Journalism in the History and Theory of Writing
2006 SAMLA Convention
Charlotte, NC
10-12 November

Kevin Lerner
Rutgers University and LaGuardia Community College/CUNY


Masters and voice:
The struggle for personal writing stylein American newsrooms, 1890–1940


Do not cite without permission of the author.



The 1830's brought a new job category to the United States: that of the employed journalist, a writer working for a boss. Until then, most newspapers were one-man operations, and the editors/publishers of these newspapers could use them exclusively as their personal mouthpieces; self-styled writers who wanted access to printing presses usually paid for the privilege of seeing their words set in type. Various technological and social changes led to the rise of the Penny Papers, which were both hierarchically and bureaucratically organized. Now, becoming a reporter allowed someone with literary ambition to do writing for pay, and crank out copy until he finished his Great American Novel. The limitations of the stripped-down newspaper style, the demands of city editors, and the drudgery of filling up the paper and meeting deadlines, however, conflicted with many writers' desires to find their individual “voices.” This tension, which grew throughout the 19th century, became a recurring theme in the memoirs and speeches of both reporters and editors of the first half of the 20th century. It remained simmering until the 1960s, when the “New Journalists” brought a new attention to “style” and “voice” in newspaper journalism. This paper explores the tension caused by professional journalism's insistence on the standardization of an inherently personal form of work: writing. It examines reporters' memoirs and one editor's speeches from the period of greatest tension—the 1890's to the 1930's—to trace this conflict between writers and their editors and publishers over the issue of individual freedom and the ability to write in their own “voices.”


A reporter for The Wall Street Journal has recently complained, on occasion, about the editing process there. Her editors encourage her to report a story “to death,” as she says, and she will take a week or so after she finishes the information gathering to write the piece, painstakingly. Once she turns it in to her editors, her carefully considered phrases are replaced with lifeless writing and clichés. In other words, she complains, her copy comes out of the editing process sounding less like her, but more like The Wall Street Journal .

This is not to condemn the Journal in any way. What happens to my friend has happened to journalists at newspapers for more than a century: their individual voices, or writing styles, become repressed in favor of the style of newspapers themselves. American newspapers speak with a recognizable institutional voice—with obvious differences from one paper to another, but enough similarities that the American Newspaper Style could easily be identified. It is probably best represented by The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual , which, according to a claim on the front cover of one edition, has sold more than one million copies (Goldstein, 1998) . It is the basis for many individual newspaper stylebooks, and is widely used for academic news writing.

One newspaper writer and textbook author observed, “Getting a story and reporting it are in reality two different activities” (Mavity, 1930) . Salcetti (1995) quotes this as evidence of the division of labor in the 1920s and 1930s newsrooms, but it also underscores an enduring fact about the process of news writing: Doing it well requires two very different talents that may not always be found in a single person. As a professor of journalism, I often find that in my introductory news writing classes, that students who excel at the information-gathering aspect of journalism quickly grasp the structured method of hard news writing known as the “inverted pyramid,” while those who chose journalism classes because they like to write often feel constrained within this limited form.

But my friend at the Journal , my students, and all of their contemporaries in American newspaper journalism are not nearly the first reporters to feel that while they may have been valued as information gatherers, their writing skills are, at best, secondary considerations. In fact, this tension can be traced at least as far back as 1890, when the sensationalist newspapers of the Penny Press (which had begun publication in the 1830s) were beginning to standardize their news story form.

As Brennen (1995) observes, “Standard American media histories that described the 1920s and 1930s only superficially addressed the lives of often exploited and fundamentally powerless newsworkers; instead, they focused on decontextualized administrative history, exploring “significant” events, activities of major newspapers, and careers of powerful editors and publishers,” and most historians have “failed to problematize the actual writing process” (pp. 75–76). This paper presents a selection of memoirs of American newspaper journalists who worked during the period when the American newspaper style—dry, formal, and ostensibly objective—took shape. This is a period that overlapped with the decline of the sensationalist press and a rise in arguments toward professionalization. The memoirs show that their authors butted heads with editors whose loyalty was to clearly presented facts, not elegant prose. The paper closes with an analysis of a trilogy of speeches given by one Chicago newspaper editor to groups of graduating Northwestern University journalism students. The speeches clearly illustrate the official preference for fact over style that became the dominant mode for U.S. newspaper journalists during this period. The preference appears to continue today.


Voice and style in journalism and literature

Ben Yagoda writes that in researching his book The Sound on the Page , a researched meditation on writing style , he did not uncover any evidence of a journalistdiscussing “style” before the rise of the 1960s New Journalism (personal communication, March 27, 2006). There is, however, a history of style and voice in literature. “Style in the deepest sense,” Yagoda (2004) writes,

is not a set of techniques, devices, and habits of expression that just happen to be associated with a particular person, but a presentation or representation of something essential about him or her—something that we, as readers, want to know from that writer and that cannot be disguised, no matter how much the writer may try (p. xvii).

Even though journalists may not have discussed the idea, the study of style was of major concern to academics at the turn of the century. There are clear connections between The elements of style (Strunk & White, 2005) , the classic all-purpose style manual, and The Associated Press stylebook . Both define style mostly in terms of grammar and usage, more than in terms of a recognizable voice of any kind. As for “voice,” both the AP style guide and The elements of style advocate transparency, with the writer disappearing behind clear, unobtrusive prose. George Orwell's “Politics and the English language” may be the most famous single essay on writing style, and it was written by a British journalist who, like many of his American counterparts, also wrote novels. Four of his six rules for good writing demand clear, simple writing (Orwell, 2000) , though as Yagoda (2005) argues, Orwell broke many of his own rules to the benefit of his writing. Several writers at the time and academic critics since then have noted links between journalism and literature at the turn of the 20 th century. The influence of journalism on the reigning literary mode of the period, literary realism, has been extensively outlined; authors mostly agree on a canon of writers who either worked in both genres or who moved into literature after early careers as journalists. This pantheon usually includes Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, and Theodore Dreiser (Abrahamson, 1991; Fishkin, 1985; Robertson, 1997) . Of course each of these writers is famous not for journalism (their news stories were not bylined in any case), but for the poetry or novels written after leaving journalism.

At the turn of the 20 th Century, a private school master named Henry W. Boynton, who had also written the first definitive modern biography of James Fenimore Cooper, wrote a brief essay in which he mused on the connections between journalism and literature and how the former could approach the heights of the latter:

A journalist whose impersonal talent […] is unable to subdue his personal genius, feels the inadequacy of this method. He has a hankering for self-expression. He is dissatisfied with this hasty summarizing of facts, this rapid postulating of inferences. He insensibly extends his function, reinforces analysis with insight, and produces literature. He has not been able to confine himself to telling or saying something appropriate to the moment; he has merely taken his cue from the moment, and busied himself with saying what is appropriate to himself and to the truth as he knows it. He has, in short, ceased to be a machine or a mouthpiece, and become a “creative” writer (Boynton, 1904) .

While Boynton's essay praises the possibilities of journalism to approach the realm of literature, he fails to support that assertion with a single excerpt from a newspaper. He does, however, show that as early as the end of the 19 th Century, writers concerned themselves with the literary merit of daily news.

Fishkin (1985), having studied four journalists-turned-writers (Twain, Dreiser, Whitman, and Hemingway), notes that newspaper readers' trust in the press was “a frequent source of discomfort” and that “the limits of conventional journalism as they knew it—the subjects that were excluded, the superficial, formulaic treatment of subjects that were discussed, the lack of connection to any time but the present, the extravagant claims to authoritativeness, the failure to challenge the reader to think for himself—were apparent to them…” (p.8). These writers' memoirs demonstrate their growing discontent with the simple, confining style that was mandated first by the desire for commercial growth, and then by professional concerns.Whether reporters who did not or could not switch from newspaper journalism to other media felt the same discontent is an interesting, unexplored topic outside the bounds of this paper.


The rise of the reporter

Prior to the 1833 launch of Benjamin Day's New York Sun , the first of a group of mass-distributed, low-cost newspapers known as the Penny Papers, there really was no such thing as a reporter. Most newspapers were run almost entirely by their owners, who served as editors and publishers, and they printed other matter on the side to make money. Schudson (1978) writes that in this period, “Editing a newspaper was an intensely personal matter” (p. 16). While this would seem to indicate that within the bounds of legal restraint, these editor/publishers had unlimited “voice,” Schudson argues that, at least in the political sense of voice, this was not true. “Many editors were subservient to their political masters and, at the same time, very limited in their views on what was acceptable to put in print” (p. 16). Presumably, however, their writing style was left entirely up to them, even though they were primarily printers, not writers. On the other hand, those dreamy young men who felt not that they had something to write, but that they were just talented writers, had no outlet for their pens. Either they wrote novels or poetry and found publishers willing to print and sell their work, or they were wealthy enough to pay a printer to produce a few copies, or most likely, they found work as lawyers or teachers or businessmen, just as their more prudent fathers had told them to do all along.

With the rise of The New York Sun in 1833 however, publishers began to take advantage both of new technologies for cheap newspaper printing and of a rapidly growing literate public (Schudson, 1978) . The products of this were the “penny papers.” As the circulation of these papers skyrocketed (the Sun 's tripled in three years), their editors hired paid reporting staffs for the first time (Schudson, 1978) , and suddenly, there was a job description that looked good to writers. Even in the 1830s, however, most writers for these newspapers were freelance reporters, paid on space—on the number of column inches they wrote—not salaried employees. By the 1880s and 1890s, Schudson writes, these freelance reporters were almost extinct, and some had become celebrities for their adventures as well as their writing.

Schudson points to an incident involving the celebrity correspondent Richard Harding Davis as one of the first expressions of the autonomy of journalists as opposed to their editors and publishers. In 1897, Davis wrote a story about the strip search of a young Cuban woman—which he had probably embellished (Lubow, 1992) . His publisher, the sensationalist William Randolph Hearst, changed some of the details to make the story more lurid, details which the subject of the story subsequently denied. Schudson argues that this incident shows that “Davis felt himself independent of his employer, knew himself to have an authority with the reading public more valuable than his salary, and could with equanimity stand against his editor” (p. 64). I argue that this incident shows the stirrings of professionalism but in any case, Davis's is a rare case when it comes to independence of voice, since he had already achieved fame as a reporter and as a novelist by the time of this incident. Most reporters, even by 1897, brought their reporting work to the city editor, a legendary figure who was usually a young reporter's direct superior. Stanley Walker, indeed a legendary city editor for The New York Herald Tribune , described the stereotype of the city editor who cut down the rookie reporter:

He invents strange devices for the torture of reporters, this mythical agate-eyed Torquemada with the paste-pots and scissors. Even his laugh, usually directed at something sacred, is part sneer. His terrible curses cause flowers to wither, as the grass died under the hoofbeats of the horse of Attila the Hun (Walker, 1934) .

Henry Justin Smith, a longtime editor at the Chicago Daily News, agreed (1934):

In popular tradition I suppose the editor is still a baleful figure handling a mean pair of scissors and hurling good copy into the waste-basket. Certainly this was the tradition a few years ago. You can hear many a good yarn about fire-eating editors, some of them dating back to Horace Greeley and Charles A. Dana, and others dealing with later types who acquired such nicknames as “old Legree” and “Butch.” ( p. 7) .

Salcetti (1995) writes that in the 1890s, “Reporters could not be economically independent because they had to rely on others for their salaries.” And the imposing city editor is the man who enforced these rules.

By the 1890s, the basic structure of a news story had been standardized, often referred to as the “inverted pyramid” (Emery, Emery, & Roberts, 2000; Mott, 1962; Pöttker, 2003; Salcetti, 1995; Starr, 2004; Stephens, 1997) . In inverted pyramid news writing, a lead sentence conveys the most important aspects of the news item quickly and clearly, and details about the event proceed from that lead roughly in order of importance. Historians differ on the reasons for the development of this “hard news” form. The form possibly grew out of the stilted, concise language of telegraph communications beginning in the 1860s. Others say its adoption allowed various news organizations to use the same material from the Associated Press news wires [cites]. A third explanation has the inverted pyramid becoming a standard during the period of professionalization in the early 20 th century, as a way both of conveying information to readers quickly and clearly, and simplifying the editing process: impatient readers would know that reading the beginning of a story would be enough if they grew bored, and editors could chop stories from the bottom, knowing that they were cutting the least important information (Mencher, 2006) .

This commercialization of news, then, typified the period between about 1890 and 1920 or so, with strictures being put on journalists' writing in order to ease the work of their superiors, or to appeal to the widest possible audience. Solomon (1995) writes: “In size, visibility, and influence, the newspapers that became dominant were those that catered to advertisers and treated news as a commodity” (p. 116).

By the beginning of the 20 th Century however, the inverted pyramid gained a rationale that elevated it to the status of professional practice rather than production convenience. A broad consensus in both academic and popular writings holds that the peak of the journalism professionalization movement came in the 1920s with the articulation of the norm of objectivity (Banning, 1998; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001; Nerone & Barnhurst, 2003; Salcetti, 1995; Schudson, 1978; Schudson & Tifft, 2005) . Most of these authors identify Walter Lippmann and his 1920 book Liberty and the News as seminal in the call for the application of scientific method to journalistic technique. Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) place the rise of objectivity in the 1920s but say that the original meaning of the term was not freedom from bias, but rather one that “called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work” (p. 72). Lippmann (1920) wrote of journalists: “There is but one kind of unity possible in a world as diverse as ours. It is a unity of method, rather than aim; the unity of disciplined experiment” (p. ). Journalists would gather information and analyze it, but accept whatever conclusion their evidence supported, rather than the conclusion that the journalists preferred. Then these conclusions would be presented in bland, neutral language, so as not to color these semi-scientific conclusions. While the notion of objectivity has been explored at length elsewhere, its relevance here is in its tendency toward this bland writing style. Of course, these are broad historical generalizations, and several newspapers did use a lively writing style to attract readers, instead of striving for disinterested blandness. But as Schudson argues, the previous “story” model was gradually superseded by an “information model”:

While reporters subscribed concurrently to the ideals of factuality and entertainment in writing the news, some of the papers they worked for chose identities that strongly emphasized one ideal or the other. The World and the Journal chose to be entertaining; the old penny press, especially the Times after Adolph Ochs rejuvenated it in 1896, took the path of factuality (Schudson, 1978) .

It is these information model newspapers that survived, with newspapers known as “writers' papers” gradually dying out. The World ceased publication as its own paper in 1931, and its successor as the reigning writers' paper in New York, the Herald Tribune , could not survive the 1965 newspaper strike.


The reporters' memoirs

No matter the cause of the repression felt by these writers at newspapers—whether it was the standardization of the first half of this period, or the professional ideals that developed in the second half, the fact remains that the memoirs under consideration here all portray strikingly similar memories of the newsroom, and they are memories of constraint and tension. Schudson (1978), encountered many of the same memoirs under consideration in this paper, and he rightly observed that even though “there are differences among all these recollections, there are strong similarities, too, almost more than seems reasonable. This may indicate that the occupational world of the big-city newspaper reporters was, indeed, a common one” (p. 84). Schudson errs in taking these memoirs, almost all of which are by writers who are still well-known today, as typical. These writers were able to publish memoirs because they were well-known and well-respected, and all of them except for one had left newspaper journalism, so there could very well have been a large number of uncomplaining writers who stayed at their papers and never wrote memoirs in which they could give voice to their contentment under constraint. These memoirs may not be entirely representative of newspaper reporters of this time period, but they do form an archetypal picture of city newspapermen at the time.

Though Lincoln Steffens never left journalism, he did start his career with the common thought that newspapers would be a stopgap measure, until he could make his name in plays or novels. In 1892, when he started his newspaper career, Steffens chose to apply to The New York Evening Post , because the daily production schedule of an evening paper would allow him to be home at night “to do some literary work” (p. 172).

In Chicago, Theodore Dreiser, thinking highly of his own potential to become a man of high status, found himself drawn to the glamour of newspapers—the adventurous glamour typified by Richard Harding Davis and Henry Morton Stanley, the reporter who traveled to Africa to track down Dr. Livingstone. Dreiser decided to train himself:

This matter of reporting, for instance, I said to myself, must certainly be easy. Something happened, once car ran into another, or a man was shot, or a fire broke out. You, as a reporter, ran to the scene, observed or inquired after the details, secured the names and addresses of those immediately concerned, and described it. To reassure myself on this point I went about looking for small accidents on my own account, or imagining them and then, taking pen and paper in hand, sat down and wrote out what I saw. The result to me, as contrasted with what I found in the daily papers, was quite satisfactory. I was satisfied after a few private efforts of this kind that I could and must report. Some paper must give me a place. (Dreiser, 2000)

Dreiser did find a place at a newspaper, of course, though not nearly as easily as he had expected to. Repeatedly in the memoirs under consideration, these aspiring writers describe a familiar process. They show up at the city room of a newspaper. They are ignored. Finally, a harried city editor takes notice of the supplicant and sends him on his first assignment “on space.”


Encountering the city editor, and learning newspaper style

The reporters' memoirs establish, to some extent, the vision of the city editor as grand inquisitor that Stanley Walker and Henry Justin Smith parody and refute. Dreiser's editor called him “one of the damnedest crack-brained loons I ever encountered…. If I could just keep you under my thumb for four or five weeks, I believe I could make something out of you” (Dreiser, 2000, p. 69) . At least Dreiser's editor cared enough to call him names and threaten him with weeks of oppression. When Steffens came back with his first story, he “labored till the city editor darted out to see what I was doing; he saw; he read over my shoulder the writes and re-writes of my first paragraph, and picking up one, said, “This is enough.” And away he went with it…. And then when it came down, the damp, smelly paper, my paragraph wasn't in it!” (Steffens, 1931, p. 174) . What was worse for Steffens, all of the facts he had gathered had made it into the paper, “but they were better, more neatly, briefly stated, than I had put them; perhaps I had failed, not as a reporter, but as a writer. And this conclusion was confirmed at the office…” (Steffens, 1931, p. 174) .

But Steffens and the other reporters who wrote the memoirs under consideration here invariably tried again, and it was under the fierce tutelage of the city editor that they began to learn the form. Julius Chambers (1921), the rare author among these memoirs who did not leave newspapers, described the style that he learned working for various city editors, including Whitelaw Reid :

[ It was ] a form of composition very difficult to overcome in after years—a style accurately described by John Hay, then a paragraph writer on the Tribune , as ‘The Grocer's Bill.' Facts; facts; nothing but facts. So many peas at so much a peck; so much molasses at so much a quart. The index of forbidden words was very lengthy, and misuse of them, when they escaped the keen eye of a copyreader and got into print, was punishable by suspension without pay for a week, or immediate discharge. It was a rigid system, rigidly enforced ( pp. 6–7) .

C.S. Diehl, later a staff correspondent for the Associated Press, first learned style under a city editor, before moving to the A.P., the prototypical “straight news” organization:

As an introduction to the story I had prepared, I had attempted an ornate style, which apparently, contained nothing but words. The hard-eyed city editor took me into his sanctum, turned over the first twenty pages, and said:

“You have said nothing whatever in this portion of your story, and in preparing it, you have used more of the unused portion of Webster's Dictionary than the remainder of the force will use in a year. If you want to say, ‘the hen crossed the street,' say ‘the hen crossed the street,' and not that ‘the feathery biped perambulated across the thoroughfare'.” (Diehl, 1931, p. 45) .

In Diehl's retelling of the incident, 40 years or so after the event took place, his editor's advice is sound. Clearly “the hen crossed the street” is the better sentence. But Diehl never left the sort of deadline journalism in which clarity was revered, so he had a reason to mock flowery writing. The advice Diehl (1931) attributes to his nameless city editor would serve even today as a chapter in an introductory journalism textbook:

[ ]to tell my story in the first sentence, or at least in the first paragraph, an to then elaborate all I cared to, but if I had nothing to say, to say nothing; that a parade of unusual or obsolete words, indicated neither erudition nor common sense…. My city editor had given me, in his two suggestions, an entire course in journalism—to give a syllabus of a story in the first paragraph, and to preserve simplicity of style (p. 45).

But other writers—notably those who left newspaper journalism—observed the same rules and chafed under them. H.L. Mencken (1941) wrote that “the Sun laid immense stress upon accuracy, and thus fostered a sober, matter-of-fact style in its men. The best of them burst through those trammels, but the rank and file tended to write like bookkeepers” (, p. 14) . Hardly a compliment. Similarly, Steffens recalled that “Reporters were to report the news as it happened, like machines, without prejudice, color, and without style, all alike. Humor or any sign of personality in our reports was caught, rebuked, and, in time, suppressed” (p. 179). Already, in the word choices of these memoirists, the reaction to constraints on writing style, while not explicit, can be seen.

Among all of the memoirists, Dreiser narrated his encounters with his editors—and their response to his literary effusions—most vividly:

I do not think that I had scrawled more than eight or nine pages of this mush before the city editor, curious as to what I had discovered, no doubt, and wondering, since it was apparently so important, why I had not reported it to him, came over and, picking up the various sheets which I had turned face down, studied them and exclaimed: “No! no! no! You musn't write on both sides of the paper. Don't you even know that? And all this stuff about the political pot boiling is as old as the hills. Ever country-jake paper for four thousand miles east or west has used it for years and years. You're not to write general stuff. You're not to write the lead. Davis will tend to that. Here, Maxwell, see if you can't find out what Dreiser has found out and show him what to do with it. I haven't got time.”

Maxwell comes over, sits down, and quizzes Dreiser on his day of reporting:

“He's quite right,” he said as he read the first page. “This is old stuff. You want to try to forget that you're the editor of the paper and just consider yourself a plain reporter sent out to cover some hotels. Now where'd you go today?”

I told him.

“What'd you see?”

I described as best I could the whirling world in which I'd been.

“No, no—I don't mean that,” he replied. “That's literature—not news stuff. Did you see any particular man? Did you find anything in connection with any particular committee?”

I confessed that I had tried but failed. I had not been able to find any particular man who seemed to know anything.

“Very good,” he said, “you haven't anything to write,” and he took my precious nine pages, tore them up and threw them into the wastebasket (Dreiser, 2000, p. 59–60) .

In this excerpt from Dreiser, good reporting is once again valued above good writing. Even more than that, Dreiser's editor uses the word “literature” not as a compliment to Dreiser's writing, but as an insult, a mark of inadequacy. If there is no news, in the editor's worldview, there is nothing worth writing about. And two pages later, Dreiser comes back with slightly more acceptable prose, which is only slightly more delicately handled. Dreiser's editor again:

“You can write but you don't know how to tell your story. Over in the Tribune office they have a sign which reads, ‘Who or what? How? When? Where?' All those things have to be answered in the first paragraph, do you hear?—not in the last paragraph or the middle paragraph, or anywhere but in the first paragraph. Now come here—gimme that stuff.” And he cut and hacked and slashed, running thick, cold lines of blue lead right through my choicest thoughts and restating in a line or two all that I had thought necessary to express in ten (p. 62).

Even though Dreiser's memoir—and all of the memoirs, in fact—do not use the term, this is obviously the “inverted pyramid” style of news writing that would be recognizable even today. It is the same model of story structure that was presented to Diehl, and was obviously widespread by the 1890s.


Protest and resignation

Discussing newspaper novels of the 1930s, Brennen (1995) concluded: “Journalists frequently discussed alternative employment options with each other; they considered careers in advertising, sales, teaching, writing, or anything that might make them feel like individuals again (p. 93). While these memoirs do not include scenes of journalists discussing a way out, they do include recollections of what finally sent these journalists off into other careers. In one near-final backhanded compliment, for example, Dreiser's Chicago city editor tells him that “I think maybe you're cut out to be a writer and not just an ordinary newspaperman after all” (p. 80). Dreiser moved to New York, where he worked briefly “on space” for The New York World , Joseph Pulitzer's paper, and one of those known for being a “writer's paper.” Still, as Fishkin (1985) writes, “Trivial and depressing assignments, poor health, and general lack of encouragement led Dreiser to leave the World for magazine work the following year” (p. 88).

Lincoln Steffens' departure was even more illustrative of the changing world of newspapers in this period. Steffens and some colleagues had the opportunity to run a paper, T he New York Commercial Advertiser , which had been in business for almost exactly a century when Steffens took over as editor. Tired of writing bland copy for his own city editor, Steffens declared that he would hire only writers for his overhauled version of the Commercial Advertiser :

My verbal advertisement and my announced rules drew the right kind of young men. I would take fellows, I said, whose professor of English believed they were going to be able to write and who themselves wanted to be writers, provided, however, that they did not intend to be journalists. “We” had use for any one who, openly or secretly, hoped to be a poet, a novelist, or an essayist…. And to encourage each man to form and write in his own style, I declared that if any two reporters came to write alike, one of them would have to go. There was to be no Commercial Advertiser style, no Commercial Advertiser men (Steffens, 1931) .

But this utopian plan for a community of writers putting out news was, possibly, fated to fail. In an episode that provides clear support for Schudson's (1978) argument that the information model superseded the story model, the new editorial team ran the paper into the ground in 1904, only seven years after taking over the 100-year-old paper, and Steffens left to write for magazines (Jackson & New-York Historical Society, 1995; Steffens, 1931) .

Reflecting on his newspaper years in his memoir, Steffens spoke out clearly against the writing style inculcated into newspapermen: “As a writer, I was permanently hurt by my years on the Post . The editorial page and, to some extent, the book, theater, and music reviews, were the only departments which were really written” (p. 179). Mark Twain, the most famous of these former journalists, vented even more spleen in notoriously cranky later years. He complained, forty years later, about needing to

work from nine or ten in the morning until eleven at night scraping material together: “I took the pen and spread this much out in words and phrases and made it cover as much acreage as I could. It was fearful drudgery, soulless drudgery, and almost destitute of interest” (quoted in DeVoto, 1940, p. ) .

Similarly, the writer Lafcadio Hearn, known for his books on Japan, once wrote that “journalism dwarfs, stifles, and emasculates thought and style” (qtd. in Smith, 1934, p. 70) . Despite the apparent extremity of Twain's and Hearn's views, they actually square quite comfortably with Brennen's (1995) survey of the attitudes of journalists through novels. Clearly, whether their chafing was legitimate or not, there was clearly a culture of complaint in American newspaper journalism between 1890 and 1940.

Schudson (1978) argues that these memoirs “standardize a mythic pattern” of “struggle between a young eager reporter and a wizened, cynical editor” (p. 84). This much of Schudson's assertion holds true on scrutiny of these memoirs, but Schudson takes this mythological argument too far. The myth, he says, is

played out between editor and reporter as between father and son: the son dares to express himself and the father punishes; the son conforms to the father's demands and the father comes to trust him; the son rebels to express himself again, with more maturity this time, and triumphs over the father; the father grows old or dies, becomes a memory, and the son forgives, acknowledging that he had, after all, taken his father's admonitions to heart (p. 85).

The main problem with this Oedipal theory is that it ignores that many of the journalists leave journalism rather than attempt to triumph over the father or take his admonitions to heart. Clearly, the venom that most of these memoirists commit to paper shows that they have not reconciled themselves to the writing style advocated by their various city editors. Solomon's (1995) summary of the period comes closer to the reigning atmosphere among these former reporters: “It is a history of collectively felt oppression most often expressed in individual acts of defiance—usually, quitting one newspaper to work at another or else leaving journalism altogether” (p. 112). If you are going to make the claim that you do, or quote Solomon, you must first provide evidence —or use stats from Solomon, if he has them—that many journalists, much less most, quit.

Henry Justin Smith (1934), the Chicago Daily News editor, tells the story of Stephen Crane, who blended journalism and literature more and perhaps better than any of these other authors did (Robertson, 1997) . Crane's story serves well as a coda to represent young writers who equate newspaper jobs with opportunities to write:

Crane sat about one newspaper office after another. He contrived phrases which appalled yet fascinated editors, and which one would gladly read to-day; but as often as he produced them, they fell before the rigid pencils of copyreaders who “knew what was what.”…. Another man caring nothing about mere uninteresting facts was trying to be a reporter, and was proving a terrible joke. The New York Tribune tried him; The New York Herald tried him. He seems to have had editors as patient as the average…. But the experiment was short. Exasperated daily by the death of his pet shockers, fighting on to see and describe things as they were, he finally was “cussed out,” it seems, by a busy editor, and seizing his cocky soft hat, departed from office and livelihood (p. 73).


Henry Justin Smith's Northwestern speeches

In his treatment of these memoirs, Schudson (1978) errs not just in mythologizing them, but also in treating them as broadly representative of newspaper journalists of this era. As I assert above, the journalists published these memoirs were a famous lot, in large part, and, largely because of writing they did after leaving newspapers. While they may credit newspapers for giving them their start, these writers are not typical. However, a series of speeches given by Henry Justin Smith—the Chicago Daily News editor who mentored many young news writers as well as the poet Carl Sandburg and the playwright Ben Hecht, who both wrote for the Daily News —can in large part fill that gap.

Smith spoke to students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism on at least three occasions. These three speeches, in chronological order, are titled “The way it's written,” “Writing versus—everything else,” and “Genius on newspaper row.” Together, these three speeches encompass four major themes: genius should be allowed to flower in the newsroom long enough to enrich the paper, but shouldn't be forced to stay in journalism if it yearns to do something else; most reporters need to rein in their genius as writers, if they have it in the first place; writing is only an embellishment to the core skills of the reporter; and there is as much—if not more—honor in toiling in anonymity than in achieving fame as a writer. These speeches show that the conditions spoken of in these memoirs were acknowledged by editors as well, and that they were enumerated as caveats to incoming cub reporters—the rank and file who did not write memoirs of their newspapering lives, but who presumably chased fires and criminals and politicians for their whole careers.

The third speech, “Genius on newspaper row,” covers most of the first of Smith's four themes. Smith says that the story of geniuses working for newspapers “is a story of delicate, or wayward, or explosive, natures involved with that powerful engine, that monument of propriety, that pyramid of rules and regulations, the American newspaper” (p. 57). He acknowledges that many writers began their careers in newspapers—he calls them “bitter but ecstatic years”—but quickly move on to their real love. “As well seek to harness a roe-buck to a treadmill as try to bind a great artist to the gears and wheels of a modern Daily Thunderer,” he says (p. 59). He also suggests that some great hybrid work between journalism and literature has existed, particularly in what he refers to as “The New York Sun crowd. But he concedes that this “represented only a compromise, after all; an adjustment of certain willing minds to the limitations of the newspaper; a half-hearted attempt by newspaper editors to give genius its fling” (p. 71).

Smith would advise editors to let journalists who do exhibit this kind of genius to give it a chance to develop, rather than crushing it as the city editors in the memoirs under discussion did. He even suggests of Twain, as bitter as he seemed about journalism in the transcription quoted above, that if the right sort of editors “had been acute enough to select for him tasks and subjects appealing to his vivid spirit, they might have kept him on the staff for years instead of months. Or if they had relaxed the censorship over his scorching pen, given him rein…, they would have earned a distinction for which a few libel suits would, as we see it now, have been a small price to pay” (pp. 66–67). Despite his allowance for a few stray geniuses at newspapers, he concludes :

[T]he work of journalism and that of pure literature are, in the long run, irreconcilable…. It is useless, then, to expect great literature in your newspaper, except by what might be called a happy accident. It is equally vain—and has been proved so—to expect that men born to detect the great symbolisms in life, or men able to portray beauty in the abstract, or men to whom an original phrase looks bigger than a set of facts, shall be more than a perishable part of the newspaper edifice. (p. 82)

This attitude—that real writers are not meant to be journalists, and that real journalists aren't “writers” per se, permeates the rest of Smith's speeches to the Northwestern students.

Still, “The way it's written” does start with one optimistic note for anyone who heard this speech—or read its transcript—and wanted to be a writer and work for a paper:

This is the fact that a newspaper should not crush its staff with fatuous rules, nor should a writer permit himself to be crushed by them. The rules that do count are such as all leading newspapers have, like the one that in a “straight news story” the principal facts must be stated first: like leaving most foreign words to the foreign language newspapers; like avoiding flippancy in connection with serious subjects (p. 13).

Smith thus manages to make the inverted pyramid hard news form seem like an obvious, simple, and almost liberating form, unlike the set of shackles it seemed to be to Steffens, Twain, or Chambers.

However, most of “The way it's written” preaches not literary showmanship, but solid workmanship—a clear sign that Smith favors the idea of journalism as a craft. After talking about reading widely and practicing new styles and new vocabulary, Smith advises: “First enrich yourselves, then simplify yourselves. Supposing you have increased your vocabulary by 200 per cent, and can hurl phrases by handfuls, and can beat the entrails out of a typewriter in ten minutes, the next thing is to master your own brilliancy. This is the greatest mastery of all” (p. 28). What immediately follows this in context shows that Smith is actually a pragmatic editor, since what he is trying to avoid is the bane of city editors and journalism professors even 70 years later:

A great many things that pass for brilliancy are in reality nothing but verbose slop. One seems to see the rabid editor standing over his slave and roaring, “Jazz it up, you goof! Get pep into it. Make 'er smoke.” And one sees the slave, with eyes starting from his head, hurling pompous adjectives and threadbare descriptive expressions, and thinking to himself, “By Golly, I'll kill 'em dead with this story;” and one sees, perhaps, the paper issuing with smears of large-faced type, screaming its deadly commonplaces to the world in the guise of brilliant writing, and the thousands of poor gulls who never read anything better gulping all this in as they hang to straps in the elevated (p. 28).

It is no stretch of the imagination to get from this description to Diehl's perambulating feathery biped, which no editor wants to have to deal with. But later in the speech, Smith makes newspaper work sound almost like military self-discipline: “To belong to the distinguished company of real newspaper writers, you must rein in ” (p. 29).

This is not entirely disheartening, of course, and Smith gives the speech a rousing ending:

And just as sure as you keep at it long enough, some day a boy will bring a proof into the local room—a proof of your story—with “fine work” written on the margin in the Old Man's hand. And when you go home that night you'll hear one business man say to the other on the L: “Say, did you read this story in the Bazoo? It ain't such important news perhaps, but it kind o' gets me. It's the way it's written .”

And then you'll feel that after all it was worth while to study journalism (pp. 30–31).

Smith shows that there is a certain nobility in good, though not brilliant writing, and his speech—without the archaic jazz-age locutions—could inspire a journalism student today.

What is disheartening about this speech is Smith's constant assumption that these are un-bylined, anonymous pieces. As an illustration of “fine newspaper art” (p. 26), Smith reads an entire news story about boatmen on the Volga river. “Who wrote that?” he asks, and a reader can almost hear the excitement in his voice that he will shock his listeners with the answer: “Oh, nobody in particular! Only an Associated Press correspondent” (p. 26). He means this to be inspiring, to demonstrate that even the rank and file are capable of good writing—and it is good writing. But when he says “nobody in particular,” he means it. The AP writer received no byline, and Smith gives no credit for it either. Bylines were not a standard inclusion in Associated Press stories at the time, and Smith seems to be praising this unnamed writer for his anonymous contribution, a sort of unknown soldier of journalism. While the words have been immortalized, the writer is nameless and faceless. But unlike the rousing end of “The way it's written,” Smith's attempt at a stirring conclusion to “Genius on newspaper row” only reinforces the fact that great writing will not be a personal benefit to the journalism students are hearing his speech:

And similarly, what would be the justice, or the sense, of crying down that immense and constantly recruited army of newspaper people who never hope to be known to readers by name, or to own even one share of stock in anything, or to have the happiness of publication with a brass band?

How paltry, after all, the contribution to American journalism of the majority of famous writers, compared with the accomplishment, on a long, long trail of white paper, amid rivers of ink, performed by men who have resigned themselves to anonymity, working always to advance the renown of their master, the newspaper, and never their own!

To whom erect the monument? (p. 86).

It is almost hard to believe that he is trying to rouse these journalism students to be part of the unnamed mass of journalist-laborers who produce the majority of news.

On an equally discouraging note, Smith predicts that some day the writing skills of journalism will be sidelined even more than in the 1930s. He says that there will be a day when “people will learn the news so quickly, either by radio or by airplane, that there will hardly be any suspense about anything; and an era in which “The Way It's Written” may become a detail. The star newspaper man of that time will be—as perhaps he is now—the man who has best mastered the control of the new servants of journalism and wields them most boldly” (p. 53). Once again, an editor of the period devalues writing skills compared to news-gathering skills.

I see good writing now as one excellent adornment of the newspaper man or woman; one very fine ambition of the craft—perhaps still the finest. But I see it doing its bit along with, and tremendously vitalized by, those robust qualities necessary for the fighting end of the profession (p. 53).

The “fighting end” of the profession is that collection of reporting skills. In Smith's view, and in the view of many editors of the 50 years in which the writing of journalism became standardized, writing was merely a delivery method for the product—the news information itself.



Like some of the writers he mentored—at least those who became famous— Henry Justin Smith has a gift for words. But more importantly than that, he reinforces the idea that the majority of newspaper writers by the time that the news business was commercialized, professionalized and standardized were struggling to write in their own voice. A few of the writers Smith would characterize as “geniuses” detailed these struggles in their memoirs after they escaped the stifling world of the city room. But Smith's speeches allude to the nameless many who either conformed—whether happily or begrudgingly—struggled in silence, or left to less glamorous careers in sales or business. These speeches also attest to the nameless many who worked for the glory of their employer instead of for their own voices between 1890 and 1940.

As the frustrations of my friend at The Wall Street Journal show, this tension has never completely gone away. In the 1940s, journalism was perhaps too preoccupied with war to worry too much about voice. And the buttoned-down 1950s of stereotype could well have led to perhaps the most well-known outburst of voice in journalism, the so-called “New Journalism” of the 1960s. In fact, Tom Wolfe's essay introducing the anthology of that title is eerily similar to some of the themes found in the memoirs of 1890-1940. The new journalists joined newspapers for glamour and adventure, and instead found an environment that stifled their creativity (Wolfe, 1973) .

But Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese and Joan Didion and all of the others in that group made themselves famous. Henry Justin Smith asked whether a journalism monument should be erected to the famous or to the drones. Consider this paper an inadequate monument to the un-bylined masses—or at least to those who felt their desire to write stifled under the demands of the market or the limitations of professional standards.



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