*Journalism and the Essay



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Journalism and the Essay

The relationship between the history of journalism and the evolution of the essay has intrigued theorists who venture into interdisciplinary research. For some writers, to work as journalist has been characterized either as beneficial or as a detrimental violation of literary purity. Whatever the theorists’ opinions, the list of authors who practiced journalism as a profession or as a major outlet for their literary production is lengthy and includes British writers such as Defoe, Swift, Darwin, Dickens, and Thackeray; the Americans Twain, Hemingway, and Steinbeck; the French Voltaire, Zola, Gide, Malraux, and Camus; the Spaniards Larra, Ortega y Gasset, Baroja, Unamuno, and Azorín; and the Latin Americans Sarmiento, Montalvo, Martí, Martínez Estrada, Arciniegas, García Márquez, and Vargas Llosa.
Two facts are important for textual and sociological analyses of these two genres. First, newspapers and magazines have been frequent vehicles for what history and the theory of literature consider to be essays. Rarely published in book form, many have been reprinted only in anthologies published solely for educational purposes, to give examples of the literary genre called essay. In other words, from an historical point of view, the history of the contemporary essay cannot be studied separately from the history of journalism.
Second, the textual nature of journalism in general, especially of some of its variations, reveals numerous parallels with the features outlined by critics either for the essay in general or for some of its modern transfigurations.
Ironically, both writing trades have transgressed from their declared faithful origins and goals in order to survive. In doing so, they have taken on distinctive features that had apparently belonged exclusively to the other: the essay has incorporated clarity and economy of means, while journalism has absorbed subjective literary views and techniques. In journalism, the faculties of notation, sensation, and memory take precedence over imagination and reason. In the case where the literary energy of the essay is latent, the reverse occurs. Never appearing in pure forms, these modes combine according to the personal style and inclinations of writers, columnists, investigative reporters, and editorial writers.
Whether recognized as a separate literary genre or not, the essay has benefited from its comparative treatment with canonical counterparts. The most crucial marker for differentiating the essay from the novel, short story, drama, or poetry is that only the author is to blame for the message. The essay is without the mask of narrator, characters, actors, or even the protected introspective aspect of poetry. More than the facts, argument, or thesis of the essay, it is the manner in which essayists present their materials that makes the difference in getting the reader’s attention. By persuasion and, at the same time, the revelation of a human, personal side, the author aims at sharing a point of view.
In contrast, journalism developed from an initial period dominated by ideological leanings into another obsessed with objectivity. The questions “who, what, where, when” took precedence over the “how” and the “why.” The golden, heroic era of informative journalism culminated in the crafting of the perfect lead-in, the initial concept, couched in a sentence or two, that would grab readers’ attention and make them read on. In this antiseptic environment writers became correspondents and were glorified by the stardom supplied by the byline. However, they were subjected to deadlines and style directives prescribed by wire services and desk editors, necessitating the discipline of polishing their prose, a surgical operation necessary to attract the attention of readers who were increasingly distracted by other media developments in film, radio, and television.
Journalism then entered a more sophisticated stage. While still imbued with the clarity of language, it was further enriched by what was called in-depth reporting, which later developed into an investigative style, with an attitude toward the subject that crossed the line into the realm of interpretative journalism. While as old as literature itself, this New Journalism shattered the myth of the separation between essay and journalism.
These freestyle ruptures with the past were accompanied in the American tradition and its imitators in Europe and Latin America by two other branches of journalism. The first was made up of editorials and commentaries in the form of columns, which were fully recognized as members of the family. The second played the role of fillers, different forms of features and entertainment pieces, comics, and games, which were relegated to the supplement pages or Sunday magazines. While the editorial kept alive the flame of authoritarian, ideological journalism, the columns experienced the slow surge of a more sober, economical, specialized style practiced by pundits who stuck to the norms and limitations of their expected topics.
However, in other cultural traditions, especially in Southern Europe and Latin
America, the more anarchical writers, encouraged by a freer style and anchored to the literary and political essay, enriched journalism with subgenres such as reportage and the Spanish crónica. In both cases, the pressures of limited space and the competition resulting from other media forms began to erode the freedom previously enjoyed.
Finally, this experimentation in journalism exercised an influence on the textual revolution that took place all over the world. In the past, the insertion of poetic language and dialogue had an impact on other forms of literature, such as the novel and the essay.
In more recent times, techniques such as the lead-in, the economy of words, and the experience of the New Journalism have had an impact not only on the essays produced by writers, but also on their own narrative fiction.


The Best of the Rest: Non-Syndicated Newspaper Columnists Select Their Best Work, edited by Sam G.Riley, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993
The Literary Journalists, edited by Norman Sims, New York: Ballantine, 1984

Further Reading
Botts, Jack, The Language of News: A Journalist’s Pocket Reference, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994
Cray, Ed, American Datelines, New York: Facts on File, 1990
Roy, Joaquín, “Periodismo y ensayo,” El Ensayo Hispánico (1984): 63–80
Sims, Norman, editor, Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990
Warren, Carl Nelson, Modern News Reporting, New York: Harper, 1951
Weber, Ronald, Hemingway’s Art of Non-Fiction, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990

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