100 books every journalist must read

The Universal Journalist: Fourth Edition

The Universal Journalist, David Randall

In this list, “Interpretative Reporting” shows you what American journalism education was like for most of the last century; “Inside Reporting” presents a popular current text. “The Universal Journalist” offers the British perspective. It will be instructive to see which reporting guidelines sound familiar to American ears and which jar. The book takes a more jaded approach to the realities of journalism than the typical U.S. textbook. To me, that makes it all the more appealing.

Other voice: Camilla Turner, Press Gazette (naming it the sixth most-popular among the trade journal’s Twitter followers). “Randall challenges old attitudes, procedures and techniques, and emphasises that good journalism demands a range of skills in order to successfully operate in an industry where ownership, technology and information are constantly changing.”

All newspapers should appear with a disclaimer: ‘This paper, and the hundreds of thousands of words it contains, has been produced in about 15 hours by a group of fallible human beings, working out of cramped offices while trying to find out about what happened in the world from people who are sometimes reluctant to tell us and, at other times, positively obstructive. Its content has been determined by a series of subjective judgements made by reporters and executives, tempered by what they know to be the editor’s, owner’s and readers’ prejudices. Some stories appear here without essential context as this would make them less dramatic or coherent, and some of the language employed has been deliberately chosen for its emotional impact, rather than accuracy. Some features are printed solely to attract certain advertisers.

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Video Journalism for the Web: A Practical Introduction to Documentary Storytelling

Video Journalism for the Web, Kurt Lancaster

While video in general is growing online, video production by news sites — particularly by formerly print-oriented newsrooms — has had the same problem for many years now: No one watches. Well, not no one, and not every every video. At my former paper, any video that involved the Cleveland Browns did well; I was occasionally tempted to just put up 20-minute videos of a stationary football helmet to test how long our audience would last before clicking away. My bet was at least 10 minutes. But away from the Browns, we scraped for eyeballs. Other papers went through the same string of failures — trying to mimic TV news, running 8-minute interviews of our own journalists, putting days of production into 3-minute reports on obscure stories. One big lesson was that people did not come to our site for the kind of video they got from TV news; another was that the techniques of TV news did not all work for video that was native to online. Kurt Lancaster’s book acknowledges that, and comes recommended by a colleague who know a lot more about online video than I do. (Also recommended, but available only via iTunes: “MediaStorm Field Guide to Powerful Multimedia Storytelling.”)

Right now, newspapers are in a position to experiment with a variety of news styles online. Broadcast news stations are fixed in their style by tradition and decades of making it work.

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Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True?

Virtual Unreality, Charles Seife

Human gullibility is an eternal theme, explored elsewhere on this list in “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” Charles Seife’s book brings the topic up to date by focusing on the ways in which the internet has made the spread of misinformation faster and its droppings more persistent than ever. This is an important lesson for journalists, especially because of two trends: the demand for speed in publishing, which pushes reporters to snap up online answers rather than waiting for callbacks; and the reliance on aggregation, which can repeat a falsehood so often that it overwhelms the truth. It’s become a commonplace for teachers — not just of journalism, but all fields — to warn students not to rely on Wikipedia as a source. “Virtual Unreality” not only reinforces that message but shows how the entire internet is infested. The point is not that if you stay away from the net, you’re safe. Instead, it’s that we need to tune our bullshit detectors to pick up a new set of tricks.

Other voice: Dwight Garner, New York Times. “One of Mr. Seife’s bedrock themes is the Internet’s dismissal, for good and ill, of the concept of authority. On Wikipedia, your Uncle Iggy can edit the page on black holes as easily as Stephen Hawking can. Serious reporting, another form of authority, is withering because it’s so easy to cut and paste facts from other writers, or simply to provide commentary, and then game search engine results so that readers find your material first.”

A person’s belief in any sort of fringe idea can gain strength–and become unshakable–thanks to social bonds with other true believers. Any idea, no matter how bizarre, can seem mainstream if you’re able to find a handful of others who will believe along with you.

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The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward R. Tufte

Very bad things happened to informational graphics at the end of the last century. Newspapers used more and more color ink, and that often meant that the “informational” part of graphics was buried under candy canes and beach balls. Meanwhile, personal publishing software seduced many folks into believing that they could produce charts with a few clicks and fewer thoughts. Against this tide of cruft came Edward R. Tufte. Read this book, absorb its lessons, and you will never be the same again. (For one thing, you’ll do a lot more wincing as you recognize the mistakes still being made.)

Other voice: Joshua Yaffa, Washington Monthly. “Tufte is a philosopher king who reigns over his field largely because he invented it. For years, graphic designers were regarded as decorators, whose primary job was to dress up facts with pretty pictures. Tufte introduced a reverence for math and science to the discipline and, in turn, codified the rules that would create a new one, which has come to be called, alternatively, information design or analytical design. His is often the authoritative word on what makes a good chart or graph, and over the years his influence has changed the way places like the Wall Street Journal and NASA display data.”

Graphical excellence is the well-designed presentation of interesting data — a matter of substance, of statistics, and of design. Graphical excellence consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency.

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Visual Impact in Print, Angus McDougall & Gerald Hurley

“Visual Impact” has been called (over and over again) the “definitive pictured-editing book.” McDougall was one of the giants of the University of Missouri’s eminent photojournalism program. The principles he lays out here remain true for print today; we can only wish that he’d had a chance to explore the best ways to display photography online, where slideshows reduce the ability to juxtapose images and the array of screen sizes and browsers play hob with designers’ intent. I must admit, however, that I was surprised when I reread the book in preparation for this list. In a section on retouching, the authors cite with apparent approval a photo manipulation that completely blacked out a bright light behind a subject’s head and turned the man’s bright white, brand-new cap into a scuffed and smudged one, to remove “serious distractions.” Such blatant altering of an image wasn’t unusual, as anyone who’s had a chance to dig through old newspaper photo libraries knows — the black-and-white prints often have white or black paint swashed on. But the book’s generous attitude shocked me. In the same section, the authors warn photographers that it’s improper to ask a subject to move so they can get a distracting line out of the background of a shot — instead, they say, rely on the retoucher to paint it out. Would-be journalists should note that the industry’s standards regarding such things have tightened considerably even as digital cameras and photo-editing software have made manipulation much easier.

Other voice: University of Missouri obituary of McDougall. “He pressed his photo students to become adept in all aspects of journalism, especially visual reporting, writing, design and management so they would have the credibility to cause change in newsroom thinking. Many of his students moved into leadership roles in the nation’s metropolitan newspapers. McDougall’s emphasis on meaningful photography in lockstep with supportive words and presented with impact is his legacy.”

The significant portrait reflects more than facial architecture. It reveals inner strength and character. … But experience and environment also mold the man. And, to a degree, these important influences can be visually recorded. With or without symbols or props, a valid background can quickly identify the subject’s work or his interests. … The environmental portrait has another plus: in familiar surroundings, the subject is more likely to be himself.

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Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media

Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, Pamela Newkirk

“Within the Veil” looks at newsrooms from the perspective of African-American journalists, but what it has to say about their successes and their continuing struggles has lessons for all minorities and women who are the “other” in traditional newsrooms. And, of course, it has lessons for those whose skin color or gender or class or college make them the “normal” newsroom leaders.

Other voice: Michael Corbin, Baltimore City Paper. “In today’s discussion of race, Newkirk’s book makes a heroic effort to clearly explain how our continuing racial dilemma plays itself out in and is influenced by the news media. … In striving for a balance between advocate and critic, between booster and judge, Newkirk slips now and again, but she has produced an ambitious book that enlightens even when it falls short…. As a journalist, she tells a good tale with detailed facts and prescient quotes; as an academic, she constructs architecture of context. She succeeds more readily when functioning as a journalist. Virtually free of academic dryness, the book is alive with her passion and commitment.”

Any discussion of race is difficult, in part because of our clashing racial perceptions, and largely as a result of restrictions that have been placed on the debate. This book is an attempt to set up new parameters for constructive and meaningful dialogue on race in the news media.

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Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

Working, Studs Terkel

Terkel started out as an actor, doing an early TV show called “Stud’s Place” that was a prime example of the laid-back Chicago School. He went on to a long career as an interviewer on Chicago radio. His interviewing skills were turned to oral history in many books — if you wanted to read “Division Street: America,” “Hard Times,” “The Good War” or one of his others, I won’t quibble. I chose “Working” for this list because it is not only a prime example of his skill but also a reminder of the importance of moving journalism beyond talking to big shots or focusing on traditional “big news.” Here, he interviews men and women — rich and poor — about their jobs. The mere act of putting CEO and assembly-line worker in the same collection is a political statement about equality.

Other voice: Marshall Berman, New York Times. “It is not clear how Terkel gets so close to these people. Indeed, he makes it obscurer than it need be by editing his own presence out of most of the interviews he has transcribed, so that his people’s stories generally read as monologues instead of the human encounters they quite clearly are. Still, it is clear that he is giving off something that encourages people to associate freely, to mention ‘second thoughts’ that they would normally keep under wraps, to expose their often precarious and frightening inner lives, to take emotional risks.”

Most of the young girls are on the bonus system — piecework. … That’s a dull, steady pace all day long. Entirely too much. The other day we had a big rouse-up. Who’s getting the best orders, who’s not? … I’m just there to do a day’s work.

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The World of Jimmy Breslin

The World of Jimmy Breslin, Jimmy Breslin

Of the many collections of Breslin’s work as a New York newspaper columnist, I prefer this one from the early years. I rail elsewhere in this list against the creeping orthodoxy of journalism ethics. A distrust of the reader’s intelligence and an amnesia regarding the craft’s history have made a fetish of fact over truth. In news reports, I hold the banner of fact high. Columns, however, had always been a harbor for the truth that’s truer than the facts. Breslin wades through that world.

Other voice: John Avlon, The Daily Beast. “This one’s a dispatch from a different era when newspaper columnists knocked on doors, drank during the day, and wrote like unsentimental angels. … The best of Breslin is better than anyone else—still the heavyweight champion after all these years.”

We had a policy of paying nobody and the bill collectors got so bad that one morning we woke up with the finance-company guy sitting at the kitchen table. It was unnerving, but we grabbed the bum and threw him into the shower and Max held him in while I turned on the cold water. It fixed the finance-company guy, but it was a tough way to start off the day.

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Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction (Reference)

Writing for Story, Jon Franklin

I yield to a host of my friends and colleagues (including the reviewer cited below, the sparkling Miriam Hill) who called this the best of the best for long-form nonfiction. Though it’s a writing manual, it also includes examples of his work, most notably “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster.” The Baltimore Sun story about brain surgery won the first-ever Pulitzer for feature writing.

Other voice: Miriam Hill, Poynter. ” ‘This guy is a writing genius!’ I emit out loud as I devour Jon Franklin’s bible on narrative writing, ‘Writing for Story.’ I admire this accomplished author who won the Pulitzer Prize… twice! Beyond his riveting stories, Jon Franklin is generous about sharing his knowledge with other writers. In ‘Writing for Story,’ he dissects his masterpieces line-by-line in ‘The Annotated Monster’ and ‘The Annotated Ballad.’ He shares the writing formula he created to guide the writer toward a successful narrative story: 1. Complication, 2. Development, 3. Resolution.”

Obviously, if you can’t think your story through you can’t write it convincingly. That’s why I so smugly assert that Hemingway, Steinbeck and Shakespeare used outlines. I’ve read their stuff, and it has integrity — that quality of all hanging together, and being an interrelated, organic whole.

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The Years with Ross (Perennial Classics)

The Years with Ross, James Thurber

The New Yorker was not the most popular magazine — not with behemoths like the Time/Life stable around — nor the one that represented the most blatant statement about one’s tastes — there are political magazines, on the one end, and Al Goldstein’s Screw, on the other, that made bolder declarations when splayed on one’s coffee table. But it was the most popular magazine that made a statement about taste. And that was due to Harold Ross, the sublimely talented roster he assembled, and the reputation he left behind. The bonus of reading The New Yorker’s history in this book is that you also get a taste of the style of one of Ross’s stable, James Thurber. He’s best known as the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain, but he also is a dab hand with factual material.

Other voice: Jill Abramson, on NPR. “It is Thurber’s book The Years with Ross that every journalist should have. It chronicles the restless genius and sometimes frustrating ways of legendary New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who brought together an extraordinary cavalcade of talent (including Thurber) but somehow managed to keep his cast of divas productive. For inspiration, I reread the book right before I became executive editor of The New York Times, finding lessons in Ross’ relentless perfectionism and famously exhaustive margin notes.”

Ik Shuman … was placed, for a time on Ross’s highest pedestal. Ik had helped him work out ‘a philosophy on payment to contributors.’ Ik told me in a letter, ‘The more we spent on the magazine, the longer we held contributors, the greater grew the circulation and the higher grew the advertising rate. We raised every contributor, feeling out our way, and I once figured that for every dollar we spent then, we got back three dollars in revenue.’ This, to Ross, was one of the miracles of money, one of the wonder of free enterprise. I used to hear him bawling over the phone in his office, ‘I’ll bring Shuman I want you to meet him. He’s finally making some sense out of this place.’

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