‘The Classics’ – From Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan’s ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

by Dalton Cox

The American Society of Newspaper Editors did not inaugurate its Distinguished Writing Award until 1977. Needless to say, many articles written prior to this year have made the transition from newsprint to the pages of history books, due to their revolutionary rhetoric and impact. Clark and Scanlan selected the following works as “The Classics.”

by Dalton Cox
by Dalton Cox

In 1943 William Allen White was the most famous small-town news publisher in the United States. Usually a political reporter, White wrote in 1921 the obituary for his daughter, Mary White, and provided a moving example of how newspaper writing can transcend the concerns of daily life and strike at universal cord. White retells the story of the girl’s fatal horse riding accident, while weaving in details of her upbringing. He also juxtaposes her social charm against her serious and passionate civil rights advocacy. Similarly Ernie Pyle’s 1944 “The Death of Captain Waskow” demonstrates masterful obituary writing by emphasizing only what is essential; aspiring journalists should consider what was left intentionally unsaid. Pyle also demonstrates that the first, second and third person voices may all be used successfully in journalism, though unusual writing style requires purpose, skill and trust.

According to William E. Blundell the six building blocks for news writers are scope, history, impact, reasons, gathering and action of contrary forces, and the future. These blocks are all obviously considered in Lorena A. Hickok’s 1923 deadline classic “Iowa Village Waits All Night For Glimpse of Fleeting Train.” The train was carrying the body of President Warren G. Harding. Hickok not only explains the scenario but illustrates the atypical cultural environment of the citizens of a rural Iowan town, dying as a result of highway relocation.

Harold A. Littledale wrote for the New York Evening Post, in which appeared his 1917 “Prisoners with a Midnight in Their Hearts.” Littledale’s article begins much like an opinion column but defends itself with factual horrors surrounding the living conditions at the New Jersey State Penitentiary. Littledale shows how repetition and rhythm can emphasize the theme of a story and make a story’s conclusion inescapable. The majority of his one-sentence paragraphs begin by asserting, “it is a fact…” These facts are damning, shining light on starvation, torture, sexual abuse and dangerously unsanitary conditions.

It is a fact that a youth was released in December who came to the prison a boy of thirteen years wearing short trousers,” Littledale writes.

Not only did Littledale’s work enact reform in the prison, but it also won him a Pulitzer Prize.


Red Smith wrote as a sportswriter for the New York Harold Tribune, and published in 1951 “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.” The related baseball game between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers aided in both canonizing and destroying two players, and became the stuff of legend and superstition.

“When I was very young as a sportswriter I knowingly and unashamedly imitated others… by what process I have no idea, your own writing tends to crystallize, to take shape,” Smith said. “Yet you have to learn some moves from all these guys and they are somehow incorporated in to your own style. Pretty soon you’re not imitating any longer.”

Meyer Berger’s 1959 “About New York” was a column that humanized The New York Times’ hometown. On January 23, 1959, Berger looked in to the life and soul of Laurence Stroetz, a poverty-stricken, elderly man who had once played violin in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In the article, lyrical language depicts moments a great beauty while still being evocative. For example, Berger concludes:


“The white-clad nun said: ‘it’s your violin, Mr. Stroetz. It’s a gift.’ The old man bent his head over it. He wept.”

Untold stories and stifled voices exist everywhere. The great writer struggles out of self-censorship to examine difficult truths and to expose them. Authority, created by dogged reporting, can create political furor and enact change.

Famed African-American author Richard Wright once wrote for the columnist publication New Masses. Wright’s recollection of the night an African American boxer beat a white competitor not only recalls the effects of the boxing match in the Chicago streets, but also analyzes the underlying social injustices and the hope for progress.

“Here’s a fleeting glimpse at the heart of the Negro, the heart that beats and suffers and hopes for freedom,” writes Wright. “Here’s the fluid something that’s like an iron. Here’s the real dynamic that Joe Louis uncovered.”

Marvel Cooke was the only black person and only woman on the staff of New York’s short-lived Daily Compass. In 1950 she wrote “The Bronx Slave Market,” which gave an undercover account of the conditions faced by the African-American women who waited on the New York streets to be chosen for daily domestic labor.

“Suddenly I was angry – angry at this slave boss – angry for all workers everywhere who were treated like a commodity,” writes Cooke.


In 1963 editor Gene Patterson wrote for The Atlanta Constitution, “A Flower for the Graves,” depicting domestic terrorism fueled by racial violence in the segregated Southeast. Patterson was writing at his own risk, publishing the article in the Georgia publication. The story repeatedly makes us of the pronoun “we.” Beginning nearly every paragraph with an all-inclusive message for all Caucasian readers to accept their cultural blame and enact change. Patterson is a master of imagery; he begins the article with a repeated image of “one shoe,” a murdered child’s small shoe held by the victim’s mother. The shoe becomes a reoccurring image throughout, a humanizing symbol of sadistic oppression.

Journalism can be both daunting and dangerous; however, journalism may also change the face of culture and politics. Journalist must be therefore be ethical in their craft, always attempting to enlighten and protect the citizens of a free state.


Dorothy Thompson’s 1938 “Mr. Welles and Mass Destruction” analyzes for the New York Harold Tribune Orson Welles’ historic radio play that threw some martian-fearing Americans in to frenzy. The role of journalist is to educate their audience and nurture their critical thinking skills. Thompson emphasizes how many Americans lack such skepticism and warns against widespread media’s ability to control the susceptible masses.

“They have shown up the incredible stupidity, lack of nerve and ignorance of thousands,” Thompson writes.

Because of such susceptibility, Paolo Freire explains that the role of education and journalism is to nurture  a critical literacy in citizens, keeping them free, empowered and protected from tyranny of corruption.

Some other potential “classics”

Nellie Bly’s “Ten Days in a Mad House” has become a stable of a journalist’s education, as well as a facet of popular American folklore. Despite some ethical tactics that would most likely be inappropriate in contemporary journalism, Bly’s article provides an example of journalism undertaken for social reform.

“GOP Security Aide Among Five Arrested in Bugging Affair” was the fist of a series of articles written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as a result of their investigation in to the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post. These articles not only shape American history, but provided a quintessential example of fearless watchdog journalism.

The Death of Rodriguez by Richard Harding Davis provides an excellent example of descriptive journalism depicting the death of a Cuban rebel. Davis became one of America’s highest paid reporters at the end of the ninetieth century, covering many stories related to the Spanish-American War.


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