A newspaper published a story about the Surgeon General’s office that contained information about the size and location of the Army of the Potomac. A furious Hooker complained to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that the chief of the Secret Service “would have willingly paid $1,000 for such information” about Confederate forces.
Ford Risely, The New York Times, Birth of the Byline.
Risley, a professor of communications and head of Penn State’s journalism department takes us through Civil War era journalism and how the byline came to be.
Indeed, during the first two years of the war, an increasingly aggressive and competitive press had published stories that infuriated military leaders on both sides. The Civil War was the first war widely covered by American newspapers. And in their zeal to report the greatest event of their lives, newsmen produced a decidedly mixed bag of stories.
On one hand, many reporters honestly and faithfully chronicled the fighting. Tireless correspondents went to extraordinary lengths to report stories, often on tight deadlines. However, other newsmen mistakenly, and in some cases recklessly, reported the conflict. Correspondents less concerned with the facts and more interested in rushing stories into print wrote damaging stories that hurt their side.
Following the journalistic practice of the day, correspondents wrote anonymously during the war, most using a pen name or no name at all. Newsmen liked the custom, believing the secrecy allowed them do their work better. As one reporter wrote, “The anonymous greatly favors freedom and boldness in newspaper correspondence … . Besides the responsibility it fastens on a correspondent, the signature inevitably detracts from the powerful impersonality of a journal.”
However, commanders did not like the practice because newsmen often could not be held accountable for what they wrote. McClellan had complained to Stanton of reporters repeatedly “giving important information” about the Army in their stories. “As it is impossible for me to ascertain with certainty who these anonymous writers are,” he wrote, “I beg to suggest that another order be published holding the editors responsible for its infraction.”
After the news leak, General Order No. 48 was issued, which required that all reporters with the Army of the Potomac—of which Hooker (mentioned above) was commander—“publish their communications over their own signatures.”
And the byline was born.
Related: A few more thoughts on journalism history from our archives.
Yet the biggest pitfall of journalism is not penury but vanity. Your name is in print; it is even, perhaps, in print in the most august possible venue. But you are still serving someone else’s idea of their readership—and their idea of you. You are still just doing journalism—or, worse, book reviewing. “What lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck,” as the 19th century put it.
Keith Gessen, in this 2006 n+1 piece on being a writer and making money.
I decided to spend the weekend doing some slower reading. Spent time with old magazine favorites. And the first thing I came across was Gessen’s diatribe against journalism. It’s not the central point of his piece, but certainly the loudest. And I think, 7 years after his writing, it is a wonderful thing that we have so much opportunity to not serve someone else’s idea of readership and instead, make wonderful things with and (directly) for our readers.—Jihii
Are writers happy they became writers? Until someone conducts a survey —- and I hope they will — it remains an open question. At the moment, it is at the heart of a quarrel between Elizabeth Gilbert and (indirectly) Philip Roth. It all started a few months ago, on the Paris Review Daily, when one Julian Tepper published a piece describing an encounter with Roth at an Upper West Side deli. Waiting on his hero’s table, Tepper tremulously presented Roth with “Balls,” his first novel. Roth warmly congratulated him, and then offered: “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.” Soon after this exchange, Roth announced that he’d quit writing. Apparently, he’s never been happier…
…But what did he really mean by it? My guess is that he was joking. Which isn’t to say that he wasn’t serious. It was a serious joke. Roth’s cranky advice for the young writer is an old Jewish chestnut. The sages of the Talmud offered the same piece of advice to anyone who wanted to join the faith: don’t do it, it’s seriously not worth it, it’s just an objectively bad idea. The ancient rabbis suggest that you ask a potential convert, “Are you not aware that today the people of Israel are wretched, driven about, exiled and in constant suffering?” It’s a rhetorical question. But if the person replies that he or she indeed embraces wretchedness and constant suffering, you explain to him or her how taxing it is to practice the religion. You mention the gruesome punishments for breaking the Sabbath and other laws. You try very hard to dissuade any would-be applicants. You mess with them—and that is how you welcome them. Joining, in other words, happens through a process of opposition, irony, and dissent. If you’re going to join a messed-up club, you have to pass the messed-up entrance exam. You enter into the sect only when you push back, when you finally say, Listen, I don’t care what you tell me. I know it’s a bad idea, but I’m determined to do it, and I will do it.
That’s the kind of a person it takes to be a writer: someone who’s zealous and ready to argue, someone who has Philip Roth tell him, “It’s torture, don’t do it,” and replies, “You had me at ‘torture.’
What can you say about someone who rewrites his sentences in his dreams? It has probably already been said. And it wasn’t every night that he, my third-person self, rewrote sentences in his sleep. Perhaps once a week or once every other week or once every three weeks—sometimes in fact two days in a row —whenever the subconscious compulsion took him…
…It usually happened on the road when he was sleeping in strange beds, and came about more often than not when he hadn’t had sex in a while not even with himself. So what he did, was doing perhaps, was masturbate his sentences. Was that what he was doing? Jerk them around to best advantage. Too often when he woke after hours of sleep-ridden revision, exhausted from prolonged creative effort, only the worst versions of the sentences awoke with him. His memory, he had to remind himself, traveled poorly in the night.
Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.
FJP: See more on writing from Brain Pickings.
For more timeless wisdom on writing, see Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.
Sounds like you feel yourself caught in a classic career starting conundrum: You don’t have experience but can’t get experience because you don’t have experience.
We posted a video recently of CUNY professor CW Anderson discussing an entrepreneurial journalism course he teaches. While he talks about many things, a key point I like is how he stresses that we all must write. Especially those of us out of a job or hoping to get into a job.
In July, I wrote something similar to a question a student had about putting together a portfolio. Here’s a bit where I mention what is was like before we could all have blogs and self-publishing tools:
Back then getting started was a chicken and egg proposition. You’d apply for something and be asked to show your clips. But you didn’t have clips because you were just starting out, and you wouldn’t get clips until someone overlooked that and took a chance on you.
That’s not true anymore. Want to be a science writer, start writing about it, start reporting about it, start curating about it. No one’s stopping you. Fashion more your thing? Do the same. More interested in the tech side of things? Start creating things and/or get involved in an Open Source project, and then write about what you’re doing and learning.
It takes some effort but that’s what we have to do. Block off 30 minutes a day to work on these things. Maybe even an hour.
After a month or a few you’ll be amazed by how much material you have to show people. You’ll also be amazed by how much you’ve personally learned by actually doing it.
So, you say you want to be a writer but there’s nothing available in your area. In that case, make something available to yourself.
There are stories everywhere. There are stories where there are lots of people. There are stories where they are no people. There are great stories about topics other than people.
So start writing them. Choose something that you’re passionate about. If it’s a character who lives down the street, approach him and ask if you can interview and write about him. If he asks why, and what for, say simply, “I like to write.”
Some people will say no but you’ll be surprised by how many people say yes. People are wonderful that way.
And if your passion is for a subject or topic that requires more discrete expertise, say science or medicine or art or local politics, start reading up and then start calling people up (eg, at local colleges, businesses, governmental agencies and what not) and ask questions.
Again, many will ask why and where will this appear and you simply say, “I like to write and its for a personal site I’m creating.”
And then some will say no but others will say yes but give it a couple months and you have yourself body of work. You’ve gotten started.
It takes effort. But it is doable. And find a trusted friend, former teacher or family member to give you feedback on what you do, to be an editor. And listen to what they have to say even if you disagree. Else you’ll write in a ramble like I do.
We wish you great luck and let us know how it goes. — Michael
Have a question? Ask away here.
There are all sorts of ways to go about this. Here are some initial thoughts. I think the best way to choose from these and others you come across is actively take the time to play with them and see what best works for you.
And, of course, you can always use your LinkedIn profile to link out to works you’d like to highlight.
Good luck, and send us a link to your site when you’re done. — Michael