Image courtesy Joe Haupt
Today marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s shooting at Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln’s assassination also arguably marks another anniversary: the advent of the modern news story.
The details of the first assassination of an American president are now well-known. John Wilkes Booth shot the president in the back of the head; Lincoln succumbed the following morning. Plans to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were unsuccessful, though Seward was badly injured. (The attack on Johnson never occurred.) But reports at the time were much less clear. In hindsight, we can easily see the change between the terse and generally accurate reporting that was done in the modern fashion and the muddier remnants of an older style.
The New York Times’ coverage of Lincoln’s death is an example of journalistic principles familiar to anyone who learned them in recent years. It follows inverted pyramid structure, and restricts itself to the facts. The opening (or lede) comprises hard news only: The president has been shot. The New York Herald hit the streets of the city by 2 a.m. on April 15th, and published six more editions over the following 18 hours, an unprecedented journalistic feat at the time. The Herald’s coverage similarly stuck to the facts and led with the most important information. Similar principles are on view in a contemporaneous broadside, printed after the attack but before it was known that Seward would survive.
Contrast these with the Times’ account of the Battle of Gettysburg. The article reads more like a forerunner of a live-blog or a Storify collection, consisting of a pure chronology of observations and reactions. The only parsing of news at all can be found in the headlines. Otherwise, the reader is left to untangle the various accounts without help. Who won the battle? How? At what cost? The information is there, but it is far from accessible.
Contrast the aforementioned Lincoln coverage, too, with the report of Lincoln’s assassination that ran in the Alabama’s Demopolis Herald. That account was cobbled together mainly from third- or fourth-hand information and imagination. Seward is reported dead, not wounded; in addition, an incident created out of whole cloth has Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston defeating the Union’s commander, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. While it surely encouraged Alabama readers who were in denial about the South’s just-concluded surrender, the report can hardly be considered journalism as we know it. It is more akin to Karl Rove’s famous last stand against his own network when Fox News reported that Mitt Romney had lost his presidential race.
Several factors combined to change the way news was reported between the start of the Civil War and its conclusion. Telegraphy began in the early 19th century, and gained a commercial foothold in the U.S. in the decades prior to the war. The rise of the electric telegraph freed communication from reliance on hand-delivered documents. Information could be carried long distances almost instantaneously, though data could only be entered as fast as one operator could click out the dots and dashes of Morse code and another operator could transcribe them into text. This meant you could send a short burst of text very quickly, but long and ponderous articles were time-consuming to transmit. You wanted to tell the highlights of the story in that first, short burst, which came to be known as a bulletin.
Another trigger for journalism’s evolution was the war’s staggering personal cost. The loss of 2.5 percent of the country’s population during the conflict meant that hardly any American family remained untouched. This public craved news of the war and wanted to get it as soon as possible.
So the way news stories are written was transformed, and the transformation itself gave rise to what has been, at least until very recently, the ideal of modern journalism. Its principles are the ones I was taught in the years just after Watergate: Stick to the facts. Be economical with your words. Give the reader the most important news first. Leave editorializing to the editorial page.
Journalism as it was practiced for most of the 20th century relied on reporters in the field who, with the telephone replacing the telegraph, would call their newsrooms and get a rewrite man on the line. The reporter would dictate the facts; the rewrite guy (it was nearly always a guy in those days) would bang out the copy and hand it off to the editors.
I practiced a version of this when I was in my 20s, covering breaking news for The Associated Press. I would find a pay phone, and when I had someone on the line, I would dictate a lede - no more than a sentence or two, and never more than 40 words. I would pause while the editor transcribed it and put it on the wire as a bulletin. That done, I would dictate the next paragraph or two, and pause again while this was sent as an urgent “first add.” Then a second add, or update, and maybe a third.
The result wasn’t great literature, but it got the job done. It worked in a world where some newspaper somewhere was always right on deadline. Editors could use any part of the sequence, from the initial bulletin through the final add. Once I was done with the final installment of the initial story, I could go back to the field and gather more details for a follow-up called a “writethru,” which would combine, expand and generally improve that first report. If other reporters were involved, editors would combine our contributions in the writethrus.
These days, the reporter in the field can be anyone with a smartphone and a Twitter or YouTube account. That first bulletin can come from anywhere. To a degree, the craft of journalism has taken a step backward as a result. The reader or viewer is again often called upon to distill the important gist of a story from the surrounding information, and in many cases, to sort out fact from opinion or to recognize when context is missing. But the basic principles of journalism can still serve us when we insist that they be followed. We still have a right to expect credible news outlets to filter the noise and give us facts that are presented in the fairest context possible. While journalism is changing once again, not everything that was elegant and trustworthy in the past needs to be sacrificed.
A president died in the early morning after that tragic night at Ford’s Theatre. But in many ways, that is the morning modern journalism was born.