What Is New Journalism?

What is new journalism? New journalism emerged in the 1960s and 70s. Learn more about new journalism in this article.

New journalism is a term coined to describe the non-fiction literary writing that came to prominence in the United States during the 1960s and ‘70s. This writing was typified by using narrative techniques primarily associated with fiction up until that point. However, this writing combined these facets of scene construction with research and factual reporting that was more heavily linked with traditional journalism and news reporting.

The writers who brought the new genre into vogue became well-known literary figures and often became best sellers. The likes of Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S Thompson, Truman Capote, and Gay Talese are just a few of the names that brought ‘the new journalism‘ into the mainstream spotlight in America.

Characteristics of New Journalism

What is new journalism?
Jack Mitchell, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In traditional journalism, reporters usually get their facts from witnessing an event, external sources, or statistical data. However, a characteristic of ‘new journalism’ is for these writers to immerse themselves within the matter they are writing about. For instance, Truman Capote wrote essays in The New Yorker about the 1959 murder case of Dick Hickok and Perry Smith. These pieces later became the non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. Capote completely immersed himself in the subject matter to collate the information he would need for these essays. Some say that he took 8,000 pages of notes and that the effort it took for him to write In Cold Blood led to him never completing another book.

Another example is Tom Wolfe, who immersed himself first within a group of custom car enthusiasts for The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He then wrote about the travels of psychedelic pranksters for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test after joining them for part of their journey.

A defining feature of new journalism is the structure of the writing. Instead of employing traditional journalistic structure, it develops characters, describes scenes vividly, and builds plots and dramatic tension.

New journalism usually comes from the first-person point of view. In her essay, ‘How I Became a First-Person Journalist,’ Martha Nichols discusses both the craft and some of the advantages of writing in this style, popularized by Wolfe and Capote. She wrote: “A first-person approach can be a powerful tool for providing the reporting context—how did I get this information? Why do I trust this source? why does this story matter?—that at least some readers expect of complicated features.”

In the academic paper, ’New Journalism: Roots and Influence’ by Samantha Bainer, these characteristics are distilled to give an overview of the genre. It reads: “The journalist molds New Journalism. Realistic dialogue, setting, and point of view used to present the social situation of the subject are the basic characteristics of New Journalism. Reporters have the freedom to pick and choose the elements they emphasize and the format.” When new journalism became prominent, the time and money needed to create these stories were more than traditional newspapers were willing to pay (except for The New York Tribune). However, new journalism did become popular in magazines like Esquire, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone.

The Truth and New Journalism

With key decisions in the hands of the new journalist, there is always a chance we are being presented with an unbalanced view of the facts. This is a point made by Kathleen McElroy, director of the School of Journalism and a professor at The University of Texas at Austin. Referring to the new journalism of the 1970s, she said that these writers challenged the ideas of objectivity in journalism and that it was another indicator that ”the whole idea of objectivity comes and goes and comes and goes.”

Another one of the key criticisms of new journalism is that the writers prioritize story over fact. This critique wasn’t lost on the literary giants who helped introduce this wave of new American journalism. In fact, in a 1973 anthology of literary reportage entitled The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe aimed at critics of the genre. He wrote: “These people must be piping it, winging it, making up the dialogue … Christ, maybe they’re making up whole scenes, the unscrupulous geeks”.

Wolfe faced many criticisms himself, along with Ken Kesey. He was one of the key subjects of his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, once stating: “He picked up that amount of dialogue and verisimilitude without a tape recorder, without taking notes to any extent… But, you know, he’s got his editorial filter there. And so what he’s coming up with is part of me, but it’s not all of me”.

New Journalism Highlights Society

Writer Jack Whitefield discussed new journalists‘ choices around the truth in his article, New Journalism: What Can the Media Learn? Once again, discussing Capote’s In True Blood, he points to a passage where Capote writes about Perry Smith receiving the news that he was getting the death penalty. In that passage, Capote writes about Smith crying out to the wife of County Undersheriff Wendle Meier, Josephine. In this article, Whitefiled discusses that Capote may have been flexible with the truth, but by doing so, he was also able to highlight specific facts about American society.

Referring to the scene above, he wrote: “Josephine denied this happened, but the scene allows Capote to create a complicated character from the murderer. Capote uses his portrait of Perry to tackle privilege, social injustice, and race in America.” This is a point further echoed within the Britannica Encyclopedia, which reads: “New Journalists’ (doubted) the ability of “objective” journalism to arrive at truth—especially after more traditional reporting failed to convey the complex truth of events such as McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s, and the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.”

However, non-factual accounts of events are not journalism. And many view Capote (and, to a broader extent, the new journalism movement as a whole) as a writer who mixed fact and fiction to create engaging stories. This is a viewpoint shared by Ronald Nye, the son of a Kansas lawman involved in the murders Capote wrote about. He said, ” Capote had a fact here, and a fact there, and filled in the gaps with literary licence.”

New journalism‘s approach to the truth is also touched upon within the aforementioned Britannica Encyclopaedia article. It reads: “The New Journalists expanded the definition of journalism and legitimate journalistic reporting and writing techniques. They also associated journalism with fiction when they described their work with phrases such as “non-fiction novel” and “narrative techniques of fiction.

“In so doing, they ignited a debate over how much like a novel or short story a journalistic piece could be before it began violating journalism’s commitment to truth and facts.”Renata Adler, a contemporary of the new journalism age, was one reporter who shared her complete distaste for this movement. She said that within new journalism, “the facts (were) dissolved“ and “the writer was everything.”

Other Critiques of New Journalism

Rebecca Carroll in the Columbia Journalism Review shared her view that new journalism also lacked diversity, leading to one singular voice telling the stories. She wrote: “New Journalism, despite being a kind of rebel movement, was steered almost entirely by white men—writers like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Pete Hamill. Later, Joan Didion and Gloria Steinem were allowed into the club. But whether objective or subjectively objective, capital- or lowercase-J, this journalism consistently demonstrated that it was synonymous with “what matters to white men.”

This point is further illustrated by Mary C. Wacker of Marquette University, who detailed prominent new journalist Gay Talese‘s response to a question about which women writers of his day had inspired him. Talese’s response to the question was, “um… of my generation… none”. According to Wacker, “women in the room got the clear message of the old straight guy pattern of exclusion, indifference, the idea that women are meant to be muses, not narrators of important or gritty stories.” There was some indication that Talese, renowned for his interview with Frank Sinatra in Esquire, was confused by the question.

Nonetheless, Wacker added that this was “not a surprise… that a prominent writer credited by many as a pioneer of the New Journalism movement could not identify an inspirational female writer of his era. The historical canon of New Journalism has been written by men, about men who wrote largely about other men, and worked for men in the magazine industry of the sixties and seventies.”

Wacker’s response to a lack of diversity within new journalism anthologies is to amplify those voices that are missing. She wrote: “It is my hope that by shining a light on (new journalism‘s women writers) unique contributions, we are reminded that when we overlook the voices of women we are missing half the story. “ Carroll echoed that sentiment, concluding at the end of her article that “maybe it’s time for an overall, new journalistic blueprint.”

Modern New Journalism

With all of the faults found in new journalism, there is no doubt that it has hugely influenced modern media. The natural evolution of this genre (and the type of scene construction typical within this type of non-fiction writing) has led to a rise in immersion reporting, typical of Vice, The New York Times, and many other publications.

Questions around the facts of a scenario and the non-fiction writers who engage in this style will always be there. However, one key hope for the genre is that it can iron out the ills of days gone by, with more diverse voices being allowed to tell these stories.

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What is an example of new journalism?

An example of new journalism is “Twirling at Ole Miss” by Terry Southern, which Esquire published in February 1963.

Commenters state that Southern ”documented the complacent bigotry of a society on the verge of a civil rights explosion” with ”his cool, deliberate prose poignantly foreshadow(ing) the desegregation riots that occurred only a few months later on the campus of Ole Miss.”

What is the difference between journalism to New Journalism?

The key difference between traditional and new journalism is how the story’s facts are gathered and distributed. Traditional journalism gets the story from reporting eyewitness accounts, speaking to sources, and being at a live event. Generally, they write these facts in the third person and do not use a plot-like structure. Whereas reporters who work in new journalism immerse themselves in a story, write from the first-person point of view, and use a literary form associated with scene building in fiction.

What are the benefits of New Journalism?

One of the key benefits of new journalism is that it allows the writer to detail the story behind the objective facts associated with it. When done well, new journalism allows us to better understand the people’s motivations within the story and humanizes the people in a news story.

Interested in learning more? Check out our guide on advocacy journalism!