Monthly Archives: March 2012

The bear facts

By Chris Daly 

For the past week or so, I have been puzzling over my reactions to a new multimedia project from the Canadian National Film Board. It’s called “Bear 71,” by Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison.

It is described as “an interactive multimedia project” that tells “the true story of a grizzly bear.” It is fascinating. It is absorbing. It is beautiful. It is a high-tech, multi-layered way of spending time with an individual bear. As far as I can tell, nothing is made up. All of the information comes from radio tracking, video, and other sources.

The weird thing about it is that it is narrated from the bear’s point of view.

Does that mean it is still non-fiction?

I’d love to know what other people think, so please watch it, then leave a comment.

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Narrative in journalism’s history

NARRATIVE 

IN THE HISTORY OF

AMERICAN JOURNALISM

BY CHRIS DALY

[Narrative Arc conference, Boston University, March 24, 2012]

I am delighted to speak briefly today about my new book, which is a narrative itself that focuses on the history of journalism in America. It’s called Covering America, and I conceived of it as a narrative from the get-go. That is, the book is a 300-year history of a major institution with a through-story that follows a thread of innovation.

Before writing this book, I had spent 20+ years in the news business, at the AP and at the Washington Post — most of that time banging out bulletins or day stories or updates. So I was ready to try a different mode.

Funny thing: this book took so long to write that there is something of a narrative about the writing process. When I started working on it eight years ago, the news media were still fat and happy and arrogant.  And I thought my narrative arc would end in a critical denunciation of Big Media.

Then, the bottom fell out. For years, Romenesko brought us nothing but news of layoffs and bankruptcies. So, I needed a new ending. For a while, it looked like I might be writing journalism’s obituary.

But then, things started to shift again, in really interesting new ways – all kinds of experiments, new models, new heroes– well, let me just say that it’s covered in the last chapter.

So what did I learn about narrative?

I learned that narrative in American journalism is not a johnny-come-lately, and not a fad. In fact, narrative was right there at the founding.

Here’s an image from the Boston News-Letter of 1704 – the first edition of the first successful newspaper in the New World.

It contains – a narrative! It is a narrative about a certain Captain Toungrello, a pirate who was marauding off Curacao in the Caribbean, then made his way as far north as Rhode Island.  It’s a great story, told in my book.

And narrative remained a persistent feature. For many, many decades, American newspapers were more likely to carry what we might call an account than a report. By account I mean – usually – a first-person narrative: I went here and saw this.

It’s only well into the 19th century that we start to see the emergence of the report (or the reported story) – the dispassionate, impersonal organized by importance rather than chronology – usually devoid of  personality, wit, attitude and drama.

But all along, narrative persisted. In newspapers, magazines, and books.

You can see it in Frederick Douglass’ great narrative and in other slave narratives.

Here is his opening, published in 1845.

I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest- time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. . .

My mother was named Harriet Bailey. She was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey, both colored, and quite dark. My mother was of a darker complexion than either my grandmother or grandfather. . . .

I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home.

Right there, you can see Douglass grabbing narrative as his tool to tell the world about himself: I was born. . . Then, we can see him link his own story to his people’s story. All in the first three sentences.

You can see narrative again  in Nellie Bly’s great work in the 1880s – her  “Ten Days in a Madhouse”  One of the first undercover exposes.

Or her “Around the World in 72 Days.”

Here’s her very shrewd opening to “72 Days”, published in 1890:

WHAT gave me the idea?

It is sometimes difficult to tell exactly what gives birth to an idea. Ideas are the chief stock in trade of newspaper writers and generally they are the scarcest stock in market, but they do come occasionally,

This idea came to me one Sunday. I had spent a greater part of the day and half the night vainly trying to fasten on some idea for a newspaper article. It was my custom to think up ideas on Sunday and lay them before my editor for his approval or disapproval on Monday. But ideas did not come that day and three o’clock in the morning found me weary and with an aching head tossing about in my bed. At last tired and provoked at my slowness in finding a subject, something for the week’s work, I thought fretfully:

“I wish I was at the other end of the earth!”

“And why not?” the thought came: “I need a vacation; why not take a trip around the world?”

It is easy to see how one thought followed another. The idea of a trip around the world pleased me and I added: “If I could do it as quickly as Phileas Fogg did, I should go.”

There, she is setting the hook. Most readers – most people in America – would have known how this story turns out. The fact that she made the trip was covered obsessively by her own paper, Pulitzer’s New York World. So, what’s left? The narrative that focuses on how. Yes, we know the ending, but this narrative is going to give us something else.

You can see narrative again and again. There it is in the rise of photojournalism: in

LIFE (founded, 1936), which pioneered the photo  essay. Many of those photo essays were often conceived and executed in a narrative mode.

 

 

We see narrative again in the FSA photos, telling a narrative about desolation and dislocation. Here’s a rare photo: it shows the photojournalist Dorothea Lange – looking jaunty in her sneakers atop her old woody.

 

 

 

And here’s her classic photo titled Migrant Mother. Although it’s a still image, it certainly tells a story. A tale of dislocation, of loss, of movement.

 

 

 

 

DURING WORLD WAR II , narrative came roaring back. Journalists, in search of powerful storytelling modes for the unbearable stories they had to tell. Just to take a few examples:

–Ernie Pyle’s “The Death of Captain Waskow

–Marguerite Higgins on the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in April 1945.

–William Laurence on the dropping of the A-bomb on Nagasaki.

And of course, the master: John Hersey.

His Hiroshima, considered a masterpiece of 20th C journalism, has an extraordinarily tight narrative focus:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiki Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down and her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. . .

I would argue that Hersey is the key figure here, the one who connects this great tradition to the New Journalists, who in turn have a lot to do with the current resurgence of narrative.

 

 

 

 

So, today, as we talk about narrative, as we create our own new narratives, as we think about the future of narrative, I would say we are seeing a rebirth. We are seeing the explosion of narrative as a storytelling mode across all platforms.

I would argue that we are even beginning to see the classic news report – the inverted pyramid, the “news from nowhere” — with its flattening of affect and its shattering of time – we are starting to see that as a historical artifact. It is not inevitable, it is not superior, it is not even adequate for so many purposes.

So, here’s my bias: I want all of us to know this history, to claim this legacy. Many of us here today are exploring the outer limits of narrative – across different platforms, lengths, and topics.

And even as we do that work, we should know that we are heirs to a great tradition. That is the legacy that I tried to find, open up, and share in my book, “Covering America.” As I wrote it, I felt so proud of that long line of journalists who had done such wonderful work and so humble in their presence.

–30–

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A St. Patrick’s Day tribute (part 2)

By Chris Daly 

One of the greatest Irish-Americans in the history of U.S. journalism is one who is not often remembered today: S.S. McClure.

After making money in the syndication business, McClure sent on to found one of the most important magazines in American history, the eponymous McClure’s Magazine. More than any other magazine, his was at the heart of the Muckraking movement at the start of the 20th Century. He hired or published Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and other pioneers of investigative journalism. The January 1903 issue of McClure’s Magazine was one of the greatest single issues ever published. 

Here is an excerpt from my new book (on sale now!), called Covering America, which is a narrative history of 300+ years in journalism.

 

 

As a coherent national movement, muckraking can be traced to the year 1902. The setting was a monthly magazine called McClure’s, which had been founded by S. S. McClure, an Irish-born journalist, in 1893 in New York City. Sam McClure was a pioneer in a new kind of publication then sweeping the country. Although magazines had been published in America for more than a century, they generally steered clear of journalism and focused instead on literature, fiction, ladies’ fashion, or housekeeping hints. Traditional magazines like the Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s, or Harper’s were also typically quite expensive in price and conservative in outlook. But starting in the 1880s, a new kind of magazine appeared. Thanks to dramatic drops in the cost of paper, magazines could now be priced to reach middle- and working-class audiences. And thanks to the halftone engraving process, they could print extensive displays of photographs. It is also important to note that, unlike even the biggest daily newspapers, which were rarely distributed far beyond their home base, these magazines circulated around the country. The emergence of cheap, well-illustrated monthly magazines created the possibility, for the first time, of a mass national audience focused on news and public affairs. Until the advent of radio networks in the 1920s, such magazines were the only truly national outlet for journalism.

Still, it took some initiative to capitalize on this new possibility and to turn it in a politically progressive direction. That was precisely where Sam McClure, after making a fortune in syndication, led the way. One of McClure’s first hires for his magazine was a young woman named Ida Tarbell, who spent most of the 1890s working on lengthy serialized biographical sketches—first of Napoleon, then of Lincoln. Two other key additions were a contributing editor, veteran Chicago reporter Ray Stannard Baker, and a managing editor, Lincoln Steffens, hired in 1900. In January 1903, McClure’s Magazine assembled an issue that has been called the most famous in American magazine history. It contained three articles that became recognized as classics of modern muckraking: part three of Tarbell’s history of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust, Steffens’s exposé of municipal corruption in Minneapolis, and an article by Baker on a brutal coal-mining strike in Pennsylvania—all accompanied by an editorial written by McClure that attempted to frame the entire issue as one that raised serious questions about American society. “Capitalists, workingmen, politicians, citizens—all breaking the law, or letting it be broken. Who is left to uphold it?” he asked. “There is no one left; none but all of us.”

Tarbell’s nineteen-part series on Standard Oil became a sensation and set the standard for the techniques of exposé. Tarbell, who had grown up in the oil fields of western Pennsylvania, where Rockefeller built his business, was a scrupulous researcher, and she relied heavily on official government documents and court records to build the case against him. Rockefeller’s companies had been sued and investigated for many years, and there was an extensive paper record dispersed across dozens of courthouses and state agencies, but no one had committed the time and expense (McClure sank an astonishing $50,000 into the project) to pull it all together in a dramatic narrative for a national audience. Tarbell’s account was quickly published in book form, and two years later, the administration of Theodore Roosevelt filed a federal antitrust suit against Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. For McClure’s Magazine, the impact was also great. From a circulation of about 370,000 in 1900, the magazine shot past half a million after it began running exposés.

Soon, others joined in. Journalists began looking into child labor, race relations, lynching, prostitution, and an array of other social ills. . .

 

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A St. Patrick’s Day tribute (part 1)

By Chris Daly

Irish immigrants to the United States, of course, had a large impact on American journalism. Usually landless, they crowded into the growing cities of America in the 19th century, at precisely the same time as the ascendancy of the big-city daily newspapers. Often literate in English, the Irish immigrants found a way to make something (a paycheck) out of nothing (a facility with the language).

One of the greatest was Finley Peter Dunne. (His timeless observation about the purpose of journalism appears on pg. 128 of my new book, Covering America).

 

 

 

Here is the quote:

“The job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Dunne wrote in the guise of “Mr. Dooley,” a thickly accented immigrant, as a columnist for a series of papers in Chicago during the 1890s and early 20th Century.

Finley Peter Dunne (from Wikipedia)

 

 

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Cameras in court

By Chris Daly 

Praise for the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts for recognizing the right of the people to know what goes on in their courts.

In a recent ruling, the state’s highest court ruled in favor of the OpenCourt initiative, which seeks to post court proceedings online.

From my experience in covering trials, arraignments and other court proceedings in several states, I would say that far too many judges, clerks, guards and others consider the judiciary branch their own territory and resent the intrusions of the mere public (not to mention journalists) in what they consider “their” courthouses.

And a hat-tip to WBUR, a Boston NPR affiliate, for pushing this project. (And thanks to the Knight News Challenge, too.)

 

 

 

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Murdoch scandal (cont.)

Here is the latest on the Murdoch scandal, from the AP, via the Boston Globe.

The take-away:

Critics say that Murdoch was either in on the coverup or too incompetent to realize what he was agreeing to, with lawmaker Tom Watson famously accusing Murdoch of being “the first mafia boss in history who doesn’t know he’s at the head of a criminal enterprise.’’

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The Wiki abides

By Chris Daly 

No surprise: the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica is throwing in the towel and doing away with its print edition.

This is not just one of those “signs of the times” moments. It is really a testament to the vision of one man: Jimmy Wales, the founder of “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.”

He is the one who did what had to be done: mobilize the technology of the web and channel the collective intelligence of millions of people into a collective, collaborative, open-ended fountain of knowledge. Bravo, Jimmy.

Now, let’s all try to make it better.

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