The Invasion of Journalism

THE significance of certain facts as distinguishing marks of a new paper-reading age is generally lost sight of, though the facts themselves may attract attention. In popular comment their possible bearing on the much discussed newspaper problem is often completely ignored. Take, for example, a familiar fact, the passing of old-fashioned sonorous eloquence. Walter Bagehot, with his illuminating acuteness, put it in this way in the essay on Lord Brougham : —

“We are apt to forget that oratory is an imaginative art. From our habits of business, the name of rhetoric has fallen into disrepute ; our greatest artists strive anxiously to conceal their perfection in it; they wish their address in statement to be such that the effect seems to be produced by that which is stated, and not by the manner in which it is stated.”

This is true to a word, but it is not exhaustive. Directness being the dominant note of a business age, the newspaper, the reflection of the age, has been a contributory force in displacing rhetoric by directness, perhaps simplicity, of statement. The newspaper directness has popularized its own peculiar colloquial form of expression and method of treatment far beyond the limits where “ habits of business ” influence and control. Thus it has come about that we have seen the last of “ the eloquent lawyer” of tradition, and almost the last of his once twin brother, “ the eloquent preacher; ” that as Senator Depew remarked at a Harvard-Yale debate, “ twenty years of college history have not produced a single famous orator;” that on increasingly few commencement platforms does the commencement orator still lag superfluous ; that the formidable word “oration” is going out, the usual formula being, where an audience is expected, that “ Mr. So-and-So will make the address; ” that, in short, as a distinguished professor of literature put it in an informal talk, if Daniel Webster were to rise from his grave to deliver some of his most impressive periods to a modern audience, they would strike not a few in that audience as a case of “ the big bow-wows.” In a final illustration, one has but to cite so-called “ after-dinner oratory,” which in its salad-like mixture of half-seriousness with “ good stories,” of applause with laughter, or of vinegar with oil, so closely suggests the sort of intellectual mixture one finds in the most popularly spiced newspaper.

The comparison points the fact that the chief emphasis should be put on its entertaining quality when the modern newspaper is differentiated. Max O’Rell has described the typical American newspaper as a “ huge collection of short stories.” The late James Gordon Bennett, the father of modern journalism, once broke in somewhat roughly upon a young man who was enlarging, in an old-fashioned way, on the “ mission ” of the newspaper. Said Mr. Bennett: “ Young man, ‘ to instruct the people,’ as you say, is not the mission of journalism. That mission, if journalism has any, is to startle or amuse.” So conservative an authority on journalism as the London Spectator not long ago made this similar public confession : —

“ Even those of us who feel that ‘ personal journalism ’ is carried to absurd lengths are not indifferent to information about people. We prefer (accuracy apart) the ‘ picturesque ’ historians to the ‘dry’ men. We like the gossip of Pepys and Saint-Simon. We like to hear of Milton’s light supper of water and olives, of Johnson’s toast and unsweetened tea on Good Fridays. The average man only carries that fondness for personal details to a higher power.”

The secret of the modern newspaper’s universality of appeal lies in its miscellaneousness, which provides almost everybody with something that interests or entertains. Interest in significant news is sometimes solemnly invoked as a basis for “ higher journalism,” as if there existed among newspaper readers a class of people of superior intelligence who were interested in what is significant news as distinguished from what is sensational or trivial. In point of fact, there are individuals here and there answering to this description, but they are far too few to be counted as a class for purposes of a newspaper constituency. Even those of us who think we take our news most seriously will be caught — by ourselves if we are honest with ourselves — in turning first, on opening the paper, to some interesting “story,” perhaps a curious bicycle adventure, perhaps the capture of a clever burglar (not to say a bit of salient gossip), and in turning second to the news of Washington or Europe. The amusing experiment of a Kansas city paper is an excellent illustration in point. For some weeks it printed on Saturday a résumé of the week’s religious news. Noting no voluntary evidence that the experiment had hit those for whom it was purposed, the editor sent his reporters out to interview fifty young men, prominent in Y. M. C. A. and Y. P. S. C. E. circles, that he might discover what they thought of the experiment as a journalistic departure rightwards. Out of the fifty interviewed, forty-four — if memory serves — confessed frankly that they had not read the résumé at all, having found the “ sporting news ” more interesting.

It is the old case of Thackeray’s favorite quotation from Horace, De te fabula clocet. It is not the things that ought to interest us which oftenest do interest us in the newspaper. We would not go to it half as often as we think we would for light and leading, if the newspaper approximated those higher ideals for which we sigh in vain. Thus it conies about, because the newspaper caters to what most of us really like, and not to what we think we should like, that, reading it constantly and not critically (except at intervals), but as a matter of course, we unconsciously assimilate its point of view, method of treatment, and form of expression. The subtle encroachment of journalism — the “journalization” or “newspaper!ng,” as Charles Dudley Warner has called it, of our ways of speaking, writing, and even thinking — is one of the most serious of the unchallenged changes of modern American life. For example, without attempting to discuss the philological value of slang in keeping a language fresh and vital, its popular excess is calling out numerous protests as constant as vain, chiefly for what reason ? The answer is not doubtful. The newspaper has seized upon slang as peculiarly adapted to the purpose of effective popular expression. Accustomed thus to recognize slang as the most effective way of saying a thing forcibly, of making an impression, we have acquired the habit of dropping into slang as Silas Wegg dropped into poetry. One can find evidence of this, if one is looking for it, where it is to be expected the least, in the lecture on literature. Not a few of our University Extension lecturers make use, on the platform, of an English that is supposedly confined to the degenerate “ editorial sanctum.” They are so much afraid of being thought conventional and formal, they seek so far afield to find the smart or clever thing to say, they are so well aware that the strong or daring phrase will “ stick,” that they resort to the same tricks of slang familiar in the newspaper. A personal experience may not be out of place. The subject was John Ruskin, and the lecturer was a Johns Hopkins Ph. D., a poet of acknowledged standing, and a professor of English in a leading university. This student, poet, and professor felt himself under a deep debt to Ruskin for a determining influence at a critical time in his personal development. In simple, natural phrases, whose force all felt, he paid a very appreciative tribute to what Ruskin’s influence had meant to him. Then becoming more and more impassioned he fell into the vicious habit he had adopted for effectiveness, and closed with this remarkable exhortation : “ Young man, tie up to ‘ John ’! tie up to ‘ John ’! ” This illustration may be extreme, but it does not stand alone.

Another illustration of the unnoted invasion of journalism is to be found in the increasing number of reportorial or journalistic books — so far as style is concerned — which are crowding to the front in the issues of current literature. It is not proposed to raise here the mooted question of literature versus journalism. It suffices for the present purpose to call attention to journalism’s literary output, as by the best authority it may be fairly described as literary in certain cases. The names of Richard Harding Davis and Julian Ralph in this country, or of the late George W. Steevens and Andrew Lang (press writer no less than Greek scholar) in England, suggest themselves at once as striking examples.

The growing tendency toward “ journalization ” involves far more than a matter of colloquialism and style. It concerns as well point of view and method of treatment. This is seen conspicuously in the changed relations of the popular magazine and the newspaper. Once it was the ambition of the newspaper to be rated as high as the magazine. Now it often seems to be the ambition of the magazine to be ranked as a monthly newspaper. Minor indications of this abound. Take for one example a mechanical device. What newspaper men call “ sub - heads ” —short descriptive headlines placed at regular intervals over sections of a long article to catch the eye and keep the attention — are to be seen more and more frequently in leading magazines. Take for another example the growing habit of using the text to illustrate the illustrations, — a habit which, while not borrowed from newspapers, since magazines were illustrated first, has yet been greatly stimulated by the competition. But to come to things more serious. Literature once quoted with approval the ideal of an early magazine “ as set forth in its prospectus,” “ A Repository for the Occasional Productions of Men of Genius.” The ideal, somewhat fantastic, touches grotesque absurdity when contrasted with the standard of the modern magazine, seeking far afield the occasional production — “ for this appearance only ” — of the unlettered notability or notoriety. It is of course unfair to charge all the changes in “ up-to-date ” magazine editing to the journalistic tendency. In the evolution of the book, the magazine, and the newspaper under modern conditions of production and distribution a process of delimitation is to be traced, defining more exactly the proper sphere of each. The “ gettableness ” of the modern book has had as much to do with the differentiation as the universality of the newspaper. “ The book will find its own constituency,” said Mr. Henry M. Alden, author of God in His World, in discussing the displacement of a certain class of magazine articles by the book. In illustration Mr, Alden instanced the fact that a noticeably large proportion of the first purchasers of God in His World hailed from " beyond the Rockies,” although the book was published in New York. To-day’s extended market for books, practically coextensive with the mails, and the great increase of libraries and library facilities, the traveling library in some sections reaching the smallest village within the radius of the city, have made book readers out of thousands who in the past were of necessity magazine readers. What is more properly of permanent than of contemporaneous interest thus naturally finds in the book a first form of publication, the call for an earlier magazine publication no longer existing. The magazine has also, in the process of delimitation, surrendered to the newspaper certain classes of articles which in the development of the newspaper fall to it naturally, for example, the article simply descriptive, the old " travel ” article, so familiar in magazine pages twenty-five years ago. But while triteness and universality of travel have contributed to making the travel article hardly worth while for the magazine, it remains that many interesting things of the sort may still be found to write, only the natural place in which to print them is the newspaper. There they still appear, reaching a newspaper, instead of a magazine, constituency. Not to particularize further, but to venture a generalization, one may say that it is the office of the magazine to interpret the significance of life as it is being lived, after it is mirrored, en passant, in the press, but before its perpetuation in the book.

This attempt to define the natural spheres of the magazine and the newspaper is interesting not only for what it explains in the changes which have taken place in both, but even more for what it ought to explain and does not, — that is, the successive encroachment of the magazine and newspaper each upon the other’s sphere. These encroachments began about twenty-five years ago with the Sunday editions of the more conservative newspapers, which justified themselves under the charge of Sabbath-breaking by “ pointing with pride ” to a literary excellence equal to that of the magazine. The argument was : Would you deprive the people, on a day of leisure for reading, of such excellent literature to be obtained for so small a price ? That argument has to-day only an academic interest, but is still worth noting for two reasons : that it was justified in large measure by the facts ; and that the departure called out futile protests from newspaper men themselves, on the ground that it was bad journalism to go outside the newspaper’s legitimate sphere. The best Sunday newspaper of that time was in many respects a firstclass magazine. Its literary articles, often signed by men of letters of acknowledged authority, its European correspondence dealing with matters of significance, its cable letters of comment (not gossip) by trained observers, among whom Mr. George W. Smalley set the standard, and its other generally attractive features, went far to justify the claims of its promoters. In this connection it is interesting to note that the recent attempt to introduce similar Sunday journalism in London failed, despite a like appeal on the literary side. A strong journalistic protest against this departure, although probably made without the Sunday newspaper specially in mind, is to be found in Mr. Whitelaw Reid’s address on Newspaper Tendencies, delivered in 1879 before the editorial associations of New York and Ohio. In that address Mr. Reid said : —

“ I do not believe that the daily newspaper of 1890 will give many more pages than that of 1880. Book-making is not journalism. Even magazine-making is not journalism. The business of a daily newspaper is to print the news of the day in such compass that the average reader may fairly expect to master it during the day without interfering with his regular business. When it passes beyond these limits it ceases to be a newspaper ; and it ceases to command the wide support which is essential to its success. . . . The great revolution in newspapers is not, therefore, to be in doubling their size, in doubling the quantity of matter they give, or in doubling the multitude of subjects they already treat.”

Almost from the time that Mr. Reid entered this futile protest dates the beginning of the policy of magazine reprisals upon the sphere of the newspaper. For in 1878 the late Allen Thorndike Rice became the owner of the North American Review, and applied to it those methods of journalistic editing which have contributed so much toward changing the character of the periodical press. Two innovations in particular will catch the eye of the future historian, — the resort to a prominent name, regardless of any literary reputation attaching to the name, the device being often worked out in the form of a symposium or debate, and being often no more than an adaptation of the newspaper interview ; and resort to what Mr. Howells has called the article “ contemporanic,” which in newspaper parlance is known as the “ timely ” article, the subject being one that attracts to-day as it did not yesterday and will not to-morrow, having been chosen for its immediate contemporaneous interest and not for any intrinsic value. Out of an embarrassing riches of illustration, perhaps no more amusing case is offered of resort to a name than the North American Review debate on the truth of Christianity, in which the late Jeremiah S. Black of Pennsylvania was chosen to answer the late Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll. Judge Black will be recalled as the able lawyer who was President Buchanan’s Attorney General; but his claim to be counted an authority on theology must rest on his selection for this brief only. The innovation of resort to a name is obviously open to the possibility that one person contributes the name and quite another the article. Whether this familiar device of the schoolboy composition writer and the “ orator ” in Congress has ever found a place in magazine editing must in the nature of the case remain a secret of the “ sanctum,” being one of those things, as Lord Dundreary used to say, that “ no fellah can ever find out.”

Passing from resort to the name to resort to the contemporanic article, we all remember the overwhelming invasion of our magazines by the Spanish war, an invasion which more than held its own long after it seemed that popular interest in it must have died of surfeit, if of nothing else. Mr. Howells has described this invasion in his characteristic way. Writing in Literature (issue of May 16, 1899), he observes that “the spirit of war seems to have obsessed our periodical literature, and there seems at present no hope of release from it. The hostilities began just one year ago. In two months they subsided, and peace was practically made between the nations. And still, in this month of May, troops of horrors of all shapes and sizes are writing themselves up, or are being written up, with tireless activity in the magazines. I have had the curiosity to look over the periodicals for the month to the number of eighteen or twenty, and I have found only four or five which apparently made no mention of the war; but no doubt, if I had looked more carefully, I should have found some shade of battle in these. In thirteen issues an inexliaustive search developed thirty-three papers relating to the recent hostilities, of a variety ranging from sober history and criticism, through the personal narratives of the combatants, high and low, down to the biographies of witnesses of the fighting.” A magazine editor with a sense of humor in those days must have often indulged a quiet smile at himself over the absurdity of so hopeless a stern chase.

On looking at this journalistic invasion broadly, and taking as an index of its extent the popular high-class magazine, one finds one’s surface impressions confirmed. This is true not only of a time when some subject of special interest, like the Spanish war, centres general attention, but also of an average time, when there is on the editor no special pressure of temptation to choose journalistic articles to the exclusion of others. The writer has made a somewhat careful examination of the changes of twenty-five years in the character of the articles printed by two representative magazines. The volume of Harper’s Magazine for 1872 was compared with the volume for 1897, both being years fairly free from special “ journalistic ” interests. The principal articles in the two volumes were classified, and the per cents of change were worked out (the curious can find the figures in the Journal of the American Science Association for 1899). A like comparison was made of the volume of Scribner’s Magazine for 1872 with the volumes of Scribner’s and the Century for 1897, — as both, in a sense, represent descent from the first Scribner’s. In a general way, the results of the comparison were curiously similar in the three cases. These results justify the general statement that the representative popular magazine of to-day as compared with the representative popular magazine of twenty-five years ago is marked by the disappearance of the old-fashioned travel article, — as Mr. Alden pointed out, — by a noticeable gain in the number of short stories, and by a gain of about ten per cent in the number of journalistic or contemporanic articles. The proportion of scientific, literary, and artistic articles to the whole number of articles may be called a constant, — that is, the proportion was found about the same in 1872 as in 1897.

The significance of the journalistic invasion of the magazine, taken as an index, does not lie so much in its present actual extent as in the extent of a near future to which it points. No receding wave from some contemporanic subject of dominating interest goes back to the starting point ; while the next wave, rising out of a fresh contemporanic impulse, carries the invasion to a new mark of permanency. The newspaper is the expression of the mood of the age. Its sensationalism is an incident; while its subtle substitution of standards and points of view denotes a radical departure. The newspaper may perhaps represent an inevitable tendency, opposition to which is merely a case of what Gladstone called “ fighting against the future.” Even so, nothing is gained by putting the emphasis in the wrong place. To lay exclusive stress on the demoralization of what is sensational is to overlook a more serious condition, the quiet journalistic invasion of so much of the intercourse and thinking of life.

Arthur Reed Kimball.