Literary Journalism Techniques Create Compelling Blackhawk Down Web Site

Literary Journalism Techniques Create Compelling Blackhawk Down Web Site

Royal, Cindy

At a time of declining newspaper circulation and readership,1 many newspapers are turning to online journalism as a means of reaching readers.2 One example of the World Wide Web being used for a particularly compelling kind of journalistic storytelling is the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Blackhawk Down site.3

This article examines The Blackhawk Down site from the point of view of literary journalism and suggests directions that this form of journalism may take as it moves into a new communication medium-the World Wide Web. The investigation also reveals ways in which techniques of literary journalism can help creators of Web pages make writing on the Web more dramatic, powerful and, consequently, attractive to readers.

Reporter Mark Bowden began writing Blackhawk Down as a series for the Philadelphia Inquirer in late 1997. The series also appeared on the newspaper’s Web site. Blackhawk Down is the story of a single episode in the United States’ participation in the military action in Somalia in October 1993, seen through the eyes of the young soldiers involved.

Even seven years after its creation, the site sets a standard for innovative use of the Web by online journalists. The project introduced a powerful combination of Web features and j ournalistic techniques that most online newspapers have still not tried to emulate. The site remains active, showing the longtime value of this kind of project to a newspaper.

Defining Literary Journalism

In contrast to standard reportage (characterized by objectivity, direct language and the inverted pyramid form), literary journalism seeks to communicate facts through narrative storytelling and literary techniques. The concept has been described with a variety of terms, including new journalism, narrative storytelling, creative nonfiction, intimate journalism and literary nonfiction.

The phrase new journalism described a kind of writing popular in the 1960s that was formally recognized in a book of that title by Tom Wolfe.4 Wolfe’s description of this style is that “it just might be possible to write journalism that would… read like a novel. “5 Wolfe described defining four basic techniques of thenewjournalism: scene by scene construction, use of extended dialogue, third person point of view and the use of details symbolic of status.6

James E. Murphy identified three characteristics of literary journalism: the usage of dramatic literary techniques, subjectivity and immersion.7

Norman Sims provided the following list of defining characteristics: immersion reporting, accuracy, voice, structure, responsibility and symbolic representation.8 Kramer notes that literary journalists write in an “intimate voice” that is informal, frank, human and ironic.9 Kramer adds that structure counts, with literary journalism often mixing primary narrative with tales and digressions to amplify and reframe events.10 Another technique of the literary journalist is the cliffhanger ending-a device clearly borrowed from fiction.11

An example of a literary journalism writer using digression is John McPhee’s discussion in The Deltoid Pumpkin seed of the history of dirigibles.12

One of the driving forces behind the literary journalism movement is growing research evidence indicating that the reading public prefers news writing with a narrative structure. A 1993 study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors compared a storytelling structure with three others, including inverted pyramid, and found that the narrative versions “were better read, and they communicated information better.”13 Another study based on interviews with workingjournalists suggested that the narrative style is appearing more frequently in the news section than in the past.14

The Blackhawk Down Site

Blackhawk Down is unusual in being a very long piece of writing on the World Wide Web. The site was very popular when it was introduced, receiving up to 42,000 page views per day, often pushing the limits of the servers that were running it. It continues to be one of the most viewed sections on, receiving more than 38,000 hits per month.15 The site takes advantage of many features of the Web to enhance the power of the writing: video clips, audio clips, photos, maps, graphics, a glossary, a Who’s Who of people appearing in the series, an index and an “Ask the Author” forum. Most of these features can be accessed from a menu on the left side of the Web page. The site also features numerous hyperlinks embedded in the text (see Figure 1).

Research Questions


Does the text of the Web site version of Blackhawk Down make use of the techniques of literary journalism?


How do Web elements-the special features of the Web (including audio clips video clips, graphics, maps, hyperlinks and an “Ask the Author” reader forum)-help facilitate the goals of literary journalism?


This project used the case study method to answer the research questions. Analysis of the site was conducted from 2000 to 2004. The site did not change during that time period. Lists of defining characteristics of literary journalism were used as criteria for finding pertinent sections of the site and then analyzing them. Qualities of literary journalism that were searched for and examined were dramatic story form; Wolfe’s scene-byscene construction, dialogue in full and third person point of view; Sims’ accuracy, voice, structure and responsibility; Kramer’s use of digressions to amplify and reframe events; and cliffhanger endings.


Several techniques of traditional literary journalism that were found in use on the Blackhawk Down are described below:

Dramatic Story Form

The Web version starts with a narrative lead and continues with dramatic action. The lead stated: “Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann’s lanky frame was fully extended on the rope for what seemed too long on the way down. Hanging from a hovering Black Hawk helicopter, Eversmann was a full 70 feet above the streets of Mogadishu.”

Third-Person Point of View

This device takes the reader into a subject’s head and reports thoughts and feelings. Third-person point of view appears at many places in Blackhawk Down. Early in the piece (the third paragraph), we are told Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann’s thoughts and feelings when he saw one of his men lying on the ground: “He felt a stab of despair. Somebody’s been shot already!”

Dialogue in Full

This device appears frequently throughout Blackhawk Down. This exchange occurs at the time of one of the first deaths of American soldiers:

‘Calm down! What’s wrong with him?’ Struecker couldn’t see all the way to the back hatch.

‘He’s dead!’ Moynihan shouted.

‘How do you know he’s dead? Are you a medic?’

Cliffhanger Endings

Many chapters in Blackhawk Down conclude with cliffhanger endings. Chapter 6 ends this way:

The man fired. The grenade hit the Blackhawk’s rear rotor. Big chunks of it flew off in the explosion. And then, for a few surprising moments, nothing happened.

Web Techniques Used

RQ2: How do the special Web techniques help enhance the attributes of literary journalism?

Scene-by-Scene Construction

At least one video clip, apparently taped by a Somali, shows the battle scene as it looked to Somalis. The video shows people in Somali dress milling about on the streets, some with weapons, as a Blackhawk helicopter flies by overhead. One Somali sticks his gun around a corner and shoots at someone.

Dialogue in Full

Audio and video clips can be used to present actual recorded dialogue. One audio clip contained the following radio conversation between Rangers on the ground (Juliet 64) and a helicopter crew (Romeo 64).





Third-Person Point of View

Audio and video interviews of participants can reveal their thoughts and thereby validate writing from a third person point of view. Bowden writes that “Ranger Mike Goodale was feeling invincible” (Chapter 1). The accompanying video provides not only the actual words spoken by the subject, but displays the demeanor and tone with which his comments were made.


Video and audio interviews can corroborate the reporter’s quotes and other details. Video clips linked to Chapter 4 show Sgt. Mike Goodale describing what it was like to shoot a Somali and Ranger Dale Sizemore defining the rules of engagement. The videos support the text, which states that U.S. forces were not supposed to shoot anyone unless the individual had a gun.

Video clips can also add authority to statements from an anonymous source. A number of video clips focus on Delta Steve, an eight-year veteran of the Delta Force who is shown in silhouette, sitting in a dark room with closed Venetian blinds behind him (Fig. 2). The fact that we can see and hear him gives his statements much greater credibility than they would have if they were only quoted in the text and attributed to an anonymous source.


The Web version of Blackhawk Down is written in a conversational, you-are-there style. The glossary helps by defining military terms such as a chalk (a squad of soldiers), and frees the journalist to write the way the soldiers talked without having to include distracting definitions.


The Blackhawk Down site combines features of both linear and nonlinear storytelling. The 29 chapters can be read one after another in a linear fashion. This order is a natural one for storytelling, and its use gives a strong narrative drive to the piece. In addition, hyperlinks presented in the menu to the left and in the text itself provide a more hybrid structure with many opportunities for readers to detour from the linear story and look at a video clip, listen to an audio clip or study a relevant map.


The Web, with its capability for hyperlinks, is particularly well suited to handle the digressions characteristic of some literary journalism. BlackhawkDown provides several types of digression, including the glossary, a Who’s Who section, the multimedia components and an “Ask the Author” bulletin board.


The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Blackhawk Down Web site uses a number of techniques of literary journalism-dramatic story form, third-person point of view, dialogue in full and cliffhanger endings-to present a highly engaging story of U.S. soldiers participating in an intensive life-anddeath battle in Somalia. In addition, the site uses features of the World Wide Web in innovative ways to enhance the storytelling power of the literary journalism form. The special strength of the Blackhawk Down site comes from its combination of all of these elements into one package.

The model provided by the Blackhawk Down site can be applied to other topics. The Inquirer constructed a similar site based on Bowden’s reporting of the story of drug lord Pablo Escobar, but this site had to be taken down for technical reasons.16 A text version of the Escobar site is still accessible.17

A future version of the World Wide Web will probably do a better job of integrating text, images, audio, video and bulletin boards-leading to still more effective online storytelling.18 Even at this point, however, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Blackhawk Down site provides a dramatic example of the Web being used for compelling journalistic storytelling.


1. “U.S. Daily Newspaper Circulation,” Newspaper Association of America, (18 February 2004); “U.S. Daily and Sunday Newspaper Reading Audience,” Newspaper Association of America, (18 February 2004).

2. “Online newspapers experience dramatic growth,” Silicon Valley/Sanjose Business journal, 7 May 2002, (18 February 2004).

3. Tom Wolfe, The New journalism: With an Anthology Edited by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson. Ed. Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 3-36.

4. Wolfe, The New Journalism, 9.

5.Wolfe, The New Journalism, 31-32.

6. James E. Murphy, “The New Journalism: A Critical Perspective” (paper presented at AEJMC, San Diego, August 1974), 16.

7. Norman Sims, “The Art of Literary Journalism,” in Norman Sims and Mark Kramer, eds., Literary journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), 9.

8. Kramer, “Breakable Rules,” in Norman Sims and Mark Kramer, eds., Literary journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), 28.

9. Kramer, “Breakable Rules,” 32.

10. Mark Kramer, “Great Audience Inspired Great Speakers at Harvard Conference,” 2002 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, (4 May 2004).

11. John McPhee, The Deltoid Pumpkin seed (New York: Noonday Press, 1981).

12. Ways with Words, (Reston, Va.: American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1993), 17.

13. Berrin Beasely, “Journalists’ Attitudes Toward Narrative Writing,” Newspaper Research Journal 19, no. 1 (winter 1998): 78-90.

14. Jennifer Musser-Metz, e-mail message to Cindy Royal, 30 April 2004.

15. E-mail message from Jennifer MusserMetz to Cindy Royal, April 30, 2004.

16. Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: The Free Press, 1997).

Royal is a doctoral student and Tankard is a professor emeritus in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Fall 2004

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