Excerpts from The Year That Defined American Journalism

From the Introduction

"There is little doubt that 1897 was an exceptional year in American journalism—a critical moment of experimentation and transition that helped reshape the profession and define its modern contours. No other year, arguably, has produced more memorable and singularly important moments than 1897. This study is guided not only by a recognition that 1897 was exceptional and consequential, but that it embraced moments when broader evolutionary forces combined to produce breakthroughs of enduring significance, as well as moments of extraordinary individual accomplishment.

"This work seeks to make more coherent and understandable a defining moment in American journalism and pursues a methodology never previously utilized in media history. As such, this study has the decided merit of offering a fresh perspective and a fresh assessment about a pivotal time in American journalism."

From Chapter 1, "America at an Hour of Transition"

"It is tempting nowadays to think of the late 1890s as a quaint and unhurried time: It must have been so, before airplanes, television, air conditioning, the Internet, and cellular phones. But quaint and unhurried was scarcely how Americans of 1897 regarded their lives. They were active, engaged, and altogether too short on leisure time. Theirs was a 'hustling, high-tension age.'

"The pace of urban journalism was said to have been so intense that it made 'men old at forty.' The ceaseless noise, the 'continual clatter' of robust big-city life was suspected to be a life-shortening hazard. The idiom, 'busy modern public,' was much en vogue.

"No other phrase, said the New York Tribune, was invoked more often 'in describing present-day conditions of social existence. No other [phrase] is as often used as an apology for social and even individual shortcomings.'"

From Chapter 2, "The Clash of Paradigms"

"By the end of 1897, the [ New York ] Journal was the country's boldest, most energetic, most-talked-about newspaper. And 1897 was a remarkable year for the Journal , during which it proclaimed a new kind of journalism that 'does not wait for things to turn up,' but cuts through inertia to 'get things done.'

"This was, the Journal announced, the 'journalism of action,' a paradigm of agency and engagement that went beyond simply gathering, printing, and commenting on the news. The 'journalism of action' obliged a newspaper to 'fitly render any public service within its power,' the Journal declared. As such, the 'journalism of action' represented a clear, new choice for the profession."

From Chapter 3, "Exceptional Journalism in Journalism's Exceptional Year"

"Journalism in fin-de-siècle America offered scant job security, paid none too well, and encouraged little individual identity. Such conditions prompted Fourth Estate , usually a solicitous friend of journalists, to declare the newspaper world was as 'heartless as the usurer's collector, pitiless like fate and less merciful than the plague.'

"Young, would-be journalists were given such advice in the 1890s as: 'Don't go into journalism unless you have to, unless you would rather live on cold hash once a day as a newspaper man than three square meals in any other line of work.' And still, would-be journalists swarmed to the field, many of whom brought college degrees."

From Chapter 4, "Not a Hoax"

"William Randolph Hearst's vision of the 'journalism of action' found most dramatic expression on the moonlit rooftop of the Casa de Recogidas, a wretched jail for women in Havana. During the early hours of October 7, 1897, Karl Decker, a Washington-based reporter for Hearst's New York Journal , and two accomplices used Stilson wrenches to snap a bar of the prison window, allowing the escape of Evangelina Cosío y Cisneros, a petite, nineteen-year-old Cuban accused of plotting against Spanish military authority.

".... Nothing in American journalism in 1897 quite rivaled the Cisneros jailbreak and its aftermath. It was an extraordinary episode in journalism history."

From the Conclusion

"As we have seen, American journalism faced the riptide of profound change in the late nineteenth century, and emerged the stronger for it. The turbulence of 1897 helped give rise to a newsgathering model that has served American journalism well for more than 100 years.

"To read the lessons of 1897, therefore, is to take encouragement. The angst and despair so commonplace in journalism today are quite likely misplaced. The story of 1897 suggests as much."

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