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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Posts Tagged ‘literary journalism’

Literary journalism follow-up

Posted by James McPherson on August 17, 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 anyone else alive, saying I got it “pretty right” with my discussion (thanks, Norm).

Sims did note, however: “The only thing I would add is that books and magazines have the ability to pay literary journalists for the months and years of reporting that they put into a project.  Blogs and the Web so far do not have the financial power to reward the writers.”

He’s right, of course. That’s why I think that existing magazines (such as Time or Newsweek) have the best chance of engaging in the kind of literary journalism I recommended, spreading a lengthy in-depth story over several sections or chapters for a period of several days or weeks. One problem potential problem is that too many news organizations still treat their Web operations like abused stepchildren, separate and inferior to the printed product, and allocate resources accordingly.

Readers do the same, to some degree, which is part of the reason that books (even those written by the likes of Jerome Corsi) have more credibility than other media for many folks. The fact that anyone can create a blog, and because so many Internet sources are blatantly false and/or partisan, adds to the problem.

But it seems to me that a news organization with established credibility–and with enough money to back the experiment–might use a new literary journalism format to further enhance its own journalistic reputation and the reputation of Web journalism, while providing a great service to readers in terms of both style and substance.

Posted in Journalism, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in History, Journalism, Poetry | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

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.

Posted in History, Journalism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »