Origin story of investigative journalism
Aug 7, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We live in a time of unprecedented connectivity. Thanks to social media, cable news, and podcasts we are never far away from knowing the latest updates about a whole range of topics. In fact, we are so hyper-aware there are entire philosophies focused on rescuing us from this information overload. With this plethora of “instant” data comes the threat of fake news and you now see many agencies touting their promise to provide authentic reporting. Has journalism faced this kind of fundamental crisis before? When considering this kind of question, it’s common to retreat to nostalgia. My mind conjures up images from His Girl Friday, as the handsome Cary Grant and determined Rosalind Russell banter facts and figures. This was a time when a hot lead meant you were out in the city, working connections, ever mindful of getting the edge on the newspaper down the street. But beyond a romanticized view of this era, I’m afraid I don’t know much more about the origin story of investigative (authentic) journalism. Join us as we review two publications known for their muckraking…
This publication, founded in 1893 is known as the first periodical where reform-minded journalists gathered under the guidance of a supportive editor. Prior to this time, reporting involved more sensationalism (often sacrificing the core issues for the sake of increased profit). Journalists were still supplying factual-based reports, but editors often distilled their offerings into scandal-laden headlines.
Two college friends decided to change journalistic trajectory with the founding of their publication. S.S. McClure and John Phillips created a working environment where writers were given the time for deep research. The content was thoughtfully curated and tackled matters of injustice. (In fact, their business model is still taught and followed to this day.) You may wonder, why even rock the boat? Clearly other newspapers figured out a profitable strategy and it was popular with the public. To understand the why, we need to understand the who. The “who” in this case is S.S. McClure.
McClure experienced many hardships on his way to success – he lost his father at a young age, left his home country of Ireland with his mom, and lived much of his childhood in poverty. This collection of life experiences fueled his resolve to make the world a more equitable place. Attending university at Knox College (an institution founded by social reformers) further influenced his progressive stance. All of this determination culminated in the establishment of his early commercial endeavor, which happened to be the first newspaper syndicate. Before his 30th birthday, S.S. McClure was introducing readers to up-and-coming authors, cartoonists, and columnists. The “behind the headlines” columns laid the foundation for the founding of McClure’s Magazine less than ten years later.
The work from the syndicate also helped establish an audience for McClure’s Magazine. It turned out the truth was popular (and uncovering injustice was equally compelling)! Key articles from the publication’s heyday showcase this fervor, like Ida Tarbell’s piece lambasting Standard Oil and Ray Baker’s article on US Steel. These two articles shifted public attention toward corporate greed and their message continues to this day. (Consider the recent conversations buzzing around Washington regarding “big tech.”)
By 1906, the magazine had run its course with many staff members following Phillips to create The American Magazine, but the magnitude of McClure’s impact on reporting cannot be minimized. During an era when gossip ruled supreme, McClure and his team provided a new perspective and became the moral compass of a nation.
This magazine was founded five years prior to McClure’s, by another Irish-born journalist Peter Fenelon Collier. Peter started his career in sales, parlaying early success to fund a publishing empire. His initial offers were aimed at the Roman Catholic reader, but soon his target market expanded and Peter’s vision became the nation’s most profitable subscription company. By the time Collier’s debuted, Peter was an established voice in the public realm. In addition to the name recognition, he had a trustworthy reputation. His strong character was tested with multiple lawsuits, yet his staff writers (and Peter himself) soldiered on and maintained a record of winning at the courthouse. This biweekly magazine concentrated on news and pioneered photojournalism as a complement to the hard-hitting articles. Notable pieces include an essay on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and “The Great American Fraud” which led to the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act.
While Peter passed away in 1909, his legacy continued and by 1912 the circulation had passed the 1 million mark! This brand of reporting inspired real social reform and change – causes like child labor, slums, and women’s suffrage first found their platform here and targeted legislation soon followed. It’s inspiring to look back at the origin story of investigative journalism because it reminds us that even with all of the distractions, one voice can make a difference. Now that we’re in such a technological age, perhaps we’re even more incumbent to use our voice for good. What cause would you rally around? Let us know in the comments…