100 books every journalist must read

52 McGs.: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Reporter Robert McG. Thomas

52 McGs, Robert McG. Thomas Jr.

As newspapers squeeze back their pages, staff-written obituaries are more and more reserved for those already famous. And they seem in many cases to be considered too old-fashioned for online (or at least too time-consuming to prepare). The first thing is bad because the obit, in the right hands, is the newspaper’s last chance to make up for neglecting interesting people in its community. The second thing is dumb because obits actually do well online. So read this collection of obituaries written for the New York Times and maybe you’ll help reverse those trends.

Other voice: Michael T. Kaufman, New York Times (writing Thomas’s obituary). “Always regarded as a stylish writer by his colleagues, he sometimes ran into career turbulence because of an acknowledged tendency to carry things like sentences, paragraphs, ideas and enthusiasms further than at least some editors preferred. Indeed, he went beyond acknowledging this trait to defending it. ‘Of course I go too far,’ he used to say. ‘But unless you go too far how are you ever going to find out how far you can go?’ ”

Anton Rosenberg, a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of the 1940s cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything, died on Feb. 14.

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The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq (Johns Hopkins Paperback)

The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley

The story of war reporting, from the Crimea through Afghanistan (thanks to post-2000 updates). This is a history, not a collection of war reporting. Knightley is such a good storyteller that I wore out my first copy of this book from rereading — and I never had any urge to cover war. In these pages you will see the absurdities and incompetence that Evelyn Waugh parodied in “Scoop,” but also the bravery and humanity that make war reporting one of journalism’s highest achievements. Some of the books on this list are there because they’re my personal favorites; some, because they cover a topic more comprehensively than anything else; still others, because everyone else seems to think they’re journalism classics. “The First Casualty” is all three.

Other voice: Clinton B. Conger, Central Intelligence Agency (honest, the CIA does book reviews. Who knew?). “In regard to both censorship and propaganda — the two subjects which bring this book into the intelligence purview — he ignores important distinctions.

“Firstly, no accredited war correspondent has any right to expect, let alone demand, that he be allowed in wartime to acquire and publish information unknown to the enemy which will aid the enemy. Where there is mismanagement, bumbling, or failure, and it is already known to the enemy or of no use to the enemy, however, censorship stands on shaky ground in pleading ‘home front morale’ and ‘comfort to the enemy.’ If Knightley is aware of this distinction he never makes it.

“Secondly, with regard to propaganda, the best role for the correspondent and that which best serves the truth is objectivity. Herbert Matthews admits that in Spain he went overboard in his bias in favor of the side he covered — the Republicans. Similar advocacy journalism reached its peak in Southeast Asia with those correspondents who were working from the South Vietnamese side but were critical of everything the South Vietnamese undertook. In these two examples, there is one sharp difference: the pro-Republican correspondents in Spain wrote at length about atrocities perpetrated by the opposing Franco side, but ignored those on their own side; in Vietnam there was quick, lurid, and widespread reporting of alleged South Vietnamese atrocities, but very little about those committed by the Communist forces.”

The My Lai massacre was revealed because it was written not by a war correspondent on the spot, but by a reporter back in the United States who was capable of being shocked by it, and because he wrote the story at a moment when … the American public was prepared to read, believe, and accept it.

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Floater

Floater, Calvin Trillin

The best, or at least funniest, novels about journalists’ lives seem to come from England. I don’t know whether that’s because English journalism is by its nature riper for parody (hard to believe) or because American journalists find it more difficult to achieve the emotional distance required to find humor rather than despair in their plight. In any case, “Floater” is a possible exception to the rule: an actually funny American novel about journalism. Trillin’s plot, such as it is, takes place at a newsweekly very much like the Time magazine the author really did work at through 1963. The central character is a “floater,” a writer who moves from section to section as needed rather than specializing in a particular topic.

Other voice: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times. “Trillin’s good-natured satire hits a number of targets — among them, religion, politics, environmentalists, the book-publishing industry, the dining habits of book editors, office politics, office sex and California. Not least among these targets, naturally enough, are newsmagazines that take it for granted that their internal goings on are ‘more important than the events the magazine wrote about.’ ”

He began putting ‘alleged’ in front of any religious event whose historical authenticity was at all in question—writing about the ‘alleged discovery of Moses in the bullrushes’ or ‘the alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ The senior editor for the section, Ed Winstead, simply crossed out ‘alleged’ wherever he found it, without comment.

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Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction

Follow the Story, James B. Stewart

Just about everyone else I consulted who recommended a book about writing the narrative or long-form feature recommended Jon Franklin’s book (also on my list). But I consider “Follow the Story” clearer, better written and more useful. And this is my list. Stewart, another Wall Street Journal alum, has written several classic books about business — “Den of Thieves,” “DisneyWar” — and other topics. As an editor, I found that the structuring of longer articles was the most common stumbling block for reporters. “Follow the Story” was my go-to resource to help them through the difficulties.

Other voice: Luke Mullin, The Washingtonian. “It’s less about the mechanics of a sentence, more about overall structuring, emphasis on building the reader’s curiosity and driving them through the narrative. The book is great—I should probably read it again.”

I often found myself locked in arguments with editors for whom the nut graf had become more important than the story. They always wanted to move the ‘good’ material, the ‘news,’ as they often called it, from deep in the story into the nut grafs, without regard to the story’s overall structure or even chronological order.

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Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream

Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger

The reason that one season of football by one high school team in Texas could lead to a book, a movie and a TV show — all thrilling and popular — is that there’s a great story inside. In point of fact, there are great stories inside lots of high school football teams, and high school plays, and all sorts of other everyday things. The only reason those great stories aren’t told is that Buzz Bissinger didn’t get to them. Time has shown that Bissinger the man is not one to emulate, but the author of this book is an excellent role model.

Other voice: Sports Illustrated (naming it the No. 4 sports book of all time). “As Permian High grows into a dynasty, the locals’ sense of proportion blows away like a tumbleweed. A brilliant look at how Friday-night lights can lead a town into darkness.”

Jerrod had done everything it took to become a starter for the Permian football team. … He worked tirelessly in the weight room, his red cheeks bulging and his body vibrating. … In return there was a fantastic, visceral payoff — a single season of his life in which he became a prince, ogled at, treasured, bathed in the unimaginable glory of Friday night.

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The Functional Art: An introduction to information graphics and visualization (Voices That Matter)

The Functional Art, Alberto Cairo

While Edward R. Tufte (see his “Visual Display of Quantitative Information” below) is my gold standard for informational graphics, some of my colleagues have been most influenced by Alberto Cairo. He has the advantage of coming at the subject as a journalist himself. He created the infographics department at El Mundo in Spain and has consulted with many other publications as well as having extensive classroom experience. Like Tufte, he argues ardently for graphics that inform rather than merely entertain. With the increasing popularity of data-driven journalism, individual journalists must learn how to communicate what the data show visually as well as verbally. In addition to laying out his principles, Cairo profiles many practitioners and explains their work.

Other voice: Laura Noren, The Society Pages. “The book does a great job of explaining the decision making behind graphic design. The sketches, process drawings, and recounts of the conversations that went on in editorial meetings gave important depth of context.”

Graphics, charts, and maps aren’t just tools to be seen, but to be read and scrutinized. The first goal of an infographic is not to be beautiful just for the sake of eye appeal, but, above all, to be understandable first, and beautiful after that; or to be beautiful thanks to its exquisite functionality.

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Gideon's Trumpet: How One Man, a Poor Prisoner, Took His Case to the Supreme Court-and Changed the Law of the United States

Gideon’s Trumpet, Anthony Lewis

There are few examples of book-length journalism here; few journalists can expect to have so large a canvas. Anthony Lewis was no ordinary talent. He essentially invented Supreme Court reporting with his ability to slice to the heart of a decision and explain it — explain it far better than the justices themselves. This is the story of Clarence Gideon and Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the right to counsel for the indigent was established. A later book, “Make No Law,” on a 1964 ruling that changed libel law forever, is more relevant to journalists. “Gideon’s Trumpet” is here instead because he pumped it out in the four months of a New York newspaper strike, and because it reminds all of us that even Supreme Court rulings are, in the end, about real people.

Other voice: Emily Bazelon, Slate. “For me, Lewis’ book, along with Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, were reasons to become a legal journalist: examples of storytelling and lucid explanation I couldn’t imagine matching but could always aspire to.”

Gideon was a fifty-one-year-old white man who had been in and out of prisons much of his life. He had served time for four previous felonies, and he bore the physical marks of a destitute life: a wrinkled, prematurely aged face, a voice and hands that trembled, a frail body, white hair. … Those who had known him, even the men who had arrested him and those who were now his jailers, considered Gideon a perfectly harmless human being, rather likeable, but one tossed aside by life. … And yet a flame still burned in Clarence Earl Gideon. He had not given up caring about life or freedom; he had not lost his sense of injustice. Right now he had a passionate — some thought almost irrational — feeling of having been wronged by the State of Florida, and he had the determination to try to do something about it.

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The Good Guys, the Bad Guys and the First Amendment: Free Speech Vs. Fairness in Broadcasting

The Good Guys, the Bad Guys and the First Amendment, Fred Friendly

There was a time in America when broadcasters were obligated by government edict to provide fair coverage of controversial issues. There was a thing called the Fairness Doctrine, which would have hobbled the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, not to mention the unholy hordes of their imitators and outdoers. The doctrine was killed by the Reagan administration in 1987. Friendly’s book, written more than a decade earlier, covers the events that led to the doctrine’s imposition in 1949 and the battles over it that followed. It’s sad, today, to remember that once there was a time when the airwaves were relatively civil. The Internet would have put paid to that eventually, but a few more years of sanity would have been nice.

Other voice: Ben C. Fisher, Hofstra Law Review. “The book makes delightful reading and will appeal to the serious student of communications policy as well as to members of the general public concerned with first amendment matters.”

[Billy James] Hargis attacked Fred Cook as ‘a professional mudslinger,’ and accused him of dishonesty, of falsifying stories and of defending Alger Hiss. … The Hargis attack lasted less than two minutes. The air time for the entire fifteen minutes cost $7.50 — plus more than a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees and costs.

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Good Times, Bad Times: The Explosive Inside Story of Rupert Murdoch

Good Times, Bad Times, Harold Evans

Harold Evans, crusading editor of the Times of London, was tapped to edit the Sunday Times when Rupert Murdoch bought the papers. Murdoch made solid promises that the paper would have editorial freedom. Does it shock you to learn that he reneged? No? But then, you have the benefit of knowing Murdoch would go on to stomp all over other media properties and to create the rampaging rage demon that is the Fox News Channel. Evans (who has also written an autobiography, “My Paper Chase,” that covers a much broader era) writes elegantly about the journalism that his reporters pursued and the back-room business that chased him away.

Other voice: Harold Evans himself, in the foreword to the latest edition. “The experiences I describe in Good Times, Bad Times have turned out to be eerily emblematic. The dark and vengeful undertow I sensed and then experienced in the last weeks of my relationship with Murdoch correctly reflected something morally out of joint with the way he ran his company. In the decades that followed my year at the Times, the inside rot was matched only by the menace that came to represent to the civil discourse and the whole political establishment. Prime ministers, Tory and Labour alike, were so scared of blackmail by headline they gave him whatever he asked.”

I did not have a settled view of the designated tenth proprietor of The Times. … I heard every jolly swagman’s yarn which placed him somewhere between Ned Kelly and Citizen Kane. … But the image I formed wobbled.

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Googled: The End of the World As We Know It

Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, Ken Auletta

Technically, Google is not a media company. So why is it on this list? Because whatever Google is, it’s changed the way media operate, and does a little more of that each time it introduces a new online product or merely tweaks its search algorithm. Of all the Google-explaining books around, Auletta’s is most relevant because a major focus is Google’s impact on the news media.

Other voice: John Lanchester, The Guardian. “Google has grown so big and so powerful that the moment for simple gee-whizzery is past. Ken Auletta, one of America’s best business journalists, has turned his attention on the firm, with particular reference to the challenges it faces. Many of these bear on the tension between the company’s good intentions and the actual consequences of what it does.”

When a question is typed into the Google search box, the task is to divine the searcher’s intention: when you wrote ‘Jobs’ in the query box, did you mean employment or Steve Jobs? The query may produced thousands of links, but the promise of Google … is that the ones that appear near the top of the search results will be more relevant to you. … By mapping how many people click on a link, or found it interesting enough to link to, Google determines whether the link is ‘relevant’ and assigns it a value. This quantified value is known as PageRank, after Larry Page.

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