Publisher, Editor and Reporter: The Investigative Formula Looking Back to the Early 1900's-To Ida Tarbell and S.S. McClure-Offers Valuable Lessons for Watchdog Journalism in the 21st Century

By Weinberg, Steve | Nieman Reports, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Publisher, Editor and Reporter: The Investigative Formula Looking Back to the Early 1900's-To Ida Tarbell and S.S. McClure-Offers Valuable Lessons for Watchdog Journalism in the 21st Century


Weinberg, Steve, Nieman Reports


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Twenty-five years ago, I read a book published 104 years ago. It contributed mightily to my education as an investigative journalist. Beyond that contribution to my personal education, the book invented contemporary investigative journalism more than anything else ever published.

The 800-page book, with its title masking the fierce expose tone and devastating evidence, is "The History of the Standard Oil Company." The author is Ida M. (for Minerva) Tarbell. The genesis of the book was a series of articles by Tarbell in McClure's Magazine. The eponymous owner, S.S. (for Samuel Sidney) McClure, also played a huge role in the development of what in the opening decade of the 20th century lacked a name, but today goes by "investigative reporting."

If the past is prologue (which I believe is true without qualification), and if history is a good teacher (which I believe is sometimes true, depending on the mindset of the pupil), then Tarbell (1857-1944) and McClure (1857-1949) offer vital, timely lessons for investigative journalism circa 2008.

The Tarbell-McClure Connection

Tarbell grew up amidst the oil fields of rural northwestern Pennsylvania. (For readers lacking in their oil history, the first U.S. well began gushing oil in 1859, near Titusville, Pennsylvania.) But despite her deep and broad knowledge of the fledgling oil industry, she never expected to write about it.

During an era when women rarely attended college, Tarbell did, and graduated. She failed, at least by her standards, in a brief career as a schoolteacher. In her late 20's, knowing she did not want to marry or mother children but otherwise unsure how to fulfill her intense desire to make the world a better place, Tarbell fell into a job proofreading an educational magazine called The Chautauquan, based in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the same toum where she had attended Allegheny College. The editor gave her opportunities to report and write; Tarbell excelled in those roles. After a decade, she left the magazine to freelance in Paris, France.

As for McClure, he arrived from Ireland as a schoolboy, accompanying his widowed mother and his siblings, Impoverished, he managed to barely avoid starvation until graduation from high school. At the urging of an uncle, McClure moved to Galesburg, Illinois, where odd jobs allowed him to earn tuition for Knox College. Ending up on the East Coast after graduation, McClure located employment at a bicycling magazine that taught him the business side, then in the early 1890's started his own general-interest magazine, a risky venture made all the more treacherous by a national economic downturn. Over and over, it appeared the magazine would descend into bankruptcy, but McClure's clever managing of the budget plus outstanding editorial content staved off failure.

McClure happened to see some of Tarbell's freelancing from Paris, finding himself so impressed that he traveled there to meet her. She started freelancing for his magazine, a few years later leaving France to join the staff in New York City. During the last half of the 1890's, she achieved renown by carrying out two assignments dreamed up by McClure--serialized biographies of two deceased, controversial, famous men--Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln.

By 1900, McClure realized that his magazine must tackle one of the most difficult topics around--corporate giantism and rapacity in the form of "trusts" (think of the word "antitrust"). The Standard Oil Company, founded and controlled by John D. Rockefeller, represented the biggest, most infamous trust of all. McClure asked Tarbell to write a proposal for tackling the topic. She did, and the rest, pun and cliche both intended, is history.

Essential Historical Lessons

Superb editorial content gets attention and sells magazines. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Publisher, Editor and Reporter: The Investigative Formula Looking Back to the Early 1900's-To Ida Tarbell and S.S. McClure-Offers Valuable Lessons for Watchdog Journalism in the 21st Century
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.