Lerner on his "The Other New Journalism" and the Dawn of the "Big Important Book"

08 Oct 2017 9:57 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)
Editor’s Note: Marist College professor Kevin M. Lerner presented his paper, “The Other New Journalism: David Halberstam, J. Anthony Lukas, and Reported Narrative in the Dawn of the Big Important Book,” at May's International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Dr. Lerner 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 Kevin M. Lerner, Marist College

While I was working in the New York Public Library archives and records division, gathering material for what would become my dissertation (and later the basis for my current book manuscript), I came across a letter of recommendation in the editorial papers of the New York Times. Typed on an electric typewriter with a janky “a” key that repeated almost every time the author touched it, and all in lowercase, with x’s through mistakes, the letter recommended a young Baltimore Sun reporter named J. Anthony Lukas:

lukas (who is a friend of mine, so be warned) is just what every young newspaperman ought to be. he is very very bright, and he has a high s ense of the profession and integrity, and unlike xxxxxx many bright young guys he has been a nd is willing to do the harder part of the profession—the dirty legwork part. so  he is aavery finished and versatile reporter. he is aa guy who has always had his eye on foreign cities but he has also realized that xxxx the way to get there is to do aa good job covering tough local stories. [sic]

The management at the Times would take the advice of this letter’s author, despite his lack of typing skill, and bring Tony Lukas on as a reporter—and it was good advice. Lukas won a Pulitzer Prize at the Times for his story about a woman named Linda Fitzpatrick who lived a drug-fueled life in Greenwich Village in contrast to the Greenwich, Connecticut of her upbringing. His recommender was David Halberstam, who had known Lukas since the two of them worked together at The Harvard Crimson.

I was digging around in Tony Lukas’s personnel file because I was writing my dissertation about (MORE), an anti-establishment journalism review that Lukas would found in 1971. The letter of recommendation had some very small use for me in the dissertation project, but it kindled another idea which would have to wait until I finished and filed and had time to devote my brain to something else. So I did something that is likely familiar to almost any historian who has worked in an archive and I filed away that idea for later.

That was how I came to work on the project that became “The Other New Journalism: David Halberstam, J. Anthony Lukas, and Reported Narrative in the Dawn of the Big Important Book,” which is still very much a work in progress, and which I presented at the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies conference in Halifax last May. I am interested in two interlinked ideas here which fit into the larger arc of my ongoing research agenda. 

First, I want to investigate the informal networks of journalists that influence how journalism is practiced. There has been much work on the institutions of journalism, but I want to know more about the history of these backchannels, where journalists exchange ideas about doing journalism, but also get each other jobs or connect each other to editors for freelance work. It seems to me that these networks have an outsized influence that has been undervalued in research. I hold that there is, in fact, a group of elite journalists, many of whom know each other, who operate at the highest levels of the profession and determine much about the standards that other practitioners will be held to.

Secondly, and more importantly, I am investigating the intellectual history of journalism, and at the same time, the history of intellectual journalism. In other words, I am interested in the way that ideas about what constitutes journalism have changed over time, and also the ways that journalism interacts with the broader history of ideas. That’s where the subtitle—and the working thesis—for the present study come in.

Halberstam and Lukas overlapped at The Times with Gay Talese, the elegant and self-aware stylist of nonfiction prose who left daily newspapers to become a part of that loosely affiliated group of like-minded writers known as the New Journalists. And while there are piles of book and papers about the flashy New Journalism, I would argue that the focus on New Journalism has distracted from another movement that was developing at the same time, at the hands (and typewriter fingers) of journalists such as Lukas and Halberstam: a journalism that takes the idea of narrative seriously, but puts even more of an emphasis on reporting. (Halberstam, I’m beginning to discover, required a lot of editing.)

I’ve been calling this genre the “Big Important Book,” and I believe it is one that continues to influence the intellectual life of the United States far more than the occasional masterpiece of nonfiction prose. These are the books that show up on The New York Times list of best books of the year; the books that get their authors invited onto Fresh Air to talk to Terry Gross. They’re well-written, but mostly they are well-reported, and full of intriguing ideas. They’re Big Important Books.

Tony Lukas published five books, four of which I would classify as BIBs. One of them, Common Ground, told the story of the school integration busing crisis in Boston and won him his second Pulitzer and is still in print more than three decades after its publication. David Halberstam published… a lot of books, at least ten of which could be BIBs. And they are merely representative of forty years of journalists doing the same sort of quiet, but important work. Needless to say, there is a lot to read, and while the initial study will probably stop at the coincidence of these two friends working the genre, I don’t know exactly how far this project will go.

As I said, this is a work in progress, but the reading list is one that I look forward to tackling.

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Kevin M. Lerner is assistant professor of journalism at Marist College. He is also editor of the Journal of Magazine & New Media Research, published by the Magazine Media Division, Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication. His scholarly research concentrates on the history of American journalism, with a focus on the 1970s, alternative forms of journalism, press criticism, and anti-intellectualism in the press. He is completing a book on the history of (MORE), an anti-establishment journalism review. 

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