Narrative in journalism’s history





[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.



Filed under Journalism, journalism history

2 responses to “Narrative in journalism’s history

  1. Meghan Chandler

    What amazes me is that the first thing I was taught in my college journalism class was that the inverted pyramid is my best friend. But the second I got to the next level class, I was told that I should never use it. There seems to be a disconnect on the usefulness of this writing template.


    • @Meghan, Hi! So this is 2 yrs late (and too long!), oh well. I’ve been busy narrating my sermons as the pastor of Hope Community Bible Church in Northridge, CA as you perhaps are busy in journalism somewhere so. IMHO the simple answer to the ‘disconnect’ you note is because people have become mentally lazy and culturally undisciplined for things like reading. Our technological addiction that contemporaneously ‘saves time’ like a dishwasher also produces a dulling impatience in those whose ‘time is saved’ so that they must eat, drive, and do everything in a hurry all while hearing noise, watching images and memorizing useless trivia from the hero worshipping worlds of sports, music, and media. This hasty-wasty zombified attitude is the antagonist to the mental state needed to read. A relaxed, quiet yet actively perceptive mindset is crucial to effective reading. Not a 4th grade level ‘lede-read’ ability or mentality. So professional writers who are textual narrators at heart and were forced in journalism’s time/space/money/media-lite constraints to become mere news micro-analyst infodumpers, are turning the pyramid back around on its usual base. They unable to use their God given creativity and now rightfully bemoan the century built cultural malaise and its corresponding effect on writing. Millennia old literary devices such as epigrams, In medias res, or simply narrative have been moth-balled and writers are seeking to emerge from the formaldehyde smell in their past lives by telling the story. Oops, was that last line too metaphorically and circular?! 🙂 Kind regards. -30-!


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