As a relatively young journalist born in the ’80s and raised alongside the internet, I feel a sad divorce at times from the history of my profession.
More than once I’ve sat with my editor, listening to her recount days of sending news copy through a public telephone by screwing in a doodad to the mouthpiece (magic?); I’ve felt a pang of masochistic jealousy watching Woodward and Bernstein work through thousands of slips of paper by hand in “All the President’s Men” (Microsoft Excel for me, please); and I’ve marveled at the power and responsibility of being one of the few major network TV hosts during the decades when that medium held so much sway. For better or worse, I will never know that time.
But I can ease the nostalgic pangs by recognizing that basic journalistic principles existed just as much then as they do now: the need to immerse oneself in a subject, explain it in a clear and entertaining manner, and continually march toward making the world a slightly more tolerable place.
Those traits are timeless — and they even existed in 1906. Here’s an example.
Upton Sinclair grew up a poor kid in late-1800s New York City, but often visited his wealthy grandparents in Maryland. This dichotomy drove him to focus on America’s handling of its less fortunate — those living in poverty — and also drove him into the Socialist party. That same party sent a 26-year-old Sinclair to Chicago to document “the plight of meatpacking workers.” Two years later, Sinclair published “The Jungle” and — though a work of political fiction — it included real-life scenes both perfectly captured during Sinclair’s weeks among the workers at the processing plant and expertly relayed to readers through simple yet forceful language. Here’s a passage describing the inside of a slaughterhouse:
“The uproar was appalling, perilous to the eardrums; one feared there was too much sound for the room to hold — that the walls must give way or the ceiling crack. There were high squeals and low squeals, grunts, and wails of agony; there would come a momentary lull, and then a fresh outburst, louder than ever, surging up to a deafening climax. It was too much for some of the visitors — the men would look at each other, laughing nervously, and the women would stand with hands clenched, and the blood rushing to their faces, and the tears starting in their eyes.
“Meantime, heedless of all these things, the men upon the floor were going about their work. Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.”
The novel —brutal, honest and well-written — instantly became a bestseller and even inspired passage of federal laws aimed at regulating the industry (though not on behalf of the workers, as Sinclair had hoped, but on behalf of bad meat).
Sinclair definitely had his failures and shortcomings, but his final product is what stands the test of time. And it’s those three core elements — immersion, storytelling and impact — that I try to embody as a reporter in every project at inewsource.
Immersion: It’s easy to find facts about a subject, yet it’s only after spending weeks or months with one when you begin to understand the context as well. And you need facts and context to tell a story responsibly. Luckily at inewsource our reporters are given the time to do just that.
Storytelling: It’s not enough to relay facts and context: It’s also our responsibility to do so in an efficient and entertaining way. That’s why inewsource partners with TV, radio and web outlets to distribute our content in a variety of mediums.
Impact: Facts, context and storytelling don’t mean a thing if, in the end, it all falls on deaf ears. In 2017, inewsource will be more strategic in our methods for achieving impact with all major stories (sneak peek: it helps when readers join the process). Yet as with “The Jungle,” impact doesn’t always materialize as expected, and that’s a reality in need of remembering.
Here’s to changing the world, one piece at a time.
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