“I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.”

-Hunter S. Thompson

I was studying for the Tuesday midterm today and one of the sections of in Harrower’s book called News Writing Basics struck me.  Harrower refers to a black and white picture of two men happily reading a newspaper.  He writes, “See how they’re reading their newspaper with excited grins on their faces?  Well, nobody does that anymore.  Sorry.  Nowadays, readers are in a hurry.  They’re impatient.  They’re easily bored. Your job is to deliver the news to them in the most appealing, accessible, easy-to-digest way” (pg. 51).  I’ve learned before that a lot of newspaper readers don’t read full articles, they simply skim the beginning or read the headline to see what is going on.  According to an eZine article, “Most of the people don’t read the whole article, they just read the first paragraph.”  So, it looks like the business model (print and print ad sales) for journalism is broken, but it also seems like writing style needs some adjustment as well.

The inverted pyramid is… fine.  Harrower refers to the inverted pyramid as a news writing “recipe.”  Something about that seems wrong to me.  We’re organizing our stories so that lazy and impatient readers can just read the first paragraph and then move on to the next story.  If that is the case for most readers, why would we even bother to agonize over the perfect verb or the exact adjective to describe something.  What a waste of creativity.  I propose we don’t get rid of the inverted pyramid altogether, but that we experiment with other news writing styles as well.  Maybe if we use different and more creative styles, for instance Gonzo journalism, we can keep reader’s attention from the beginning to the end of a story and have more fun writing it.

Gonzo journalism is a style of writing attributed to the late Hunter S. Thompson.  Most of us know Thompson as the author of such masterpieces as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary and Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.  Gonzo journalism requires the journalist to be a part of the events taking place.  For example, in the writing of Hell’s Angels, Thompson actually went undercover and joined the biker gang.  He felt that he couldn’t truly write about the gang unless he joined and had the full Angels experience.

Another attribute of Gonzo journalism is that it is written subjectively.  According to the Wikipedia entry on Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson felt that objectivity in journalism is a myth.  And of course, it is.  It is impossible to write anything that is fully objective.  So, why not embrace the inevitable subjective nature of our work and use Gonzo journalism more?

Other techniques used in Gonzo journalism include the use of profanity and mixing fact and fiction to get a certain point across.  The following is part of a Wikipedia entry on Hunter S. Thompson’s writing style:

“Thompson is often credited as the creator of Gonzo journalism, a style of writing that blurs distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. His work and style are considered to be a major part of the New Journalism literary movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which attempted to break free from the purely objective style of mainstream reportage of the time. Thompson almost always wrote in the first person, while extensively using his own experiences and emotions to color “the story” he was trying to follow. His writing aimed to be humorous, colorful and bizarre, and he often exaggerated events to be more entertaining.

I say we take a page out of Dr. Thompson’s book and experiment with different journalism writing styles because using a “recipe” to create stories just doesn’t sound too appealing.  I don’t think the inverted pyramid should or will fully go away, but I propose we learn how to engage readers in a whole story instead of just the first paragraph.

Excellent Gonzo writing by Hunter S. Thompson and excellent Gonzo art by Ralph Steadman.


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1 Response to GONZO

  1. benmaras says:

    Hunter was a big influence on my decision to pursue journalism, and instilled in me numerous pipe dreams of running of to chase rogue bicycle gangs in search of the American dream. Unfortunately it seems like the biggest lesson people learn from the Dr. is that taking drugs makes you a good writer — which doesn’t work out so well for most people.

    Which is a shame, because there’s so much we can learn from the New Journalists, and the Gonzo camp in particular. One of the biggest things it that he intuitively understood what several authors in “The Best Newswriting” said — that if he found a story boring, the readers would too. He wrote for the readers, because he understood that if they found it boring, they wouldn’t read it. It’s interesting to me that he always considered himself a sportswriter, because Gonzo journalism seems to fall about where sportswriting does on Harrower’s opinion spectrum — most of the facts are there, even if there’s some coarse use of commentary. While doing that, though, he got people to read who otherwise wouldn’t pick up a work of “serious” literature (yes, I get the irony of calling HST serious).

    The inverted pyramid is like being a line cook in a diner — you get the ingredients, you throw it all together in the way that the guy before you taught you, and you get something — palatable. Maybe it’s not the most flavorful or exciting, but the average consumer expects it because they had it like that before. New Journalism is for those who want to put their own spin on things and take a new direction. Unfortunately, this doesn’t jive well with restaurant owners and publishers. I think we’re lucky here, in that the web opens up new potential for creative journalism. Say you read a big enterprise story in the Register-Guard. Being able to go online and find a more in-depth, more entertaining account of it would turn new people on to the news — which as Hunter understood, is our first job, anyway.

    Res ipsa loquitor.

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