Colorful News Writing? Try 1923
Back in the day, news writing was colorful. Back in the age of great train wrecks, dead mobsters, dramatic courtroom scenes, and mythical athletes, a time when a "human fly" could fall to his death from atop a skyscraper, when a murder victim could be dubbed an "underworld overlord." I have proof.
My evidence comes from a book titled "The Best News Stories of 1923," which was followed by "The Best News Stories of 1924." This two-volume treasure anticipated the work that would be done by Poynter and ASNE, which has published the "Best Newspaper Writing" annuals since 1979.
I discovered BNS 1923 in an antiquarian bookshop and its sequel through an online search. A journalism teacher named Joseph Anthony created and edited the work, teaming up for the second volume with veteran journalist Woodman Morrison. Soliciting more than 3,000 entries from across America, Anthony chose 148 stories over the two years for his honor roll. He divided his anthologies into what remain familiar categories of the craft: straight reporting, foreign correspondence, sport stories, feature stories, human interest stories, interviews and personality stories, and obituaries.
I regret to say ... that the news writing of today — contrasted to these antique volumes — is much less colorful, and a hell of a lot less fun.These stories from 80 years ago provide a window through which to view the history of our craft. They also reveal a standard for news writing against which we can judge our own work.
Through my eyes, the news is mostly good. The news writing of today is clearer, more direct, more relevant, and more responsible than that of our great grandparents. It is also mostly free of the crude stereotypes of race, religion, and ethnicity that burdened the shoulders of earlier times. I regret to say, however, that the news writing of today -- contrasted to these antique volumes -- is much less colorful, and a hell of a lot less fun.
Consider this 1923 lead describing a train wreck, written by Robert M. Lee for the Chicago Tribune:
Nine were killed and nearly forty were injured at 1:30 this morning when a section of the Twentieth Century limited leaped out of a dripping fog and crushed the rear sleeping cars of another section like eggshells.
I cannot remember a contemporary news lead as vivid.
Another train story comes from Lorena A. Hickok (one of several women honored) for the Minneapolis Tribune. President Warren Harding has died:
Honey Creek, Iowa -- Hurling itself in the dawn at 50 miles an hour, the President's funeral train roared past Honey Creek at 4 a.m. today. A blurred, agonizing glimpse into the dimly lighted observation car heaped to the ceiling with wreaths and flowers was all that Honey Creek got -- and for this her 76 inhabitants had shivered on the dreary station platform for hours.
President Harding comes to life in this political story by George R. Holmes for the International News Service:
Hutchinson, Kan. — President Harding parked his dignity along with his plug hat in his private car today and went out into the ripening wheat fields of Kansas as a harvest hand to learn for himself some of the reasons for the widespread agricultural discontent which he has heard so much of in Washington during the last two years. Under a broiling hot Kansas sun, which beat down mercilessly and left him dripping with grimy perspiration, the president drove a binder around a ninety acre wheat field in Reno county under the critical eyes of 'real dirt farmers' while they explained to him their grievances and their problems.
The Roaring Twenties were a time of colorful criminals and sports figures, and that color was exploited by the news writers of the day. Louis Weitzenkorn of the New York World was considered a true wordsmith:
Nathan Kaplan, 'Kid Dropper' to the underworld, finally got away from the police yesterday afternoon. They covered Kid Dropper's waxen face that had masked so many dark secrets of Manhattan's east side, they screwed the lid of his cheap coffin over him, and buried the monarch of Madison Street gunmen in Mount Hebron Cemetery, Flushing.
Wow. "The monarch of Madison Street gunmen."
Westbrook Pegler penned this lead for United News on the death of a prizefighter:
A yellow-haired kid with a mashed nose and scalloped lips dipped his fingers in the holy water fount of St. Jerome's Church, crossed himself with the fist that killed Frankie Jerome and went to his knees on the cold marble to pray, when all that was left of the little fellow was wheeled up the aisle to the altar yesterday for the funeral mass that preceded the journey to the grave.
Not all the leads of the 1920s were so long. When Babe Ruth hit two home runs to win a World Series game, Heywood Broun wrote simply: "The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail. He did yesterday."
And how about this chiller from St. Clair McKelway, writing for the Washington Herald about a badly damaged war veteran:
What price glory?
Two eyes, two legs, an arm -- $12 a month.
Reading these stories from long ago left me with some questions about the current state of news writing:
- Is it possible that the anecdotal lead has driven out the straight snappy lead as the paragon of news writing?
- Has a quest for clarity and conciseness in modern reporting bleached out the color?
- Where have the editors gone who once demanded color from the reporters of yore?
Color in stories is not for the sake of color, but to connect what is best in journalism and literature. I take comfort from the words of Joseph Anthony, who wrote this introduction for "The Best News Stories of 1923":
There are ... certain generally accepted principles of good news-writing, principles not essentially different from those that apply to a well-written novel or short story.
Accuracy is the first consideration with a news story; and, in the broad sense, it is equally important in the main stream of literature -- the accuracy of true psychology, of convincing character drawing, of the right word.
According to Joseph Pulitzer, terseness was the second consideration. As for the third, it was -- accuracy, again ...
Having cited a newspaperman's view of news-writing, I'm going to quote a poet's view of literature. The poet is Robert Frost, and the statement, which I'm taking from a three-year-old letter, is: "It's all sight, plus insight."
It is on the belief that Pulitzer's criterion for the newspaper and Frost's for literature are each true and each applicable to the other, and that the difference between journalism and literature is only a matter of classification, that this book is based.
Amen, Brother Anthony. From across the decades, I say amen.