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 II)

Posted by James McPherson on August 15, 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 Education in Journalism & Mass Communication convention, combined with some other tidbits of information, was 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.

Literary journalism isn’t dead, of course, and may be doing better overseas than in the U.S. Just this week I got an e-mail promoting a new international academic journal titled Literary Journalism Studies, sponsored by the sponsored by the two-year-old International Association for Literary Journalism Studies. But this style of journalism (in-depth journalism with a point of view, in which the author is obviously involved) seems today to often be a result of an individual (perhaps not a “journalist,” but instead someone like a political insider) becoming involved incidentally, though his/her work rather than the result of an avowed journalist plunging into the issue. The result may be informative, but it typically isn’t “literary.” Those of us who appreciate good writing know that sometimes poetry offers more truth than statistics can hope to convey. The best literary journalism feels more like the former, while encompassing both.

Back to my conversation, which was with Norman Sims, the author of True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism and the editor of a couple of literary journalism anthologies. He noted that most of today’s good literary journalism came from books, though after I complained about the lack of such fiction in magazines he commented that some good work could still be found in magazines, citing Esquire as an example.

While I don’t disagree with Sims’ assessment, to me his example is the exception that proves the rule, demonstrating a problem with modern literary journalism. Most people (including me) typically won’t wade through the male equivalent of Vogue in search of journalistic enlightenment. The problem is similar to one I noted several years ago with magazine fiction: Some of the best short stories could be found in Redbook and Playboy, but as a male faculty member at a Christian university (and a rare member of a women’s studies program who has moral qualms about both of those publications) I am unlikely to find and read those stories.

When I asked Sims what he thought of the prospect of the Web enhancing literary journalism options, he expressed doubt. Most magazines and newspapers, he pointed out, are too often unwilling to go beyond two or three Internet screens, “and that’s too short,” he said.

True enough. But the very next day I happened to attend a luncheon intended in part to promote J-Lab, which just moved to American University and calls itself “the Institute for Interactive Journalism.” Its mission is to help “news organizations and citizens use new information ideas and innovative computer technologies to develop new ways for people to engage in critical public policy issues.” For many people at the luncheon, the means of engagement seems to begin (and perhaps end) with blogging. But as I’ve noted previously, everybody seems to be blogging, while most blogs are exercises in vanity and self-delusion.

Unrelated to blogs, but very relevant to modern journalism, was the recommendation (from Howard Owens of “content provider” GateHouse Media) to “print what you know, when you know it.” He was talking about breaking news, of course, and some of us who recognize how often journalists get the first reports wrong cringed a bit (though Owens cautioned about speculation on the part of reporters). Still, the comment reminded me that modern media users don’t “read” media–especially online–the way they once did.

Muckraking magazines once ran thorough investigative series over many issues. For example, Ida Tarbell (one of my heros) wrote am 18-part expose’ of Standard Oil–based on more than FOUR YEARS of research–for McClure’s. Lincoln Steffens wrote separate articles for the same magazine about corruption in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Will Irwin produced a scathing critique of journalism, titled “The American Newspaper,” spread over 14 or 15 articles, for Collier’s magazine.

Presenting information in small pieces may be what the Web does best. Not coincidentally, gathering small pieces from here and there is how modern news junkies “read” the news. Sims and newspaper publishers may be right that most readers won’t go beyond two or three screens. But why should they, given their current options?

It seems to me that a savvy producer of literary journalism might produce a site in which the story is spread out over many pieces. That would let readers read the story in bits, as if reading chapters, reflecting on the pieces, rather than trying to gorge on the whole thing (or, more typically, ignoring it and looking for a book review summary or two). Good writing–the kind that is the hallmark of literary journalism–would bring them back for the next segment, and the next, and the next. An existing popular magazine might use the strategy only on its Web site, bringing visitors back more often, while running a summary in the magazine itself.

Done right, such a site might produce a “new journalism” that would combine meaningful in-depth information with more interesting writing than most Americans typically encounter–a kind of journalism that might even make Ida Tarbell proud.

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

  1. I don’t get why people “cringe” at web-first publishing. You say reporters often get their first report wrong — well, which is worse, being wrong in print or being wrong online?

    Once it’s in print, the only thing you can do is run a correction the next day. Get it wrong online, and you can correct it within minutes right in the same story, and given the distributed timeline of people consuming news online, far fewer people will have seen the wrong information online than would see the nearly written in stone mistake on pulp.

    And I’m not even conceding that reporters often get it wrong first. I just don’t agree with that statement at all.

    The concern about web-first publishing “getting it wrong” began with curmudgeonly copy editors three or four years ago. It was a smoke screen then, and it’s a smoke screen now. Web-first publishing need be no less journalisticly sound than publishing stale news in print hours or a day after it became news.

  2. James McPherson said

    Thanks, Howard. I appreciated your comments at the luncheon, and here. And while I think reporters get things wrong far less often than they’re accused of, it obviously does happen. One need only look at the several hundred corrections a typical daily newspaper runs in a year.
    I also agree with you that such errors are easier to correct (especially in a more visible way) on the Web, but it also is true that in many cases an error is quickly copied, pasted and sent hurtling through the blogosphere.
    Finally, I think Web-firsters don’t necessarily get it wrong more often than other media (though haven’t done or seen the relevant research), particularly other speed-based media such as cable news. But I do believe that sometimes, speed kills accuracy–especially if journalists fail to heed your advice (which I noted above) regarding avoiding speculation about what might be going on. Thanks again.

  3. […] 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 journalism than […]

  4. James McPherson said

    To Howard Owens: one more thing, if I may. One paragraph of a recent column (http://www.howardowens.com/2008/the-philadelphia-experiment-isnt-necessarily-a-bad-idea/) on your blog exemplifies why many traditional journalists worry about some versions of Web-first publishing. You say news organizations must “make sure your kickass print reporters know how to write for the web, which means more of a blog style, more of a conversational style, maybe even a little opinion, when doing those web-first updates.”

    That “maybe even a little opinion” raises many concerns–justifiably, I think–among news media that already are heavily criticized for bias (though done well, that insertion of opinion also is one of the things I happen to like about literary journalism, the original topic of this post). And doesn’t every journalist think s/he is a “kickass reporter”? I know I did, though in retrospect I have to admit that I wasn’t all that great. Thanks again.

  5. […] was checking my email and came across this link from James McPherson’s Media & Politics blog — passed along from Norm Sims. In the […]

  6. […] Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part II) […]

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