100 books every journalist must read

The Great Picture Hunt 2: The Art and Ethics of Feature Picture Hunting

The Great Picture Hunt 2, Dave LaBelle

Dave LaBelle is a caring, thoughtful person, who also happens to be an excellent photographer and teacher. (He directs the photojournalism program at Kent State, where I am an adjunct.) “The Great Picture Hunt 2” is the most recent version of his guide to recognizing feature photo possibilities and making the most of them. The concepts he preaches will be understandable even to those with no photojournalism experience, but his advice will be welcome even to those who were born with their fingers on shutter buttons.

 

Other voice: Bryan Farley, More Than Kids blog. “The book is impressive, and if you don’t have a chance to hear Dave speak, read the book; it is a must read for beginning photo journalists.”

The great photojournalists are not in love with the mechanics of photography — they are in love with people and with life. Photography is the brush they use to paint the world as they see it.

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How to Lie with Statistics

How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff

Sixty years old and going strong, this is a breezy (cute cartoons!) introduction to the misuse of research and data. Darrell Huff provides affable, nonthreatening advice on the dangers of inadequate or biased sampling, misleading charting and faulty logic. It is a stereotype that I’ve found to be mostly true that journalists are bad at numbers. “How to Lie” provides some tools to deal with this weakness.

Other voice: Profs. John L. Cotton, Randall J. Scalise & Stephen Sekula, SMU. “The book is just as useful now as it was in 1954. Everyone ought to read it.”

For a sample of unenterprising journalism take this item from a list of ‘new industrial developments’ in the news magazine Fortnight: ‘a new cold temper bath, which triples the hardness of steel, from Westinghouse.’ Now that sounds like quite a development … until you try to put your finger on what it means. … Does the new bath make just any kind of steel three times as hard as it was before treatment? Or does it produce a steel three times as hard as any previous steel? Or what does it do? It appears that the reporter has passed along some words without inquiring what they mean, and you are expected to read them just as uncritically for the happy illusion they give you of having learned something.

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In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

This is neither a true work of nonfiction (Truman Capote’s hazy relationship with the facts has been documented) nor the first bloom of literary journalism (Daniel Defoe has been called both the first journalist and the first novelist, and there are plenty of other examples). But “In Cold Blood” influenced generations of journalists. Plus, it’s a great read. Capote reports on the brutal murders of a Kansas family, from the perspective of both the killers and the police who tracked them down. He applied the mechanics of novels to the story. The risks and rewards of that approach are on display here. The story is compelling, the key characters precisely sketched. Unlike a traditional news story, the reader is placed in the moment. But the temptation is always there to clean up reality — to pick a hero and make him or her even more heroic, to adjust the timeline to make the narrative easier to follow or make a revelation more dramatic. Capote made some of those choices. Even so — and criticism of his facts was there from the get-go — many journalists looked to “In Cold Blood” as their model for a more engaging, more emotional way of reporting the news.

Other voice: Stanley Kaufmann, New Republic. “Capote’s structural method can be called cinematic: he uses intercutting of different story strands, intense close-ups, flashbacks, traveling shots, background detail, all as if he were fleshing out a scenario. There is nothing intrinsically defective in the method (although it seems the most obvious choice); but its mechanisms creak here because the hand of the maker is always felt, pushing and pulling and arranging.”

The desk was littered with what Dewey hoped would some day constitute courtroom exhibits: the adhesive tape and the yards of cord removed from the victims and now sealed in plastic sacks (as clues, neither item seemed very promising, for both were common-brand products, obtainable anywhere in the United States), and photographs taken at the scene of the crime by a police photographer — twenty blown-up glossy-print pictures of Mr. Clutter’s shattered skull, his son’s demolished face, Nancy’s bound hands, her mother’s death-dulled, still-staring eyes, and so on.

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Inside Reporting

Inside Reporting, Tim Harrower

A lot of journalism students will have encountered this textbook already. Harrower — also known for his book on newspaper design, included on this list — has a knack for explaining and engaging. Like his design book, this is a visually beautiful presentation. I’ve read online criticism that says it’s too “cartoonish” or “distracting.” It certainly doesn’t look like traditional reporting textbooks. You can decide for yourself if that’s a bad thing. The image below is an excerpt from a page on multimedia (click the image to go to the full PDF). All the basic reporting concepts are turned into tightly written bits and pieces. Textbook note: In addition to the regular link for a new copy of the textbook, I’ve included a link for used (and considerably less expensive) copies.

Harrower Audio

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Interpretative Reporting, Curtis D. MacDougall

For around half a century, “Interpretative Reporting” was the definitive book on how to do journalism. It hasn’t been updated since MacDougall’s death in 1987, so it’s missed a lot of developments. However, it is still stuffed with practical advice on writing and reporting, and MacDougall himself argued in the 1982 edition that technology didn’t change the basics: “No matter what Jules Verne or Buck Rogers types of inventions can be put into operation, the news will have to be gathered by human beings.” OK, so he didn’t see quite far enough into the future. Reading this book will help you understand why the journalism of the 1930s through the 1980s read and sounded the way it did. And discover that some of those horrible innovations of the Internet, such as lifting and condensing stories without attribution, are not so new.

Other voice: James G. Stovall, “Curtis D. MacDougall, Reactionary Liberal” in “Makers of the Media Mind.” “Many adjectives could be used to describe Curtis MacDougall: acerbic, liberal, prolific, narrow-minded, insightful, kind-hearted, irritating. … The most accurate long-term adjective for MacDougall, however, might be ‘influential.’ His basic reporting text … has been used at one time or another by almost every journalism education program in the country.”

There persists … a considerable amount of rewriting in the old sense; ‘borrowed,’ with little or no attempt to obtain additional facts, from other printed sources. … Usually, the rewrite person attempts to compose an item that will read as though it had been written up on original information.

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Interviewing for Journalists (Media Skills)

Interviewing for Journalists, Sally Adams & Wynford Hicks

While data-driven journalism grows more popular, the interview remains the key tool in a reporter’s arsenal. Journalism classes will typically devote some time to it, but they cannot prepare students for every possibility. Neither can a book, of course, but Sally Adams and Wynford Hicks cover a lot of ground. They offer many sample interviews with alternative paths and discuss potential obstacles as well as ways to overcome them. This is a British book. I took exception to their suggestion that quotes may be rephrased with the permission of the interviewee; that’s not how we play the game in this country (at least I hope not). Overall, though, the advice serves America as well as England. (The same Media Skills series has a separate book on “Interviewing for Radio,” which I haven’t looked at.)

Other voice: Desley Bartlett, Asia Pacific Media Educator. “For journalism students and trainees Adams and Hicks cover fundamental issues, such as numbering the pre-determined interview questions and matching up the answer to avoid confusion, plus an explanation of some body language signals. ‘Rubbing the back of the neck is read as a sign of frustration – dealing with something or someone that’s a “pain in the neck”.’ And even some sage words about how to interpret handshakes.”

Don’t argue, judge or show embarrassment. Ask questions in a logical order. If your questions jump about it will confuse your interviewee and may interrupt the flow of the interview. But then again, don’t stick to your list of questions so rigidly that you miss an unexpected followup questions, new revelation or angle.

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In Times of War and Peace

In Times of War and Peace, David Turnley & Peter Turnley

I had the great joy to work with David Turnley while at the Detroit Free Press. He and his brother are among the greatest photojournalists of all time, as well as being very nice people. Their photos are often taken in the rushed, chaotic midst of breaking news, yet they display an instinctive sense of framing and an eye for what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment.” I was working the picture desk one day when David sent us a photo from apartheid South Africa of police with whips breaking up a protest. In the moment, I only recognized it as an excellent photo, one that commanded attention. Looking at it now, I realize how many things went into making it so: We see the police as individuals, their faces visible; the protesters are an anonymous mass, crowded together and hunched over so we can’t see into their eyes. The police are heading into the frame, aggressive; the crowd is scrambling out of the frame. A policeman’s whip is moving so fast that it’s just a blur. The composition reinforces the drama of the moment — and yet this was composed by a photographer in the middle of the scrum, with protesters streaming past and police attacking. There’s no chance in a situation like that to calmly size up the angles. The photographer has to know how to put himself in the right kinds of places and to recognize the instant when it happens — or when it’s just about to happen.

Other voice: Sarah Boxer, New York Times review of the exhibition based on the book. “Peter’s pictures are often shocking and hard to look at. He catches more bloody confrontations, more mangled bodies, more spectacles, focusing frequently either on one person or on a crowd. David, by contrast, often homes in on what lies between these extremes, the subtle and often surprisingly ordinary interactions between people in trouble. Peter’s view seems more dire and detached: how else to explain his luridly colored photo of a Haitian man stoned to death, a bright red gash on his brown head, a cinder block on his chest, a shocking white cigarette stuck mockingly in his mouth? David’s view looks a bit hopeful and human, inviting a longer look and pointing to a possible future, if not a happy one.”

©David Turnley/Corbis

©David Turnley/Corbis

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Jazz Journalism, Simon Michael Bessie

A book called “The New York Graphic: The World’s Zaniest Newspaper” by Lester Cohen delves at length into the short life of a real daily paper run by an early exercise fanatic called Bernarr Macfadden, who also begat True Story magazine. Alas, the book doesn’t live up to the zaniness of its subject. That’s why I switched my recommendation to “Jazz Journalism,” which is a broader look at tabloid journalism in America. Its chapter on the Graphic is short but covers all the essentials, including the “composograph” — think Photoshopped photos before Photoshop — which the paper used to illustrate crime stories in the absence of lurid-enough real pictures.

The Graphic became more audacious but its formula never changed. As frequently as possible the news was written by the participants, or at least under their names. Even movie reviews were done by readers.

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The John McPhee Reader

The John McPhee Reader, John McPhee

While Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson drew attention for a “new journalism” in which the writer’s voice mattered as much as the subject’s, McPhee built a library of articles and books using similar storytelling skills but a quieter voice. This collection is McPhee at the height of his powers. An interesting way to spend a few days would be to start by reading Gay Talese’s “Fame and Obscurity,” move on to this book, and finish with Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine.” As you do, consider the role each writer assumes in the stories. Are they visible at all? How much or how little are you aware of their hand in selecting scenes, in interviewing rather than only narrating?

Other voice: George Core, Virginia Quarterly Review. “His commitment to character is fictive in its comprehensiveness and intensity, and his scenes are more powerful than most contemporary fiction, He has an ear for conversation that is Boswellian, and his natural sense of the dramatic is enhanced by his still stronger sense of narrative pace and proportion.”

Most basketball players appropriate fragments of other players’ styles, and thus develop their own. This is what [Bill] Bradley has done, but one of the the things that set him apart from nearly everyone else is that the process has been conscious rather than osmotic.

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The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Tom Wolfe

You have to know Tom Wolfe to understand the tension in American newsrooms between the investigators and the storytellers. For several decades, both sides were convinced that they and they alone had the secret sauce that could save newspapers. They pushed their respective talents to greater and greater heights — zoom! — even as circulation plumbed new depths (eeeeeyaaaaa-BOOOOOOOOM!). Note: The preceding sentences are exagerration and based on personal observation unleavened by data. Which brings us back to Tom Wolfe. Catch him here early on, before pretension became as much a part of his wardrobe as his all-white suits. Groove on his descriptions and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Other view: Dwight MacDonald, The New York Review of Boooks. “He got Esquire to send him out to California where the Brancusis of hot-rod custom, or kustom, car design are concentrated. He returned full of inchoate excitements that he found himself unable to express freely in the usual condescending ‘totem’ story because he was inhibited by ‘the big amoeba god of Anglo-European sophistication that gets you in the East.’ At the ultra-last deadline, [his editor] asked him just to type out his notes and send them over for somebody else to write up. What happened was a stylistic break-through: ‘I just started recording it all [at 8 PM] and inside of a couple of hours, typing along like a madman, I could tell that something was beginning to happen.’ By 6:15 next morning he had a forty-nine page memo, typed straight along no revisions at five pages an hour, which he delivered to [Byron] Dobell, who struck out the initial ‘Dear Byron’ and ran it as was.”

Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-Cheek raspberry, Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill Orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields.

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