The National Observer, 1962-77: Interpretive Journalism Pioneer

Article excerpt

In an era when many newspapers resisted opening their news columns to interpretive articles because editors held to the concept of objective journalism, the National Observer demonstrated a commitment to news interpretation of cultural, political, and social events and issues. For fifteen years it prominently displayed interpretive articles on its front page and often on its special-focus back page without labeling them "news analysis," which was the custom of the time. The articles explored and explained the causes and effects of some of the major events and issues of the era, emphasizing good writing and solid reporting. Although the weekly newspaper failed to attract advertisers and eventually ceased publishing, it appealed to a sizable number of subscribers throughout its lifetime and received recognition for its quality journalism.

Technological innovation and journalistic savvy had made Dow Jones & Company enormously profitable by the early 1960s. The company's ticker-teletype service was the dominant provider of financial news, and Barren's, a weekly tabloid devoted to finance, circulated among an elite readership of investors and fund managers. Then, there was the Wall Street Journal, which distributed 800,000 copies coast-to-coast each business day. It was the only truly national daily newspaper of the era, an achievement made possible by regional printing plants connected to a network of electronic typesetters and an embryonic facsimile transmission system. As a result, at the start of 1962, Dow Jones had $20 million in the bank, a nationwide system of printing presses available on weekends, and a plan for a new weekly newspaper, which would require only a portion of the company's cash reserve to launch.1

Bernard Kilgore, the president of Dow Jones and the former editor of the Wall Street Journal, wanted to create a national newspaper for younger, affluent urban and suburban adults who were not regular readers of their local newspapers.2 His premise was that a new generation of readers wanted more than the traditional fare published by most daily newspapers, which reported events and issues without perspective. He planned to take the formula for the Journal, which regularly provided front-page articles that explored the causes and consequences of economic and social issues for readers from the worlds of business and finance, and apply it to a newspaper for a general readership.3 "His original idea was simple-that there is a great deal of information around about current events but little understanding," said William E. Giles, a Wall Street Journal colleague of Kilgore. "The emphasis would be on making sense of things, or at least try."4

Kilgore launched the National Observer, a weekly newspaper that would emphasize coverage of cultural, economic, political, and social issues.5 It intended to provide a mix of well written news stories and lively features, plus in-depth articles that would offer perspective on the news in a style demonstrably different from the interpretive journalism practiced by weekly newsmagazines. "Newspapers had a tradition of straight reporting, solid writing, and certain attitudes about where opinion should be and where it shouldn't be," said Giles, the top editor of the National Observer for its first nine years. "We decided there would be a wide chasm between the National Observer and Time and Newsweek."6

Soon after the debut of the National Observer in February 1962, Columbia journalism Review referred to the newspaper as "a welcome addition to the journalism of summation and interpretation," CJR also commented that the National Observer's newspaper format and writing style "set it apart from the country's three major newsmagazines."7 Some newspaper editors disliked the interpretive journalism style of the newsmagazines, which had created a hybrid of commentary and reportage, but millions of subscribers and newsstand buyers considered them worth reading. …