The term “new journalism” commonly refers to a style of literary reportage created in the 1960s by predominantly young American nonfiction writers such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, George Plimpton, Truman Capote, and Michael Herr. Commentators have periodically declared other moments in the history of journalism as new. Most famously, the term was used in 1880s Britain to describe the popular newspapers of George Newness and W. T. Stead, then later applied in the 1890s to the mass circulation dailies being published by Alfred Harmsworth in Britain and by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the United States. More recently, one commentator (Boynton 2005) has referred to writers such as Susan Orlean and Ted Conover as members of a generation of “new new journalists” influenced by the literary experiments of the 1960s.
In its time, the new journalism of the 1960s proved contentious, especially among journalists, because it seemed to call into question the profession’s most cherished values. Critics condemned the extravagant language of Wolfe because it brought reporters into the limelight, focusing readers’ attention on their literary performance rather than on the events being covered. Critics similarly objected to the personalism of writers like Mailer and Thompson – their habit of implicating themselves in the events being chronicled – because it undermined the profession’s claim to objectivity and impartiality. Others worried about what they considered the carelessness of the new journalists’ research methods, especially their seeming habit of blurring the boundary between fact and fiction in works such as Wolfe’s satire of the “tiny mummies” who wrote for the New Yorker, Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In cold blood, and Herr’s use of composite characters in his Vietnam reports. Still others argued that the muchvaunted literary devices of the new journalism – scene-by-scene construction, attention to symbolic detail, experimentation with point of view – were nothing new. They argued that earlier writers such as Stephen Crane, George Orwell, Lillian Ross, John Hersey, Joseph Mitchell, and A. J. Liebling had used all those techniques.
And yet, journalists around the world have subsequently emulated the research methods and literary strategies employed by the new journalism. The work of Talese and Wolfe established the value of in-depth, immersive reporting. The storytelling techniques thought avant-garde in the 1960s have become a mainstay of the newspaper feature story, Sunday supplement article, and magazines. Although new journalists’ willingness to consider humans’ accounts of reality as tentative, provisional, and contingent once vexed professional journalists who hoped to discover a more stable truth in the flux of experience, the new journalists’ acceptance of ambiguity has resonated with many writers in other countries. Latin American writers who work within fabulist traditions of literature have acknowledged the new journalists as philosophical compadres, and eastern European writers such as Ryszard Kapußcinski have found the blurring of fact and fiction a plain description of the experience of living under communist rule.
In retrospect, the new journalism looks like one more sign of the social and economic changes transforming the journalism profession. By the mid-1960s, disillusion with the American daily newspaper ran deep and wide. Many journalists found it personally difficult to find a neutral position from which to report contentious social issues such as the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the counterculture. As the increasing prosperity and education of the reading public made readers more critical and discriminating, newspaper editors found themselves assailed from all sides by accusations of bias.
Magazine journalism faced its own challenges. The decline of once popular publications such as Collier’s, Life, Look, and Saturday Evening Post encouraged a search for edgy new voices to help magazines recover their cultural standing and financial health. Magazines such as Esquire used the new journalism as a marketing strategy to attract the hip, up-scale readers whom advertisers coveted. The freedom granted writers by editors such as Esquire’s Clay Felker and Harold Hayes made that magazine a showcase for top talent, which in turn helped those writers win lucrative book contracts that freed them from the intellectual and literary constraints of daily journalism. Capote’s bestselling 1965 book In cold blood taught journalists this single lesson: that one might make an independent and lucrative career writing book-length journalism.
The term “new journalism” thus marks a turning point in the history of journalism: an influential moment of self-criticism and an acknowledgement of the cultural contradictions of objective news. What the new journalism bequeathed was not only a different way of telling stories, but also a commercially compelling strategy for making a living as a journalist in a rapidly changing media market.
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