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130 years of must-read stories for digital journalists - Five lessons from 1851-1981

Members of the White House News Photographers' Association, circa 1922-1926

As journalists, the future looms so large that it feels like we’re constantly on new ground. But we’re not. Whether we tell stories with words, audio, video or a combination of all three, there are a surprising number of lessons to be found in the past. A 115-year-old slice-of-life story about a sick man falling down on a city street has the same emotional power we’re looking for in our own stories. A 28-year-old story about engineers designing a computer has a staying power we’re hoping for in our own tech reporting.

There’s another lesson that’s buried in these stories from the last two centuries. It may be the most important. If you want to create quality journalism, the most important thing is to stand up from the keyboard, walk outside with whatever tools you like best, and start reporting.

1: You can report on technology in a way that it remains compelling — and relevant — for decades afterward.
“The Soul of a New Machine,” Tracy Kidder, 1981 [Excerpt]

In the late 1970s, Kidder followed a team of engineers at a company called Data General Corporation as they frantically tried to design a new computer model. It’s a topic that could easily be confusing and dry. And 30 years later it seems like ancient history. But it’s not. The story is still a great read. Kidder took great pains to keep the technology understandable. And while the equipment is now quaintly archaic, the story around it — a crushing race to build a product that appears doomed to fail — is fascinating. “Soul” went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award.

2: Don’t be afraid to get close to the action, whether you’re recording with a notepad, recorder or camera.
“When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers,” Stephen Crane, 1894 [PDF]
“Can’t Get Their Minds Ashore,” Abraham Cahan, circa 1898 [Google Books]

“When Man Falls” is slice-of-life reporting, not hard news. A man walking on the street falls over in what looks like an epileptic fit; a leering crowd gathers and waits for police and an ambulance. “Ashore” has a similar feel. Cahan is the invisible scribe as he follows a series of conversations at a receiving station for new immigrants in Manhattan. We’re no strangers to up-close journalism these days, whether on a battlefield or a crime scene. But Crane and Cahan are two great examples of reporting that gets close enough to see the smallest details, but not so close as to overshadow the story as it unfolds.

3: If you play with language, with storytelling, never forget the journalism at the core of the story.
The Pig, Ben Hecht, 1921 [Google Books]

“The Pig” is a brilliant example of voice done right. In the last forty years, there have been a few dozen print journalists who fall into that same category of “voice done right”: Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Susan Orlean. The examples of voice done poorly feel countless. If you allow a strong voice in your work, remember this: Journalists have been trying and failing miserably at it for more than 100 years. Do your homework. Learn how the masters got it right.

4: Sometimes you’re part of the story. Your honesty, not your ego, is what’s most important.
“How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?” Lillian Ross, 1950 [New Yorker archive]
“Travels in Georgia,” John McPhee, 1973 [New Yorker archive]

The “I”, the first person, is a firmly entrenched element of modern journalism. The “I” can add a crucial character to a story, one that guides readers with an invisible hand. Done poorly it’s an exercise in vanity. Ross’ profile of Ernest Hemingway is a great example of the “fly on the wall” reporting style that made her famous. In “Travels,” McPhee hangs out with biologists as they do field work and occasionally eat roadkill. The “I” in each of their stories is a remarkably unobtrusive but essential voice.

5: Profiling everyday people will always be powerful.
“Court Buff,” Mark Singer, 1980 [Google Books]
“Watercress Girl,” Henry Mayhew, 1851 [Link]
“The Rivermen,” Joseph Mitchell, 1959 [Google Books]

Singer wrote about courtroom spectators. Mayhew wrote about a child living and working in incredible poverty. Mitchell (and his contemporary A.J. Liebling) spent his entire career writing about supposedly unremarkable people. “I actually believe deeply in the dignity of ordinariness,” Susan Orlean once said. Orlean wrote what I think is one of the best profiles ever crafted, a study of a 10-year-old boy (“The American Man at Age Ten“).

“An ordinary life examined closely reveals itself to be exquisite and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain,” she wrote in 2001. “I really believed that anything at all was worth writing about if you cared about it enough, and that the best and only necessary justification for writing any particular story was that I cared about it. The challenge was to write these stories in a way that got other people as interested in them as I was.”