A Closer Look: Three Golden Ages of Journalism?

by Paul Steiger ProPublica, Feb. 7, 2014, 1 p.m.

This morning, ProPublica founder and executive chairman Paul Steiger received the William Allen White Foundation National Citation from the University of Kansas’s White School of Journalism and Mass Communications in Lawrence. Here are his remarks.

I’m honored to be here in Lawrence for the second time in 48 years. In the summer of 1966, having spent nearly all my life within 75 miles of New York City, I was driving across our great country on my way to California. In the late afternoon, one of those explosive thunderstorms you Kansans are familiar with poured rain in such sheets as to force me to pull over for 15 or 30 minutes till it passed. Then came one of those gorgeous, sun-dappled, cool and peaceful evenings that I suspect you also know well. A half century later I still remember it.

In the intervening years I confess to having thought about this place for two things: your great basketball teams, and your great journalists. It has been my privilege to work with some of those journalists: Jerry Seib and Barbara Rosewicz. Kevin Helliker. Danforth Austin. Steve Frasier. To name a few.  And then of course there is William Allen White, whose name adorns this great school and the citation that I am overwhelmed to receive today.

No, I didn’t work with him, although some of my 20-something colleagues at ProPublica think I go back that far. He died when I was two, in 1944. But like many journalists, I’ve long known of and admired Mr. White, and why not?  Multiple Pulitzer winner. The voice of Middle America who lived here all his life yet made time to travel east and write pathbreaking pieces for the cutting-edge, New York-based national magazine, McClure’s.  Mr. White without question was one of the leaders of a great revolution in journalism, which parallels in some ways the revolution taking place today.

In fact, in her latest marvelous book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin applies that gleaming, golden label to the early decades of Mr. White’s era. [See her ProPublica podcast on the subject here.]

It was certainly a golden age. Whether it was the golden age is something we could argue about. Indeed, some Internet writers and publishers have taken to contending recently that our current era is the best ever for American journalism — this only a brief time after others  took to declaring that the loss of billions of dollars of advertising revenue and tens of thousands of jobs at metro newspapers was driving us into a journalistic wasteland.

That leads me to what I’d like to talk with you about today. My interest isn’t so much to determine what was the golden age of journalism, although I have a candidate, which I will make a case for in a moment.

My real interest, sitting where we do in a period of incredibly rapid change, is what should wewant in a new golden age? I confess to having more questions than answers, so I look forward to hearing from you in the comment period.

Let’s start by taking a close look at the period that Doris Goodwin, with her historian’s perspective, describes as American journalism’s finest hour.  It began, she tells us, in the 1880s and 1890s, a time in some ways like our own, with major changes in the economy involving first rapid growth and industrialization, and then, in 1893, a crash that produced huge unemployment and hardship. Through it all, there was a major surge in inequality.

The urban poor lived in squalid tenements. Factory workers endured crushingly low wages, six-day work weeks, dangerous conditions on the job, and the ability of owners to fire them at will. The giant trusts and the all-powerful railroads manipulated freight rates and other prices to squeeze growers and small entrepreneurs, in the end driving many into bankruptcy and seizing their businesses or lands.

Meanwhile, the rich lived in mansions with servants and took their children on grand tours of Europe. America, the land of the citizen farmer, the industrious  merchant, and the emancipated slave, increasingly took on notions of class. A brilliant and gregarious student at Harvard, New York mansion-dweller Teddy Roosevelt worried that some of the classmates he thought to befriend might be from families of insufficient standing.

At the same time, Roosevelt had a passion for public service and a liking for journalists. Unlike many political and business leaders, then and now, he didn’t fear being criticized or misquoted by reporters. Rather, he boldly assumed he could make common cause with them. So when the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 made the 42-year-old Roosevelt our nation’s youngest president, he had already built a network of reporters and writers to whom he gave extraordinary access, whose advice he sought and sometimes followed, and who often helped explain his positions favorably to the public.

A key to TR’s journalistic network was a group of extraordinary writers assembled by a once penniless Irish immigrant, S.S. McClure, to work on the magazine he called, simply, McClure’s. 

Then as now, technology aided change.  The newly perfected process of photoengraving was both cheaper and faster than traditional woodcuts, and Sam McClure made good use of it.

He also used his powerful talent as an editor to inspire the great writers he had collected. In particular, he sent them on missions to dig deep into the secrets of the powerful, and to reveal them in enthralling narratives. The approach was rare in American journalism. It caught on soon with the public — who made McClure’s a financial success — and with competitors, who sought to imitate the approach.

All came together in the January 1903 McClure’s, a truly extraordinary issue containing three powerful exposes: Lincoln Steffens on the corrupt mayor of Minneapolis, Ray Stannard Baker on misbehavior in the nascent labor movement,  and the first installment of what is justly revered as one of the greatest feats of investigative reporting ever, Ida Tarbell’s mammoth inquisition into rapacious business practices by John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust.

It took eight long years, but Tarbell’s chapter-and-verse reporting served as a guide for a federal government lawsuit to break up the trust. The suit finally broke through Rockefeller’s legions of lawyers and political supporters to win at the Supreme Court.

By that time, however, the magazine had collapsed, in part because of McClure’s moods and unpredictable rages at the staff, and his insistence that the poetry editor publish submissions by a young woman with whom he had had an affair.

The public was also tiring of the expose form. Some of McClure’s competitors were not so scrupulous about their reporting and relied on bombastic rhetoric and name calling when the facts were insufficiently at hand. In 1906, that great friend of journalists, President Roosevelt, diluted his support by giving a speech, first off the record

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