A reflection on the over-romanticism of journalism and what it means today.


Swiped out of a cardboard box brimming with books deemed unworthy to travel into the new high school, the title: “The Impossible H.L. Mencken” caught my attention. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this Mencken character (as I was at the time), he was known as one of journalism’s golden boys for cultural satire, and a force in guiding U.S. fiction and journalistic writing through his unforgivable but nonetheless unforgettable critique and commentary on American life through the early and middle twentieth century.

I grabbed the book with greedy hands, although I must admit it was for the way I thought the rather sophisticated, academic title might look upon my desk rather than my plans for reading it. 

However, having just finished a fiction piece set in a similar time and with characters of similar ilk (investigative reporters for a local paper), I soon found myself drawn to the book because of the very potent feelings it provoked in me. A strange combination of nostalgia for something I’ve never lived through, and a longing for an age long deceased. It was a hunger for a headline-worthy, heroic beat, that I would successfully track down through the backwashed ally of some rapidly progressing industrialized city, regardless of the consequences to my person. I realized with sudden certainty that I desperately needed to hear that sweet cacophony of voices and typewriters, that signature ambiance of the beloved newsroom.                                                                                             

In other words, I was deeply engulfed in that over romanticisation of what we call the golden age of journalism.

I believe it was Ms. Mollica who put it best. I do not remember the exact words, but one day during Journalism I (a prerequisite class for Arlingtonian), she talked to us about why students take journalism. The conclusion that we came to after a minute of quiet musings and tentative conversation, was that there was some inexplicable draw that attracts the everyday student towards publication, and not just any publication but physical print journalism. But the pull towards this discipline was incomprehensible, and we found it hard to quantify exactly what that feeling was, and yet we all had a mutual understanding of what the other was thinking. 

This conversation inevitably led to the question: what does journalism mean today? More specifically, what does it mean to students today? It was one of those questions that aren’t supposed to be answered at the moment, and even if it were, none of us would have known how to answer. 

So I opened the book.

“It seems to me that the newspaper reporters of today know very little of the high adventure that bathed the reporters of my time …The theory was that journalism was an art, and that to artists, money was somehow offensive.” This lament, although written more than eighty-five years ago, expresses the same remorse about the loss of a practice, an art, that I believe we still feel today. Journalism had turned from a “let loose upon the town” gathering of everyday human stories, into a standardized, monotonous report about the lives of powerful individuals. “A mayor was thrilling once or twice, but after that he tended to become a stuffed shirt …But a bartender was different everyday, and so was a police sergeant, and so were the young doctors at the hospital, and the catchpoles in the courts.” Journalism was not supposed to be a catch all for the rich and famous, it was about humanity: the color and vibrance of human character. The loss of this in newspaper is a blow to the very spirit of reporting. However, I think Mencken was not so lost in the past, pining for the “good old days” (although he is critical of the new age, as is his job), than reflective towards his own romantic visions. He acknowledges the certain “starving artist” appeal those early days had, admitting that he himself had been drawn to it at the beginning: “In my early days, I confess, some of those quacks enchanted me, for the romance of journalism—for a youngster, in that era, it surely was romantic—had me by the ear, and the quacks themselves, in many cases, were picturesque characters, and not without a certain cadaverous glow.”

So perhaps this longing doesn’t come from a lack of anything, but rather a natural human tendency for nostalgia. 

In a rapidly digitalized world, globalization and instant access to media and news has been at the forefront of change. No longer is it an age where it is the norm to while away the morning in front of the newspaper, feet propped up on the breakfast table; a symbol of the American ideological canon.

So it is almost too ironic that my sudden interest in print journalism comes at a time in which the printed press is a dying art. What could have been the front headline of the Baltimore Sun can now be summarized in a short paragraph from a nationwide news source on a bright screen in the instantaneous and fleeting nature of the consumer era. Perhaps it is a good thing that efficiency and reader usability have become priority over length and richness, and there’s no doubt that brilliant writers are not few and far between. But I think it is reasonable to mourn the loss of ink and paper, those old ways lost to the flow of time. 

So what does journalism mean today? Is it still a symbol of the democratic process at its finest? Uncovering injustice and exposing corruption like the world’s Menckens, Sinclairs, and Nelly Blythes? I think that the answer to this question lies within the reporter themselves. It is up to them how they will choose to interpret the world around them. I believe there will always be an air of fantasia surrounding the journalism industry, but I also believe that no matter the romantic elements, journalism is nonetheless a driving force in the opinions people choose to develop for themselves. Today’s society is a shifting vat of quicksand, designed to be a trap no matter how clever one is; it shifts and bends, an endless cycle of truth and falsehood, woven together so tightly, it takes strength to pull them apart. 

Words carry such meaning, they are akin to swords as the old saying goes. Because of this, journalists carry a responsibility on their shoulders: to keep on as change continues on its inevitable path towards the future. However, it is a choice whether to take the lead in integrity and honesty, or to fall behind, and live in the shadows of mistrust and ultimately chaos.