context of broader social change. As against this the paper traces the outlines of a history of the media ‘from the ground up’, using a study of alternate constructions of the public sphere in late Victorian journalism as an example of the way a more inclusive history could be developed.