What Is Gonzo Journalism? Explained

What is gonzo journalism? It is a form of journalism that sheds all pretensions of objective journalism that allows the reporter to become part of the story.

Traditional journalism held up an ideal of objectivism; reporters who adhered to this style of journalism would present their findings as factual and accurate. Gonzo journalists, by contrast, write first-person accounts without any attempt to keep their own views, observations, and experiences off the page.

While pure gonzo journalism is unusual, elements of a gonzo approach can now be seen in publications that range from Rolling Stone to the New York Times. Learn about the publications and writers who carved out this style and how it informs current journalistic practices.

Hunter S. Thompson and the History of Gonzo Journalism

What is gonzo journalism?

Reporter Hunter S. Thompson said that he first heard the word “gonzo” from Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso, who told him it was regional slang that meant weird or bizarre. The word is derived from either the Italian “gonzo” with means “rude,” or from “ganso” which is Spanish for foolish.

Thompson began using the word to describe his work after the publication of his 1970 sports article The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, which appeared in Scanlan’s Monthly. Thompson was facing a deadline but lacked a coherent story to send to his editors. Instead, he chose to send pages from his notebook directly to his editors in place of a traditional narrative about the race.

His story focused on his personal experiences at parties before and after the Kentucky Derby. He wrote the story as a first-person narrative, focusing heavily on the drinking, partying, and drug use that accompanied the event. While the resulting article was not widely read by the public at the time, it got attention from other journalists because of its unusual writing style.

Need help understanding this method of writing? Read our guide to the first-person point of view.

Other writers who were exploring what came to be known as “new journalism” embraced the role of outlaw journalist, participating actively in stories instead of trying to maintain objectivity. They would spend time embedded with their subjects, consuming alcohol and drugs, and otherwise participating in events instead of trying to remain detached.

Today, it is not at all unusual to find opinions inserted into hard news articles. Rolling Stone frequently publishes stories that involve their writers spending extensive periods of time with musical artists. VICE writers will often consume illegal substances or participate in other illegal activities for the purpose of helping their readers understand what the experience is like.

What Differentiates Gonzo Journalism?

What is gonzo journalism?
Gonzo journalists strove to write stories that drew in audiences and made them feel like they were participating

Gonzo Journalism is differentiated from traditional journalism through the writer’s role in the story. In traditional journalism, the writer does not personally share their experiences. They report their observations dispassionately, without inserting opinions or commentary. They studiously avoid interacting with the subjects because reporters believed that this would alter the story.

In gonzo journalism, the reporter is often the main character. They give the first-person point of view, and actively participate in events. Hunter S. Thompson was open about his belief that true objectivity is impossible; all observations are inescapably subjective.

Many other journalists share this view and attempt greater honesty by never masking their presence in a story. By never attempting objectivity, they feel that they portray events more accurately and honestly. 

Gonzo journalists strove to write stories that drew in audiences and made them feel like they were participating. These writers incorporated literary devices such as foreshadowing, metaphor, extensive dialogue, and detailed settings.

Stories are told in a sequential, scene-by-scene nature instead of using the inverted pyramid style, where the most important facts are relayed first. Dialogue, scenery, participants’ clothing and physical appearance, and other details are used to add immediacy to stories. 

Great Works in Gonzo Journalism

Writers, reporters, and editors began reading and collecting examples of gonzo style nearly immediately.

Tom Wolfe created an anthology called The New Journalism in 1973. The book included examples by American writers using literary devices in non-fiction that were previously limited to works of fiction. The book contained excerpts of work from Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and others.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas originated as a piece written for Rolling Stone Magazine. Hunter S. Thompson detailed his trip to Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. The somewhat fictionalized account, which includes drug use, hallucinations, and dark humor, was popular enough to be published as a hardcover book by Random House later that year with cover art by Ralph Steadman. It was later adapted as a movie starring Johnny Depp.

A popular modern example is the VICE story My Wedding Feast Gave All my Loved Ones Salmonella, by Katinka Oppeck. This comedic article describes a disastrous wedding and its effects on the short marriage that followed.

In 2008, journalist Clarie Hoffman spent a full night with singer Amy Winehouse and detailed the experience in Up All Night with Amy Winehouse. The award-winning profile includes many examples of literary devices used to convey mood, character, and setting in a non-fiction story. 

The Final Word About What Is Gonzo Journalism

Gonzo journalism emerged as writers strove to document the counterculture and to report with a greater sense of truthfulness and accuracy. Gonzo style stories will often openly depict drug use, firing guns with Hell’s Angels, or other activities that would previously have been kept off the page.

By truthfully reporting their own activities, journalists who participate in this sort of writing say they get deeper access to subjects and are able to be more effective storytellers. Thompson’s style, which included fiction-like dialog, scene-setting, and narrative, has been adopted by a wide range of modern reporters and writers.

Using narrative tools to report non-fiction stories allows writers to evoke emotions and impressions on readers in a way that straight reporting of facts seldom can. By using these literary tools, writers can give a fuller experience. 

If you’d like more information, read our guide on how to become a sports journalist.

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FAQ About Gonzo Journalism

What is the definition of gonzo journalism?

Gonzo journalism is a style where the writer actively participates in a story and reports their personal observations, experiences, and opinions. It abandons any attempts at detachment or objectivity.

Who coined the term gonzo journalism?

The term was coined by Boston Globe Sunday Magazine editor Bill Cardoso. Cardoso used the term to describe Hunter S. Thompson’s article about the Kentucky Derby. Thompson liked the term and adopted it to describe his style. 

Where can you read gonzo journalism?

Great examples of gonzo journalism can be found above. While pure gonzo journalism is unusual, most publications that incorporate literary journalism or extended interviews will incorporate some of the writer’s personal insights about a subject. This can be seen in publications that range from Rolling Stone Magazine to Buzzfeed to Vice Magazine.