What was New Journalism?

Nobody, I mean, nobody had ever seen the world fresh, when they were still screaming, squirming, bawling, for the first time out of the dark, warm wetness, eyes not even open—now open but not focused, how do eyes focus? Focus is attention! What the hell is attention? How do you center on one thing and not another? Why is it so bright here? It's too full of color, of outline, of shadow, and too dense with sounds, rumbles, breaths, gasps, laughs, what in god's name is a laugh? How does the newly born see the world and then write it "as if for the first time, without the constant intimidation of being aware of what other writers have already done. In the mid-1960s that was exactly the feeling I had." So wrote Tom Wolfe in 1972 in New York Magazine, simultaneously experiencing, inventing, and chronicling what was called "new journalism," whose sometimes hyperventilating style this paragraph caricatures.

It began with reporters who wrote for magazines with literary pretensions like Esquire and for magazines with scarcely any pretensions at all, like the "Sunday supplement" magazines in daily newspapers, which is where New York began, as the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune. It had its heroes—like Gay Talese, Joan Didion, or Wolfe himself. They were reporters who were writing "features" for newspapers but who tried to publish as much as they could in the magazines that would take longer pieces. They were attracted to experiments with point-of-view and other literary devices. And they believed that in nonfiction, as long as it was genuinely reported observation, they could use any literary device "to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally."

What made New Journalism "new" was literary freedom; what made it "journalism" was that it was reported. "New journalism" stood evenly for both. What struck critics of New Journalism as outrageous was the way the writers seemed to go inside the minds of the people they were writing about, even on occasion concocting an inner monologue (but only, Wolfe insists, with words the subject had actually uttered in the course of interview and observation). The value of New Journalism, Wolfe said, was to go beyond normal journalism to stay with the subject longer, to get the language, gestures, facial expressions, all the details, the stuff that in fiction gives readers such a vivid sense of the reality of characters who do not exist—only, in the new journalism, they did.

In retrospect, the impact of New Journalism was limited. It did little to make newspapers more literary—its location and its impact was primarily in magazine journalism. Newspapers and television barely noticed it, although many years later you can detect its influence in radio, notably National Public Radio's "This American Life." It encouraged some writers of fiction to try their hand at reporting—notably Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. And you can see versions of it in alternative media and in "Style" sections of the New York Times, Washington Post, and other papers. But perhaps the largest impact, one that can be detected among journalism students even today, is that it set a sparkle in the eye of aspiring reporters. Some young people still come to journalism to launch themselves as artists of society where they have a warrant— and press credentials—for seeing the world afresh and for turning it into vivid prose or documentary film and video or radio portraiture.

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