Apprenticing Reporters: Lincoln Steffens on 'The Evening Post.'

By Stein, Harry H. | The Historian, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Apprenticing Reporters: Lincoln Steffens on 'The Evening Post.'

Stein, Harry H., The Historian

Anxious for his first job and unsure what to do for a living, a twenty-six-year-old Lincoln Steffens approached the venerable Evening Post. Steffens, attired in his best London-tailored suit and top hat, was quickly engaged as a cub to "do anything - interviewing, reporting, etc.," by City Editor Henry J. Wright in December 1892. "I have my toe in the door of the best, or at least most reliable paper in New York City," he wrote his banker father. In the next decade, Steffens earned national fame and influence as a muckraking journalist.(1)

Century Magazine Editor Robert Underwood Johnson had already shrewdly sized up Steffens, an unknown University of California graduate newly returned from three years' wandering among European graduate programs. Johnson commented that aspiring literary men such as Steffens often trained on the Tribune. He then, "on account of my political leanings," referred Steffens to the Post and added that Steffens would come in contact "with a group of gentlemen, cultivated and refined men." Two years later, a delighted Wright announced the end of Steffens' "necessary apprenticeship in routine journalism" and assigned him to the regular staff.(2)

Until now, the apprenticeships that evolved on nineteenth-century U.S. big-city dailies have not interested historians, who mainly have studied pre-industrial and manufacturing apprenticeships. Cubship has belonged heavily to memoir writers, who largely remembered a quasi-formal, even haphazard, on-the-job training. With newspapers' gradual adoption of the assignment system before 1900, cubs in big-city newsrooms had to master basic techniques as general assignment reporters. Their training often continued while they gathered information within a prescribed area, on a local beat. Resignation, firing, or a regular staff appointment ended cub status.(3)

Lincoln Steffens' experience indicates that a newspaper's structural characteristics and political ideology largely shaped the reporting apprenticeship on New York and other metropolitan dailies by the 1890s, even as these factors varied among dailies. Structure and ideology mainly determined who was hired as a cub reporter, what was taught to these men and fewer women about news gathering and news writing, and which cubs were given important stories to cover, prominent and timely space assignments, better pay, and, finally, regular reporting positions.(4)

The U.S. journalist was born at the printer's case. Even after a reporting specialty evolved, many of Benjamin Franklin's progeny still ripened as combined newspaper printers, job printers, advertising solicitors, circulation agents, distributors, and reporters. During the 1870s and 1880s, one young journalist, Charles Edward Russell, learned to set type, proofread, operate the telegraph, sell ads, wrap and deliver papers, and function as the Davenport Gazette's sole reporter, dramatic and literary critic, market watchdog, and society editor. Weeklies, semi-weeklies, and some small dailies retained this multirole apprenticeship well into the twentieth century.(5)

Between the 1830s and 1880s, the metropolitan press became a specialized, bureaucratized, increasingly standardized commercial operation. "Journalism to-day is a business" nationally, Steffens acknowledged. After the Civil War, news reporting more and more separated as a role and became institutionalized in big-city presses that increasingly standardized what would appear, in what proportion, and with what emphasis.(6)

Between 1865 and 1920, newspapers proliferated, spawned huge numbers of pages, and hired and fired reporters in large numbers, cubs included. Frequent editorial turnovers often meant entire newsroom turnovers and the introduction of fresh cubs. As a new city editor in 1897, Steffens replaced all but one reporter with college-educated cubs (and fledgling writers) who shared his ideas about remaking the New York Commercial-Advertiser. Many would-be reporters had little schooling and were self-educated. …

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