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

Chalet Seidel
Case Western Reserve University


The Formation of a Professional Writing Identity in
Edwin Shuman's Steps Into Journalism


Do not cite without permission of the author.


This paper examines one aspect of a larger project in progress which explores the struggle of nineteenth century journalists to define their identity as writing professionals. The larger project reads important developments in the American newspaper press as steps in the formation of a distinct “culture of writing” that emerged within the metropolitan daily newspaper press of the late nineteenth century. In this paper, I will discuss the conceptualization of journalism as a distinctly writing profession in Edwin Shuman's Steps Into Journalism (1894), a handbook for aspiring journalists. Because the larger research project is on-going, any conclusions drawn in this paper are necessarily tentative. I look forward to discussing them with you in Charlotte ; I welcome your comments and suggestions.

Shuman's book encapsulates several important facets of journalists' conceptualization of their profession at the end of the nineteenth century. Before positioning themselves among recognized professions like medicine and the clergy, journalists had to separate the craft of writing from the trade of printing. Previous studies have noted the separation of writing and printing in this period. My aim here is to suggest that this change bears further examination as it figured in journalists' emerging conception of their profession. I will also examine the conception of journalistic writing that emerges during this period. I will suggest that Shuman's conceptions of journalistic writing both draw on and reject aspects of literary writing. Shuman's often contradictory ideas about the relationship between journalistic and literary writing suggests a tension between his desire to promote journalism as an esteemed profession in its own right and the urge to present journalistic writing as an apprenticeship to a higher, more literary form of writing: the novel.

In an 1893 address at Union College, New York Sun editor and publisher Charles Dana told students that developments in the methods and means of newspaper production would revolutionize the practice of journalism, “raising it to a higher dignity than it has ever occupied” (Dana 64). Even before Dana's speech, later published in The Art of Newspapermaking (1895) , the journalist's status was widely discussed in both the trade and popular media (see for example Wilson ). Many, like Dana, argued that journalism should be recognized as a profession equal to medicine, law, and the clergy. Indeed, Frank Luther Mott argues that as early as the 1840s and 50s, “the professional attitude ” had become “far more noticeable in the American press than it had been before” (312). And Stephen Banning notes frequent references to journalists as professionals in the 1867 minutes of the Missouri Press Association. Banning's study of MPA minutes suggests that journalists in the mid ninteteenth century not only regarded themselves as professionals “ in the classical sense of doctors, lawyers, and the clergy” but also “sought to further professionalize by pressing for university journalism education and ethical standards” (157). Previous attempts to establish training programs had emphasized printing. However, colleges began establishing programs to teach journalistic writing and editing in the 1880s and 1890s, often with the support of state press associations like the MPA.

Textbooks from this period reflect not only the professional aspirations of journalists, but also the difficulty of conceptualizing journalism as a writing profession. While Shuman's book appeared after the establishment of some college level journalism programs, it appears to be intended for self-study. It was published by the Correspondence School of Journalism and refers several times to a future in which training programs for journalism would be more common. However, Shuman's book reflects contemporary views on professionalization and the role education could play in promoting journalism's status. In order to assert a professional identity, journalists first had to dissociate the profession of journalism from the trade of printing, as Shuman does when he declares that “Journalism is in essence different from printing and publishing. It is the gathering and presentation of news and comment upon the news, of discussion of all that interests, entertains, informs, or instructs” (Shuman 9, see note 1).

As late as the penny press era, newspaper writing was so integrally linked with printing that an aspiring journalist might begin his career—as did Benjamin Franklin in the Colonial period and Mark Twain in the early nineteenth century—as a printer's assistant or typesetter. As urban daily newspapers grew, the processes of gathering and printing the news were increasingly separated, with news and production departments eventually moving into separate physical spaces. The considerations responsible for this division of labor—which made newspaper writing distinct—have barely been explored in histories of the period. When noted at all, this division is treated as an inevitable result of material changes in the conditions of news production, such as the increasing complexity of print technology. While I acknowledge the material conditions that contributed to structural changes in the news operation, I also believe journalists self-consciously dissociated themselves from the print trade. We can see this self-consciousness in the vehemence with which nineteenth-century journalists declared in professional journals that the intellectual work of writing was distinct from the mechanical work of printing. And we see it in Shuman's text as well.

In the introduction to his textbook, Shuman hearkens to journalism's past as a branch of the printing trade before identifying the modern journalists' need for systematic training:

The instruction in these pages is merely a condensation of the experience common to all editors who work up… from the onerous responsibilities of printer's devil to those, successively, of compositor, proof-reader, reporter, copy reader, telegraph editor, exchange reader and editorial writer. But most editors, after having come through this ordeal, are either too busy to analyze and systematize the knowledge that has been pounded into them by grim experience, or too weary to give advice save in emphatic and sweeping negatives. Hence things that to them are commonplace, to the outside world are secrets. (Shuman 231)

This passage encapsulates the major shift in the make-up of nineteenth-century newsrooms and situates Shuman's book in the interim period during which editors trained at the print case were confronted with aspiring reporters trained at the blackboard. One of the hallmarks of a profession as defined in sociological literature is that it is organized around a body of esoteric knowledge unavailable to the public. This knowledge is certified and transmitted through a sanctioned set of educational practices (Larson 210). The editors here are keepers of that esoteric knowledge, “secrets” kept from the outside world. However, while this knowledge was gained through hard experience, figuratively “pounded” into the bodies of editors, it would not be accessible in the same manner to Shuman's readers who aspired to entry-level reporting jobs. (I will talk more below about the physicality of Shuman's descriptions of printing). Shuman's text assumes that there is no door to the newsroom from the print room. "In nine cases out of ten the beginner gets his first training as a reporter. Reporting is the gateway to journalism, and the man who has once made a triumphal entry through it… will have a first-rate chance to become a sub-editor, if a "desk job" is to his taste, and thence to work up to the higher and more lucrative positions" (42).

In 1904 Joseph Pulitzer would echo Shuman's call for the systematic transmission of knowledge in conceptualizing the first school of journalism. Pulitzer cites the example of the legal and medical professions, which by this time have well-established university training programs, to argue that training aspiring journalists “on the job” rather than in the classroom has proven ineffective. Rather than training journalists in the newsroom like apprentices, “better results are obtained by starting with a systematic equipment in a professional school.” He envisions a school where aspiring reporters learn writing and reporting skills that “no one in a newspaper office has the time or inclination to teach a raw reporter” (Pulitzer 647). As will be discussed in more detail later, Pulitzer spoke for many who saw professional education as a means for streamlining the training of aspiring reporters. The apprenticeship Pulitzer derides is firmly situated in the newsroom.

As noted above, Shuman describes the separation between printing and writing, as a separation between body and brain work. Nicholas Bromell locates the emergence of this figuration in the antebellum period when “work was understood primarily by way of a distinction between manual and mental labor, which in turn rested upon an assumed dichotomy of mind (and soul) and body” (7). Shuman describes the antebellum newspaper production as a physically taxing process for the editor, who also served as publisher and printer. Michael Schudson has described this figure as a “one man band” of newspaper writing and production. Shuman graphically renders the number of printed pages produced in terms of the “back-breaking pull on the lever” of the hand press and the “perspiration trickling down the editorial brows,” thus rendering the printing process as a bodily process of the printer/publisher who in Shuman's description collected and wrote the content, set the type, and operated the hand press to single-handedly produce a Colonial newspaper . “Those were the days when the circulation of a paper depended upon the number of pulls that one pair of arms could give to a lever during the hour or two that pass in the life of a news item” (11-12). Turn-of-the-century news production, in contrast, is gloriously mechanized. In this figuration the press itself becomes a body, “the great shining hand thrust forth" from the “fog of illiterate centuries.” In a progressivist narration of the history of the press to that point, Shuman describes the evolution of American newspapers from the Colonial period through the partisan and mercantile presses to the commercial press of the 1890s, which relied on full-time reportorial staffs to furnish up-to-date news: “Henceforth the newspaper was to be a great business enterprise, demanding large capital, the most skillful management, and—because it paid—the best work of the brainiest writers " (14, emphasis added). For Shuman, the ascendance of the writing brain over the printing body is an advance in human history. Whereas the body of the editor drove the antebellum hand press, the brain of the writer controls the steam-powered printing press, a mechanized body more powerful than religion or the state:

See how it snatches away the scepter from mitred pope and crowned czar. There are giants in these days—giants greater than Hercules or Goliath of Gath. Strongest among the strong are two modern Titans—Confined Steam and Free Thought. Steam power is mighty. Brain power alone is mightier. Yoke the two together and you move the world. Yoke the two together and you have the steam press. (218, emphasis added)

The physical process of printing and the physical presence of the printer are thus elided so that technology opens a conduit directly from the writer's brain.

Severing journalistic writing from printing enabled journalists to define themselves as “brains” rather than as “bodies” (and as professionals rather than tradesmen), but it also displaced the set of educational practices whereby journalists learned their profession from the print room to the school room. The first college-level courses were printing courses established at land grant universities in the 1860s. The Missouri Press Association helped establish one of the first news writing courses at the University of Missouri in 1878 (Mirando 24). In 1894, when the first edition of Steps Into Journalism was published, there were only a handful of college journalism programs. Columbia University established the first school of journalism in 1912 with an endowment from Joseph Pulitzer. The school was established after decades of debate about the purpose and necessity of college education for journalism. While both Dana and Pulitzer advocated for the professionalization of journalism, their conceptions of the journalist's ideal education represent radically different definitions of professionalism itself.

Dana attributed to the journalist a supra-professional status by calling on him to be “universal.” According to Dana, “ The educated newspaperman must be qualified to discuss the questions which the clergyman has to discuss. He must be qualified to judge of the science of the physician, and he must even be able to rise to those sublime intellectual complications that make a great lawyer” (14). Such universality would necessarily require a broad education. Dana argued that the journalist should be a liberally educated man of letters versed in the bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Dr. Channing, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (Dana 37). In contrast, Joseph Pulitzer argued for “systematic equipment,” or a narrow skills-based pre-professional training that would streamline the process of training young reporters. Shuman's text espouses the broadly professional concept of journalism held by Dana while advocating for the narrowly pre-professional training Pulitzer called for. Shuman reconciles these contradictory positions by defining journalism as both a science and an art.

"In so far as it is a science it can be taught by instruction and advice; in so far as it is an art the beginner can acquire skill in it only by actual practice” (Shuman 3). By describing journalism as a science, Shuman can present writing as a series of learnable steps or a set of skills anyone can acquire—the stock-in-trade of the self-study guide. However, by also describing it as an art, he allows for individualism in style and potential level of achievement. In this section, he describes journalistic and literary writing in the same terms, as “literary aspirants of all kinds.” To whit, "The time is coming when all our chief colleges will have chairs endowed for the instruction not only of young men and women who are looking toward journalism, but of literary aspirants of all kinds, to teach constructive work—how to shape and color and breathe life into a great story or treatise" (4). Here, the elements of both literary and journalistic writing are broken down into discrete—ostensibly teachable—skills. However, journalist and novelist alike must perfect their art through time and effort: "experience is the only university that can confer the degree of Master of the Pen" (3).

In thusly equating journalistic and creative writing, Shuman appears to be drawing on a very particular model of composition in which the writer is a craftsman who creates by first mastering the rules of rhetoric and poetics and then using them to present traditional materials in new ways (see note 2). In his 1711 Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope advises writers to study the body of rules or traditional techniques for the transmission of ideas encoded in the rhetoric and poetics of Aristotle and Heroditus:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed;

What oft' was thought, but ne'er so well expressed;

Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find,

That gives us back the image of our mind. (qtd. in Hazard 281)

In Shuman the image of our mind is replaced with the images drawn from the urban life witnessed on the reporter's beat: “A neighborhood feud, a ludicrous or tragic quarrel between neighbors, the pathetic story of some blighted life—any odd or entertaining page from the great book of humanity which lies open to all who have eyes to read… they are not only ‘good stuff' in a newspaper, but they are the choicest stock-in-trade of the novelist” (134).

The stuff of both newspapers and novels is already written, in “the great book of humanity.” The journalist or novelist need only open the book, which is open and accessible only to “those who have eyes to read.” These images are only available to those who have acquired the special skills required to see them. If we liken the generic rules of the news story to the rules of rhetoric and poetics available to the writers Pope addresses, we might also consider his exhortation to bend or break those rules if doing so helped create a more perfect representation of nature:

Some Beauties yet, no Precepts can declare,
For there's a Happiness as well as Care.
Musick resembles Poetry, in each
Are nameless Graces which no Methods teach,
And which a Master-Hand alone can reach.
If, where the Rules not far enough extend,
(Since Rules were made but to promote their End)
Some Lucky LICENCE answers to the full
Th' Intent propos'd, that Licence is a Rule. (qtd in Hazard 279-280).

He thus encouraged poets to surpass the limits of form in order to create something of “nameless grace.” There is no equivalent in Shuman's description of writing. In the passages cited above, Shuman equates journalistic and literary writing and argues that they comprise learnable skills. Later, Shuman subordinates journalistic to literary writing and in doing so seems to suggest that bending the rules of journalism produces not a higher form of news writing, but rather a higher form of composition: creative writing.

In contrast, consider the conception of writing presented in Charles Dana's The Art of Newspapermaking. Dana urged aspiring reporters to study good writing and to learn the writing conventions of the profession, but he also exhorted them to develop an individual style that would elevate their writing above the conventions of their craft. He described newswriting in its basic form as a set of discrete learnable skills. But he also described a type of “Master” writing distinguished by a writer's style, or “something of such evanescent, intangible nature that it is difficult to tell in what it consists . I suppose it is in the combination of imagination and humor” (Dana 38). When style is wedded to factual reporting, “you have got a literary product that no one need be ashamed of. Thus we see this department of the newspaper is really a high art, and it may be carried to an extraordinary degree of perfection” (Dana 54). My point here is not to suggest that Shuman and Dana self-consciously modeled their conceptions of writing on Pope's, but rather to highlight the potentially conflicted notions about writing available to aspiring journalists in the period. Dana's defense of journalistic writing as a “high art” is an effort to elevate it to the status of literature, while still promoting the idea that this art could be learned through study of literary writers and a broad liberal arts education. While Shuman appears to place journalistic writing on a par with literary writing in the passages quoted above, his position is not consistent in the rest of the text, as I will demonstrate shortly. In Shuman's text we see both an argument for journalism as an honored profession in its own right and an argument that journalism's value adheres in its potential to train the eye of the novelist. While both positions are complimentary to the goal of elevating the status of journalism, the latter, which I will hereafter refer to as the apprenticeship model, elevates journalism by subordinating it to literature (see note 3). In the apprenticeship model journalists are lesser writers than novelists and journalistic writing is less valuable than literature. The apprenticeship model endures today in studies of the work of journalists turned literary writers like Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway and in stock characters like the hard-driving journalist who gives it all up to write the Great American Novel (see note 4). The basis upon which these hierarchies of writing are organized is unclear in Shuman's text, but is one worth exploring. Following is an early attempt to tease out the basis for such distinctions through analysis of two key passages from Shuman in which he discusses the relationship between journalistic and literary writing.

In the first passage, Shuman conceptualizes writing as a craft, with the writer likened to a miner. As in the passage quoted above which describes the human interest events that form the “stuff” of both newspapers and novels, the scenes one witnesses on the urban newspaper beat again figure as a source of creative “ore” for the writer:

A great city is to a novelist what a mountain of gold bearing quartz would be to a prospector. The miner must know how to get his ore out of the earth, and how to build a stamp mill in which to crush it; he must have great quantities of valuable quick-silver with which to extract the gold from the dross. And so the writer must be equipped with the proper knowledge and experience before he can extract a story or a novel from the vast, seething mass of humanity around him… Only, of course, if a man aspires to be a maker of watches he must not devote too many of his years to forging steel and copper bars, or his hands will grow too horny for the more delicate work of manipulating pinions and hair springs. (58)

In the “proper knowledge and experience” we see both the systematically acquired skills and also the art of writing acquired from diligent practice. It is unclear whether “the writer” in this passage is a journalist or novelist. While Shuman first describes the city from the novelist's perspective, the context of the passage suggests that he is contrasting journalists and novelists. For example, he refers to a “story or a novel,” which I'm reading as a news story or novel. Clearly, writers are set apart from the seething mass by virtue of their ability to see—and mine—the story from the mass of human experience. However, in the end, the distinction made between the writer as miner and the writer as watchmaker separates journalism from the finer, more skilled work of writing literature. The journalist/miner is a crude body extracting the story and shaping it into a heavy block, while the watchmaker/novelist is several steps removed from the mine, delicately manipulating and combining the products created from the ore. It's ironic here that in subordinating the journalist to the novelist, Shuman returns to the brain/body distinction with which he subordinated the printer to the writer. Shuman later reinforces the contrast between the journalist's “block of steel and copper bars” and the novelist's delicate machines by demonstrating how to turn a news story into a creative short story. The first version of the story is “plain prose”: one paragraph containing the “who, what, when, where” of a news story without dialogue or description. The second version is a dramatic retelling of the story with descriptions of the action and characters and with dialogue rendered in dialect. Shuman calls the process of creating the story “translation.” Shuman describes translation by listing its possible elements: "A novel is plain prose translated into conversation, description, historical statement, philosophical comment, dramatic situations—all the colors into which the writer can dip his pen" (208). Thus we see the ore or raw materials of a news story transformed into a more elaborate and more delicate machine. I would argue that this conception of the writing process could still be described as craft because the elements of a literary story are still accessible to any writer. I n the imagery of the writer's “horny” hands, Shuman renders the damage journalism inflicts on a writer as a physical limitation that prevents the writer from performing finer tasks. The idea that too much journalistic writing can actually hinder the novelist's ability is one that will be reiterated often by journalists turned novelists like Lincoln Steffens who in his autobiography wrote, “I was permanently hurt by my years on the Post ” (179).

In the passage quoted above, Shuman warns the aspiring novelist not to remain in journalism too long. In the following passage he explains why, shifting the emphasis to the writer's native abilities:

[Journalism] is hard work, but it is a splendid training for a young writer. It acquaints one with humanity as no other course of training can; and humanity… is the great exhaustless mine of precious ore waiting for the writer to extract its gold. Yet, on the other hand, too much of this hard, matter-of-fact writing and cruel realism of experience is likely to crush all the tenderer sentiments out of one's style, dwarf the romantic imagination, and mar the delicacy of touch needed in order to be a successful novelist. (57)

The mining imagery in this passage again suggests a craftsman notion of composition in which the writer is using his acquired tools to extract pre-ordained truths. However, Shuman's reference to the sentiments, imagination and delicacy of the novelist is highly suggestive of Romantic notions of creative production which locate the creative source of composition in the person of the author, an autonomous, inspired genius. The image here is not of the writer as miner who uses the tools of his trade to unearth a pre-existing element, but rather the writer as artist who draws on available resources—including his own feelings and imagination—to make something completely new. Johann Goethe described such a process as "the reproduction of the world around me by means of the internal world which takes hold of, combines, creates anew, kneads everything and puts it down again in its own form" (qtd. in Woodmansee 447). Whereas in Pope's description, the writer is a mere vehicle of ideas, the writer in Goethe's description transforms rather than transports, creating a completely new, completely unique expression of his own mind.

One shortcoming of my argument thus far has been some fuzziness in the distinction I am drawing between conceptions of journalism as a profession and conceptions of journalistic writing. I've tried to make the case that the conception of journalism as a profession relies first on the separation of writing from printing with printing relegated to the status of trade and writing elevated to an art. A related area which I think bears further examination is the unstable definition of professionalism in this area, as evidenced by the differences among Dana's, Pulitzer's, and Shuman's descriptions of the activity of journalism and the goals of journalism education. However, such an examination is outside the purview of this paper. Finally, I've also argued that the conception of journalistic writing in this period is conflicted, but I have only been able to offer a tentative distinction between craft and romantic conceptions of writing. At the moment, these distinctions feel a bit ham-fisted. Not only am I struggling to define the models of composition emerging in texts like Shuman's, but I'm also struggling to link those models with the struggle to professionalize. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas as I continue to refine my thesis.



  1. This defense of journalism echoes Sidney 's 1595 defense of poetry as useful because “it delights as it teaches,” suggesting journalists' efforts to raise their own work to the status of literary or creative authorship.
  2. This description of the writer as craftsman is from Woodmansee.
  3. Earlier, I used the word “apprentice” to describe the beginning reporter's position in the newsroom before journalism training programs were established. In the current usage, it refers to the belief that aspiring novelists can gather inspiration and develop writing skills by writing for a newspaper before tackling the “real work” of creating literature.
  4. The editors of the most recent collection of Walt Whitman's journalism claim their volume “provides indispensable, basic documents for further, more comprehensive studies of the influence of Whitman's journalism on… the evolution of Leaves of Grass ” (Bergman xi). Also see for example Charles Fenton's The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway: The Early Years and J.F. Kobler's Ernest Hemingway: Journalist and Artist.



Works Cited

Banning, Stephen A. "The Professionalization of Journalism: A Nineteenth-Century Beginning." Journalism History 24.4 (98/99): 157-63.

Bergman, Herbert, ed. The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman. the Journalism, Volume I: 1834–1846 . New York : Peter Lang, 1998.

Bromell, Nicholas Knowles. By the Sweat of the Brow: Literature and Labor in Antebellum America . Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Dana, Charles A. The Art of Newspaper Making: Three Lectures . New York : D. Appleton and Company, 1895.

Larson, Magali Sarfatti. The Rise of Professionalism : A Sociological Analysis . Berkeley : University of California Press, 1977.

Mirando, Joseph A. "Embracing Objectivity Early on: Journalism Textbooks of the 1800s." Journal of Mass Media Ethics 16.1 (2001): 23-32.

Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States through 250 Years, 1690-1940 . New York : The Macmillan Company, 1941.

Pulitzer, Joseph. "The College of Journalism ." North American Review 178 (1904): 641-80.

Shuman, Edwin L. Steps into Journalism; Helps and Hints for Young Writers . Evanston , Ill. : Correspondence School of Journalism, 1894.

Wilson, Christopher P. The Labor of Words : Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era . Athens : University of Georgia Press , 1985.