Teaching Literary Journalism: A Diverted Pyramid?

By Abrahamson, David | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Teaching Literary Journalism: A Diverted Pyramid?


Abrahamson, David, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


There is ample evidence that the last decade or so has seen a new emphasis on more writerly forms in journalism. As a result, this is perhaps the appropriate time to re-examine the issue of literary/writerly influences on the construction of journalistic writing: the ways in which the present mirrors similar forms from the past, their status as journalistic genres, and their power to both convey information and inform argument. Most important, it explores the pedagogical ramifications of the phenomenon, addressing the special and somewhat undefined aspects of teaching this kind of journalism.

The title above, "Teaching Literary Journalism: The Diverted Pyramid"-with its reference to literary journalism, the classroom, and a sense of diversion-is predicated on a sense that, at least since the early 1990s, there has been clear trend in the mainstream press away from the formulaic strictures of the inverted pyramid. As with any fairly recent phenomenon, agreedupon names have yet to be agreed upon. Some call it literary journalism. Or narrative journalism. Or, at the disputed outer boundaries, creative nonfiction.

Similarly, there is some debate about definitions. What a decade ago was quite clearly differentiated in the minds of both journalists (and perhaps even readers) as hard news and soft news has become decidedly more amorphous. I would, by way of example, be quite comfortable offering as one turning point the 18 January 2000 edition of the New York Times, the front page of which carried a story entitled "Doctors Eliminate Wrinkles, and Insurers." Written by Jennifer Steinhauer, it was a 1,500-word article -playful yet penetrating, properly fact-filled yet fearless in the realm of possible social meaning, on the wonders of Botox.1 Clearly, the rules are changing.

Of all the definitions available, I prefer, for classroom purposes, the construction of Ron Rosenbaum, certainly one of the craft's foremost contemporary practitioners. Literary journalism, he once wrote, is not abut literary flourishes or references, but rather "journalism [which] at its best asks the questions that literature asks."2

There are, of course, a number of possible reasons for why this trend has appeared. As Schlesinger and Kondratieff have argued in other contexts, human institutions often appear to manifest historical cycles.3 In the case of journalism-most certainly one of the more human of institutions-before objective journalism rose to dominance in the early twentieth century, much of the customary trade practices of the journalism of the day could be loosely characterized as literary journalism. In fact, although the term "New Journalism" usually refers to nonfiction writing that emerged in the 1960s, the phrase was actually first used in the 1890s to describe a contemporary journalistic trend foregrounding evocative narrative detail. Stephen Crane was its most prominent practitioner.4

More, recently, looking back at the New Journalism of the 1960s, Tom Wolfe made the argument in his seminal "The Feature Game" essay, that one of the aspects of forms of journalism is their need to capture new realities of the moment, and he argued that the New Journalism of the period existed because of the social ferment of the 1960s - and that conventional journalism no longer was the best vehicle to capture the tumult of the era.5 Following that logic, one could certainly argue that the new realities of the last fifteen years are also uniquely fitting subject for literary journalism.

Another factor it might be unwise to discount is the role of competition, particularly from other, often nontraditional media. The argument here is grounded in a range of economic considerations: audience satisfaction, circulation numbers, advertising rates, and ultimately profit figures and stock price. The fact that the nontraditional media are successfully using more literary narrative forms has not gone unnoticed. As a result, some conventional news organizations, in response to competitive pressures, have been more willing to experiment.

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