James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part I)

Posted by James McPherson on August 14, 2008

The print version of a recent Columbia Journalism Review article is subtitled, “A new kind of journalism takes root in a struggling Detroit neighborhood.” An interesting aside is the fact that the online version is titled “Crossing Lines” while the print version uses “Drawing Lines,” but the key point remains: that a Detroit News blog is going beyond tradition journalism to improve an impoverished Detroit neighborhood. In the words of CJR’s writer: They “aren’t just reporting the neighborhood’s story. They’re affecting the story. In some ways, they are the story.” (emphasis in original)

The activism draws criticism from even among others at the News, who worry that it compromises the newspaper’s credibility. The concern is worth consideration, complicated by the proliferation of blogs coming from news organizations throughout the country. But the fact is, for most of those organizations, credibility in a traditional sense is pretty much a lost cause for a couple of reasons. First, if “credibility” is code for “objectivity,” there’s no such thing as an objective reporter (or historian, or teacher). Second, Americans like the news media in general just a bit more than they like George W. Bush or Congress.

Journalism is changing, as it always has. The term “New Journalism” has been used most prominently with the journalism of the 1880s and 1890s and then again with the literary journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, but has also been applied to the Penny Press of the 1830s and the civic journalism movement of the late 20th century. “New” just keeps happening.

Besides, campaigns by newspapers are far from new. Newspapers have always advocated for issues they saw as being for the civic good (even if far too often their biases corresponded with the desires of the Chamber of Commerce). My own local daily, the Spokesman-Review, recently devoted an entire month of front-page attention to the issue of child abuse, and its own annual Christmas fund is front-page news every day from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas.

We know that bloggers are changing news, even if–as recently reported by a Poynter Institute columnist and others–the most popular blogs tend to look and act much like mainstream news organizations. That shift worries people on both sides, though a careful reader could be much better informed about issues by relying only on blogs than on a local newspaper or–God forbid–television news.

One of the most interesting things I got out of last week’s Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication convention was a discussion that–combined with the CJR article (which I read on the train on the way home from AEJMC) and some other tidbits of information–prompted the idea that blogging might actually “save” the 1960s-style literary journalism, which has faded significantly from the types of magazines that most Americans actually read. More on that in an upcoming post.

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4 Responses to “Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part I)”

  1. […] Posted in History, Journalism, poetry by James McPherson on August 15th, 2008 As I noted with yesterday’s post, one of the most interesting things I got out of a conversation at last week’s Association for […]

  2. […] Journalism, Written elsewhere by James McPherson on August 17th, 2008 In response to my posts of Thursday and Friday, I received an e-mail from Norman Sims–who may know more about literary […]

  3. Tracey Ricks Foster said

    I agree with your assessment. As a journalist, with the beginning of cable news, which is unregulated, Americans have sought out alternative ways of gathering the news that they want to hear. I have always found myself a victim of criticism because of my reporting style that is a cross between objectivity or neutrality and opinion. But, Americans in 2008, are looking for news reporting that is filled with a little bit of both. Then they are able to make and formulate their own views. With blogs, journalists have become forced to advance and expand their writing and news reporting skills or soon become irrelevant and extinct.

    http://traceyricksfoster.wordpress.com

  4. James McPherson said

    I’ve always been a fan of what I think of as the European style of news readership, in which people read newspapers that they know are biased, but they also read contrary views. I wish more people did that here, but despite an even greater range of perspectives available, too many seem to stay inside their own echo chambers.

    Incidentally, I see you use the same format for your blog as I do, and that you started yours just a week before I did. I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am. Thanks for the comment, Tracey.

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