Learn From the Past: The Classics of Journalism

By Erin Valentine

Learning from the past can improve the present. Journalism is no different. There is no better way to improve writing then to read great writing from past journalists. ABNW gives ten of the best writing from years past.

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Infographic by Erin Valentine

“Prisoners With Midnight in Their Hearts” by Harold Littledale; New York Evening Post, January 12, 1917

Littledale takes great advantage of very descriptive adjectives. He appeals to the emotion of the reader to draw them in and give them a sense of why the story is important. He then states the facts, but in way that the reader has them burned in to their brain. Littledale’s use of repetition gives the facts in an engaging, objective way that doesn’t bore the reader.

“Mary White” by William Allen White; The Emporia (Kan.) Gazette, May 17, 1921

White writes about his own daughter’s death and funeral, the day after her funeral. There is nothing more personal and heartbreaking than a parent trying to overcome a child’s death. White’s article brings forth images of a father hunched over, writing down all of the beautiful things that his daughter brought to the world. He talks about her death, instead of avoiding it, and he tells the story of her soul as she was, instead of embellishing.

“Iowa Village Waits All Night for Glimpse at Fleeting Train” by Lorena Hickok; Minneapolis Tribune, August 7, 1923

Hickok does an amazing job of connection local with national. In a town of less than 80, the momentary passing of a train is such an event that almost every residence restless waits until the wee hours of the morning to watch the train pass by. Hickok gives a great view of the hardships past and hardships to come with personal quotes from the townspeople.

“Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite” by Richard Wright; New Masses, October 8, 1935


Courtesy of UrCity Magazine

Wright gives great visuals with descriptive language after the defeat of Baer. The title explains it perfectly with Joe Louis starting an explosion through the crowd. Wright captured the addictive emotions and weaves them in to a great story.

“Mr. Welles and Mass Delusion” by Dorothy Thompson; New York Herald Tribune, November 2, 1938

A great article on a great piece of writing, Thompson writes her editorial concisely. She points out her main topics and arguments, yet still manages to make the piece have her voice and be compelling.

“The Death of Captain Henry Waskow” by Ernie Pyle; Scripps Howard Newspaper Alliance, January 10, 1944

Visualize language, attention to detail and personal narratives all make Pyle’s article about World War II soldiers and their struggle to survive in the harsh reality of war, death, blood and loss.

“From ‘The Bronx Slave Market’” by Marvel Cooke; The Daily Compass, 1950

Cooke’s work in undercover reporting is one of the pinnacle pieces of investigative work with depth and meaning. Cooke shows the truth of women who accept jobs less than minimum wage just to have money in desperate times. They put up with horrible employers just to support themselves and their family.

“Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” by Red Smith; New York Herald Tribune, October 4, 1951

In a wonderful narrative story, Smith tells the defeat of the Dodgers. However, he didn’t just talk about the game, but also the people. His focus on people’s stories shows the true interest of the story. The passion of the fans really shines through.

“About New York” by Meyer Berger; The New York Times, January 23, 1959

Details come in handy for Berger. For his subject, a blind musician, detail is essential to living life. Berger gets to know his man’s life and story and really brings the article to the reader’s heart.

“A Flower for the Graves” by Gene Patterson; The Atlanta Constitution, September 16, 1963

Patterson goes against the majority and takes a stance, at a heated time, against racism. Patterson calls for readers to not allow injustices and hate crimes to be committed. To persuade the reader, Patterson includes personal stories to compel the reader further.

Other Examples of Classic Reporting:

Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese; Esquire, April 1966


Courtesy of last.fm

In a beautiful and clever piece of writing, Talese gives a great view of the infamous Sinatra. Talking with Sinatra’s friends and family, Talese gives readers a feature story that is truly one of a kind.


“Hiroshima” by John Hersey; New Yorker, November 1946

In my opinion one of the most compelling pieces of writing of all time, Hersey tells the stories of six survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima. In an incredibly moving set of stories, the reader isn’t just given the statistics of the bombings, but the harsh and graphic reality of the initials blasts and decades worth of damage.


Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’76″ by Hunter S. Thompson; June 3, 1976

Thompson travels during the 1976 campaign fuel an incredibly compelling story about what goes on behind the scenes, and in between public appearances. A great adventure article with an engaging narrative makes Thompson’s article one for the books, or the magazines.



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