I have not read The Rose Man of Sing Sing, A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism, by James McGrath Morris. It is the first biography of New York Evening World editor and convicted murderer Charles Chapin. The reviews make it sound great. It is out in paperback as of Oct. 2007. It is on my Amazon wish list. If you've read it, let me know what you think. If I get it as a gift, I'll let you know what I think.
A Few Words About This Page
Thank you for visiting this page. One of my hobbies is collecting old journalism books, both fiction and non-fiction.
I can't hope to be comprehensive; Journalists write a lot of books. For example, I just don't enjoy Art Buchwald and Dave Barry, so none of their books of collected columns are on my list. To make my list, a book must be ABOUT a journalist and feature that journalist actually performing journalism.
A few notes about this list
Because I took journalism courses from the late Edwin Diamond at MIT, you will find nearly all of his books here (I actually own the books he wrote before he became a media critic in 1972, but they don't belong on this list).
I also collect the scripts of journalism plays. You can buy them from either the New York, Los Angeles or London offices of Samuel French.
Because I live near San Francisco, I have books by the daily city columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle, the late Herb Caen, as well as other columnists on that paper: the late Charles McCabe, the late Stanton Delaplane, the late Art Hoppe, former columnist Adair Lara and still-writing Jon Carroll. Carroll is America's only practicing daily absurdist columnist. Caen was the last Winchell-type 3-dot columnist, and wrote his column on and off (mostly for the San Francisco Chronicle but also briefly for the San Francisco Examiner) for more than 50 years. Delaplane won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of a silly "rebellion" in the state of Jefferson (far northern California and southern Oregon) in late 1941, then wrote an amusing column for decades, yoked with former Hearst executive McCabe. Hoppe was like Art Buchwald, only he was actually funny. Lara was a personal columnist who put the Boston Globe's Ellen Goodman and former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen (the mother of personal column writing) to shame. Their books are hard to find outside of Northern California, but worth the search.
I also worked for the Associated Press (Boston), United Press International (Boston and Hartford) and the late Oregon Journal of Portland, Ore., a Newhouse newspaper that shared facilities with the Oregonian when I worked there in 1973 and 1977. Thus, you will find obscure non-fiction works about all of these organizations on my list. Kent Cooper paints an incredibly glossy picture of the AP, which is as pompous as that wire service has always been.
My career as a collector was really launched when I worked at UPI in 1975, and was advised that the two seminal works on that organization were Deadline Every Minute, a non-fiction work describing the service's glory days (a bracing tonic and a much better read than the AP histories), and Kansas City Milkman, which I believe is the only wire service novel (Former UPI White House correspondent Norman Sandler and I once discussed writing a wire service screenplay, but nothing ever came of it...).
There is a fine novel by former UPI political writer Arnold "Arnie" Sawislak, called Dwarf Rapes Nun, Flees in UFO. It isn't about UPI, but it is informed by that service's scrappy underdog sensibility.
As I did on the movie page, I am going to reproduce the best speech from a novel. This one comes from Arizona Kiss, and is the finest one-paragraph description of journalism I have ever read. I bought the novel because I saw this quote excerpted in a journalism review.
I can tell you what it's like to work for a newspaper. Imagine a combine, one of those huge threshing machines that eat up a row of wheat like nothing, bearing right down on you. You're running in front of it, all day long, day in and day out, just inches from the front of the maw, where steel blades are whirring and clacking and waiting for you to get tired or make one slip. The only way to keep the combine off you is to throw it something else to rip apart and digest. What you feed it is stories. Words and photos. Ten inches on this, fifteen inches on that, a vertical shot here, a horizontal there, scraps of news and film that go into the maw where they are processed and dumped onto some page to fill the spaces between the ads. Each story buys you a little time, barely enough to slap together the next story, and the next and the next. You never get far ahead, you never take a breather, all you do is live on the hustle. Always in a rush, always on deadline, you keep scrambling to feed the combine. That's what it's like. The only way to break free is with a big story, one you can ride for a while and tear off in pieces so big, the combine has to strain to choke them down. That buys you a little time. But sooner or later, the combine will come chomping after you again, and you better be ready to feed it all over again.
Yup. That's what it's like. At monthly magazines and quarterly CD-ROMs and web sites (and before that, dailies and weeklies and wire services).
The Best Journalism Novel Of All Times
For some years, I thought it was Scoop (see below), which I now rank second. I just finished reading Christopher Wren's Hacks, and I must now award it first place. Wren served as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and wrote this hysterical novel of reporting, love and revolution set in a fictional African country. It has supplanted Scoop, in my estimation, because it includes electronic journalists and has a woman in a major role, making it a more realistic depiction of modern journalism. Funny, clever, witty, incisive and well-written. You really feel you're there. I couldn't put it down.
The Pantheon of Best Journalism Books
The second best novel about journalism? That distinction probably has to go to Evelyn Waugh's classic Scoop, which was made into a television movie by the British. It is a very funny, clever, biting, witty, satirical novel about British foreign correspondents in Africa and is not to be missed. You can usually find it with another, similar novel, Put Out More Flags.
In 2003, William Deedes, a British journalist sent to cover Ethiopia in the 1930s with 600 pounds of gear (a scenario that will sound familiar to you if you have read Scoop), finally ended decades of denying he was the model for Boot of the Beast, the journalist in the story. He has published a memoir, At War with Waugh: The Real Story of "Scoop", which, at first at least, was only available from Amazon.co.uk.I am always on the outlook for the next "best journalism novel ever." For decades, Evelyn Waugh's Scoop was the gold standard, and it is still the funniest of the small handful of iconic novels that tell the truth about the life of journalists, particularly foreign correspondents. Lionel Shriver's The New Republic: A Novel, however, is a clever, well-written page turner that shows journos living the life I knew them to live when I was one decades ago. Plot contrivances? Sure. It was written before 9/11 and released this year, and if you didn't know you might guess. But just as Waugh's work caught the essence of the working journalist of his time, so too does this first rate novel. It deserves a place in the pantheon of "best journalism novels ever.
Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists: A Novel is another "oops, the newspaper is dead" novel, this time set in Rome, written by a former employee of the International Herald Tribune. Whereas the vaguely comparable Pete Hamill novel Tabloid City is a traditional linear narrative, this story is told via non-linear vignettes featuring various members of the staff. So, more is made of the people qua people, but there is still a very satisfying amount of newspaper inside baseball, for people like me who like that sort of thing.
Pete Hamill's Tabloid City: A Novel is also near the top of the all-time greats list. Alas, newspaper novels in 2011 all need to have a "the paper is being shut down" subplot because that's what's really happening. Pete Hamill, a long time newspaperman and tabloid editor in New York, does an excellent job of describing his archetypal characters and making you care about a newspaper that sort of but never really existed, as it disappears forever. By the end, you feel you've worked for a NYC tabloid.
If you know a good journalism book you think I have missed, or spot an error on this list, please let me know and I will correct it/add it. I have annotated a few of my personal favorites; skip to the end of the file if you wish to see my notes.
Another Good Journalism Book
I don't want to start a top 10 countdown, so after the first and second best, I'll just cite works. One particularly worth citing is Terry Pratchett's The Truth, copyright 2000, published by HarperTorch, New York. It is one of the funniest and truest books about journalism ever written. I think I will let the book speak for itself. The following are quotations:
[Note: this is a variation on a piece of doggerel first recited to me by Donald. J. Sterling Jr., editor of The Oregon Journal:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist
--Humbert Wolfe (1885–1940), British poet, author. "Over the Fire," bk. 1, The Uncelestial City (1930).]
Walter Winchell and Other Topics
My library has particular depth (and, sometimes, some pretty hard-to-find-books) in the categories of Walter Winchell, the New York Times and the New Yorker. Books about the latter two institutions, or by their present and former employees, of course, could fill several groaning library shelves. I've done the best I could with the time and money I had.
Winchell, for those of you who have forgotten or never knew, was the most powerful journalist in American during the 1930s and 1940s, when his syndicated Broadway column (based at the New York Mirror), and his Sunday night radio program (on NBC, then ABC) reached virtually every home in America. He was a very complicated character, and a once-important one.
Let me offer some brief annotations for the Winchell books in my topic index by author:
Neal Gabler's book is the most recent and authoritative biography. Michael "Dispatches" Herr wrote a screenplay for a Winchell biopic that he turned into a very readable novel that comes close to capturing the man's complexity. Herman Klurfield was one of Winchell's many ghost writers, and cranked this book out when WW was way past his peak. New Yorker managing editor St. Clair McKelway, on the other hand, took on America's most powerful and vindictive newspaper columnist when he was at the absolute peak of his powers, in a series of New Yorker articles that was extended and published in book form. Lyle Stuart was famous in the 40s and 50s for hatchet job biographies (kind of the Kitty Kelley of his day). AP Hollywood writer Bob Thomas, on the other hand, had only one pitch: the softball. And Winchell himself, the most un-self-aware man ever to walk the face of the Earth, produced, of course, an autobiography that is a nearly complete waste of time, written when he had hit rock bottom at the end of his life.
As I mentioned, I've also prepared two other topic indices: the New Yorker , the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Baghdad by the Bay
Herb Caen, alas, is rapidly on his way to being forgotten, except in those places where he was never known. Unlike Walter Winchell, who was nationally syndicated and also had a national radio program, Herb Caen was strictly a local boy--syndicated, sporadically, in the Honolulu Advertiser because of the large San Francisco ex-pat community there, but nowhere else. Basically, from 1938 to his death in 1997, Caen was Mr. San Francisco, mostly for the San Francisco Chronicle, but with eight years at the Examiner in the 50s. I still remember the thrill of driving out to the airport on Sunday mornings to pick up a Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, mostly to read Caen and Count Marco (try getting that thrill from the Internet; I dare you).
Anyway, for years, I've been meaning to read Caen's books. I started with his far-and-away most popular collection of columns, Baghdad by the Bay, which went through seven printings in 1949, and made whatever national reputation Caen enjoyed. I was not disappointed. Surprised, a little, but not disappointed. I read Caen every day in 1977, the first time I lived in SF, and from my return in 1979 to his death in 1997, but that was late Caen. As people always say of Woody Allen, "I liked his earlier stuff better." In the book, you could see the Caen column at age 11, rather than at age 39. His liberal leanings are all over the book (why shouldn't blacks and Asians be allowed to live anywhere they wanted?). What's missing is his three-dot journalism. The book is basically a collection of "Sunday columns," the day each week when Caen became elegaic. I often skipped them in later years, as they seemed tired and formulaic. In the day, they were fresh and exciting. If you wanted to feel as if you could walk the streets of San Francisco just after World War II, there's no better way then to find a used copy of this book and read it. Caen's 1996 Pulitzer amounted to a coveted "Good Sport Award" for his longevity, but was just proof again (as if proof were needed) that the Pulitzer's are a Boswash centric old boys' club. Caen deserved to win in 1949. I'm just glad he won eventually. Baghdad by the Bay is a fascinating snapshot of the city that was, and, to an extent, the city that never was, written by a brilliant prose stylist who loved his city and his work.
Browsing My Library
You can browse my library two ways. You can use "find" to look up books in the HTML table version, or your can right click [if you are in Internet Explorer on a Windows computer] and download the Rich Text Format version (can be read in Word, Wordperfect, and most MAC word processors), then resort the table in whatever order interests you.
I used to think it was the height of pretentiousness to put your library on the Internet, until I sat down and though bout how much useful information I've gotten from the many bibliographies on the Internet. Admittedly, it's just a list and not an annotated bibliography, but I hope it will help you. And, as I said before, feel free to write. This is what the Internet is all about, in my opinion. People sharing information across time and space.
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