Hendrik Michael on Researching Elizabeth Jordan's Establishment of the Literary Journalism Genre at Pulitzer's World

22 Aug 2017 10:24 PM | Dane Claussen

Editor’s Note: University of Bamberg doctoral candidate Hendrik Michael presented his paper, “The World’s ‘True Stories of the News’ and the Commodification of Literary Journalism Before 1900,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Mr. Michael to tell us more about how and why he started researching this topic, and why this research is important and interesting for himself and our field.

By Hendrik Michael

University of Bamberg

The mission statement of the International Association of Literary Journalism Studies broadly defines literary journalism to be “journalism as literature.” It is a genre of nonfiction writing that combines discursive strategies and research practices of traditional journalism with storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. 

Interrelations of literature and journalism are historically varied and complex. The historical roots of literary journalism have been traced back to the advent of mass media in the 16th century. Since then the genre has been adopted in different journalism cultures across the globe and has gone by various names. Its best known practitioners arguably are the so-called New Journalists of the 1960s and 1970s. But this period, which many regard as the genres most prominent phase, marks just one heyday in the genre’s checkered history. Thomas Connery, among others, argued that Pulitzer’s New Journalism of the 1880s and 1890s marked the first most prominent phase of the genre in mainstream journalism. Only recently, Robert Alexander called literary journalism “a genre whose time, once again, has come.”

The continuous re-emergence of literary journalism makes the genre an interesting subject to study changes of media, journalism and culture. My field of research focuses on the formation phase of modern journalism in the late 19th century and explores the role of literary journalism within this process. 

One of the most active fields of research in the genre has been author studies. By pointing out commendable examples of literary journalism, researchers attempt to build a canon. However, with respect to the 19th century, this canon aims mainly at the upper echelons of journalism. It includes better-known journalistic and literary writers. Notably, Richard Harding Davis, Stephen Crane, Abraham Cahan, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, to name a few, are all male. Only recently research on women journalists attracted wider interest. 

Through Karen Roggenkamp’s research on women journalists of the period I came across Elizabeth Jordan’s journalistic work for Pulitzer’s The World: The True Stories of the News,” a popular reportage series that was a stepping stone for Jordan’s later career in journalism and as a novelist.

Although less recognized as part of the canon, I realized that the “True Stories of the News” could reveal important aspects of journalistic story-telling in urban mass periodicals and the significance of literary journalism in this context. Roggenkamp kindly sent me a handful of facsimiles and during a research trip to Minneapolis, I was able to get hold of the full series through the University of Minnesota Library in 2015. 

Here, I want to briefly outline why I believe that The World’s “True Stories of the News” is an example for the initial commodification of literary journalism in mass periodicals. By the term commodification I mean the implementation of literary journalism as a marketable good in mass journalism. My analysis followed a heuristic approach that differentiates three dimensions: media messages, media agents and media organizations. 

As regards media organizations, I considered the newspaper’s hierarchies, its resources such as money, staff, information technology, and informal competencies, and furthermore its production routines of news-gathering and processing. With respect to media agents it proved helpful to look at journalists’ working methods and job conditions, as well as personal experience and biographies. I believe these intervening factors shaped the message level, meaning the narrative form and content of a journalistic genre. With respect to narrative form I differentiated between the components voice, character, time and space.

Let me start on the message level by outlining the form and content of the series. The “True Stories of the News” appeared regularly in The World for about half a year between November 1890 and May 1891. More than 90 articles were published in this period of time. Often the series was printed in the section “Metropolis Day by Day” on page 9. The articles ran over about a third of a newspaper page. Their layout was characteristic for the New Journalism of Pulitzer’ World with screaming headlines, bold leads and sub-headings. 

Stories dealt with curious events like a freak-show, intrigues in upper-class circles, or curious events from other parts of the country. But by and large the topics focused on the life of the lower classes and immigrants. None of the articles had a byline. Only through autobiographical claims do we know that Elizabeth Jordan authored all of the articles.

Recurring topics from the lower strata of New York social life were court cases, tragic events in the life of immigrants and workers, visits to the city’s institutions, and accounts of the day-to-day chasm between cultures. Thereby “True Stories of the News” fit into the routine local reporting of the New York press. Evident is a tendency for personalization and tapping into social issues as regards housing, health-care and immigration in a rapidly changing urban environment. Interesting is the fact that the series selected events and situations that had been previously reported as small news items. The marginal thereby became relevant and received public attention.

With regard to narrative form an analysis of journalistic voice yield interesting results. My findings show that voice is quite ambiguous in the series. Less than a fifth of sampled articles feature a homodiegetic narrator (someone who is part of the story). Most articles feature a heterodiegetic narrator (someone who is not directly linked to the story). Events are often told from a limited epistemic and emotional perspective. This figural perspective is sometimes identified as a “World reporter” or a “World man,” only in three instances “a female reporter.” Another dominant feature of voice is the presence of an omniscient narrator, someone who seems to tell and comment the story from an elevated position.

In contrast, only 15 or so stories feature a homodiegetic narrator. Direct evidence for a homodiegetic narrator appears in the reportage, “Only a Case of Mumps” and “The Happiest Woman in New York.” In both texts, personal and spatial deixis can be detected, which establishes a direct reference between narrator and story. In “Only a Case of Mumps,” the narrator, although covert in most of the story, speaks up to demand better health-care: “[This] hospital is a necessity. I have advocated it for years. So has Dr. Jacobi.“ 

Overall, the analysis of narrative voice shows that even though most articles have a male figural focalizer or an omniscient narrator, the narratorial perspective, referring to attitudes and ideology, is still identical between a heterodiegetic and a homodiegetic narrator. 

This means, Jordan, then unknown to be the author of all texts, deliberately manipulated the narrative situation. Obviously this created variation from story to story and possibly contributed to their relative longevity. On the other hand, Jordan indirectly manipulated her readers, too. By creating a narrative ambivalence she strengthened the collective public voice of The World, while also creating an overlap between this collective voice and the individual voice of the seldom present women reporter.

Overall, results of my textual analysis suggest that characteristics of literary journalism were successfully adapted to a feature series in the context of New York’s mass print market. To understand how a Elizabeth Jordan was able to establish the genre in form and practice, I want to point out some aspects about the media organization and its journalistic agents.

It must be acknowledged that publishing became less profitable at the end of the 1880s. Market competition forced papers to invest more in new technologies and expand their correspondent networks while advertising revenues stalled. This resulted in soaring news-gathering costs while the market grew more and more saturated.

To balance spending, labor costs for the city staff was cut drastically. Even the biggest papers like The World, while still expanding their staff, cut employment costs. Their local reporting still kept up in quality because editorial resources and news-gathering routines were bound to relatively flat hierarchies. The moderating influence of managing editor John A. Cockerill in the newsroom was already recognized by contemporaries. His regime still allowed for innovative practices to be realized. The innovation of stunt reporting can be considered an example of this. 

While providing chances for women to make a career in journalism that wasn’t confined to the “Women’s Pages,” editors certainly exploited new women reporters, sending them on sometimes dangerous assignments to get a “fresh” reaction about deplorable conditions in the big city. 

Informal feedback was established to keep staff motivated and channel the production process towards editorial goals. Such feedback consisted of an internal credit system, displaying specific journalists’ ‘model stories’ for a week in the newsroom. 

On the agent level this fired up job competition. Bear in mind that, around 1890, about 100,000 people wanted to make a career in journalism, meaning if you underperformed you were given the boot pretty quickly. In addition the role of women journalists was constantly under attack by male colleagues. In her autobiography, Elizabeth Banks pointed out the growing competition among newspaper women as well.

To establish her position in the journalistic field, Jordan had to take a risk and escape the woman’s page duties, quitting her job at Peck’s Sun in Milwaukee and moving to New York.

She benefited from The World’s internal credit system. Her reportage “The Death of Number 9,” left a footprint and became The World’s “model story.” This emboldened Jordan to solidify her role by asking the managing editor to give her an extensive assignment just as Bly had three years earlier with her undercover reporting from Bellevue Asylum. Therefore Jordan’s “True Stories of the News” was surely a “task with entrepreneurial nature” as Alice Fahs pointed out. It competed with stunt-reporting and investigative reporting done by other women reporters.

Jordan’s job writing the series was most challenging. In order to crank out two to three pieces a week, researching, meeting sources and writing meant working up to 18 hours a day. Her task was slavishly “done on time and space specifications” as Jordan recalled in her autobiography. In addition to gathering information and writing up stories, Jordan also was responsible for editing and laying out the Sunday edition of the paper. But this meant Jordan had achieved a solid standing within the newspaper’s institutional hierarchy.

Therefore, the presence of the male reporter in many stories may indicate that she also had the authority to coordinate research. Jordan may have made use of her better editorial position and relied on organizational routines of information gathering to delegate rookie reporters to visit a scene and provide their impressions in short-hand. For Jordan, this meant filtering the information and channeling it into stories, based on the facts gathered on the scene by somebody else.

On the other hand, this freed Jordan to investigate other cases in depth and write stories about the fate of individuals such as Annie Meyer, who had been secluded to her bedroom for 18 years due to illness. Karen Roggenkamp referred to this case in particular to illustrate how Jordan later on transformed these factual stories into very popular fictional stories about the world of journalism.

In this respect, one can definitely conclude that Jordan differed from other newspaper women with her work on “True Stories of the News.” Her status was indicated by earning higher wages than some male colleagues − $30 per week. Lincoln Steffens, in contrast, paid his reporters a meager $15 a week at the Commercial Advertiser. Most female journalists earned only a “delightfully erratic income,” as a contemporary essay about women journalists made clear.

Thus Jordan also helped to create what Alice Fahs called “an important new social space within the pages of the newspaper.” On the one hand, this was meant to be an interactive, participatory space: in “True Stories of the News” readers were invited to interact with the newspaper by tipping stories, seeking advice, and using the paper as their public forum. On the other hand, the series also created a new representational space that included women as emancipated subjects of the social world, not only as women reporters but also as heroines of news stories. 

Working with the resources provided by The World Jordan achieved to make “True Stories of the News” highly compatible with the general wave of human-interest that swept urban mass periodicals in reviews, urban sketches, advice columns, interviews, profiles and other features − a phenomenon that Thomas Connery coined as a “paradigm of actuality.” The “True Stories of the News” became a successful product because it complied with a double-principle of journalistic production. The stories helped reduce complexity of the urban life world and engage readers, but also save resources and make profit in a time of increased market competition and saturation. 

Thereby the feature series is an interesting case for historical genre studies:

First, it shows that while media systems and societies change overtime, the content and form of literary journalism has remained relatively stable. A research focus on the first prominent phase of literary journalism in American journalism, the triumph of the popular press in the 1880s and 1890s, reveals how the genre offered journalists very effective strategies to process information efficiently. 

Second, the “True Stories of the News” prove that literary journalism cannot be merely evaluated from an aesthetic perspective but research should take into account the institutional conditions that allowed fostering a “humanistic approach” to news-writing, as Norman Sims has called it repeatedly. 

Third, with respect to contemporary developments and challenges in journalism, an in-depth look at the commodification of literary journalism during the 1880s and 1890s may help us understand how specific genres offer the necessary stability to information processing in a time of New Obscurity, to borrow a phrase by Jürgen Habermas. Rudolf Stöber explains this necessity through biological analogy. He wrote just as “without stability in the reproduction process of genetics, the genes would go astray, without stability in communication, the same will happen to societies.”


Hendrik Michael is a doctoral candidate in the Institute of Communication Studies at the University of Bamberg (Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg), Germany.

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