America’s Best Newspaper Writing

America’s Best Newspaper Writing

Bleske, Glen L

America’s Best Newspaper Writing, 2nd Edition, edited by Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006) 324 pages, $30.95 paperback.

This journalism anthology takes the reader to the pathos of Belfast, grieves about racial violence in the South and records the insanity of genocide in Rwanda. It cheers for the victories on the playing fields and hospitals. It peers into the dark corners of Palestine and the county courthouse.

The second edition of this anthology improves on the first edition in many ways, while maintaining the same basic format. The journalism selected richly features some of the best newspaper writing that has been honored annually since 1977 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It is complemented by a selection of classic journalism that features William Alien White, Ernie Pyle, Marvel Cooke, Gene Patterson and others.

The ASNE winners are arranged by topics that include deadline writing, profiles and features, opinion, crime, beat reporting, obituaries and explanatory journalism. The new edition adds a category that certainly fits the times: “Terrorism, War and Disasters.” The classics are arranged by time with the first article being written in 1917, a muckraking piece by Harold Tisdale that details the inhuman conditions of a New Jersey prison. Each article is introduced with a short selection providing context for the writing and information about the journalist. And the book ends with two key chapters: one that offers tools for reporters who want to improve their craft; and the other which discusses the ethics of practicing journalism in an era tainted by charges of fabrication and plagiarism.

One bonus in the new edition is a feature called “X-ray reading.” Seven of the stories include highlighted passages that are linked to margin notes that provide insights to key passages in the writing. This type of detailed analysis is valuable for writers, editors, teachers and students. After all, one of the keys to better reporting and writing is intelligent reading. The margin notes help readers see things they might miss because they are immersed in the story telling.

The selection of stories provides something for readers with varying tastes. But as one might expect of award-winning journalism, the bulk of the stories focus on tragedy and evil and social injustice. For the hard news junkie, Richard Ben Cramer’s 1978 story about the death of an Israeli child is filled with the quotes and details that still speak to readers today. For the feature writer, there is the silly world of Dr. Seuss. For the idealist, there is Patterson’s thumping indictment of a South that he collectively blamed for the murders of four black children who perished in a bombed church during the civil rights struggles. It is good that his sadness, regret and anger still live on the page for all to remember: “The Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe-from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.”

The second edition features 17 new articles (with three tied to the events of 9/11), while cutting out 12. In most cases, the cuts focused on writers with more than one selection in the first edition. Now, Murray Kempton, Saul Pett, Tom Shales and Cramer have one story each. Yet two of Jim Nicholson’s feature obituaries remain, a choice that is easy to support, given his groundbreaking work of capturing the lives of everyday people such as “Ace” Clark, who once delivered coal and ice by horse and cart.

Less clear is why the editors deleted Sam Stanton’s grim, detailed description of an execution, reported without the aid of a notebook. It is one of the basic forms of dramatic journalism. For example, one of the all-time great journalism anthologies, “The Treasury of Great Reporting” edited by Louis Snyder and Richard Morris, features a public execution reported by Charles Dickens in the 1800s. With courts dealing today with issues of “humane” execution, Stanton’s reporting seems more relevant than ever.

The 50 newspaper articles in this collection are worth reading and studying because they represent great moments in journalism, and they still speak to the world. They are symbolic of the passion so many young people bring to the field. They spotlight creativity, and they urge reporters to take risks and to write with care. As the editors explain, the articles are models for professionals and students. Simply put, if you are teaching journalism, you should read this book and assign it to your students. If you are practicing journalism, you need this book. If you love journalism, you will love this book.

Glen L. Bleske is a professor of journalism and chair of the department at California State University, Chico.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Winter 2006

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