Face of Journalism Has Changed, but Not Its Core

By John Kelly
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Did you know that reporters at eastern newspapers such as The Washington Post are credited "as receiving the largest salaries for the least work"?

Or that the most successful newspapermen either come from west of the Mississippi or have received their newspaper training out there, in "the land of hustle and energy"?

I didn't, either, until I read a slim volume titled "Washington Correspondents Past and Present -- Brief Sketches of the Rank and File." It's a fascinating little book, written by one Ralph M. McKenzie and published in 1903.

Even back then, it probably had a pretty limited readership. Today, it's a real curiosity, but I was captivated by the snapshot it provided of pre-BlackBerry journalism.

Where else would I meet J.H. Ramsdell of the Philadelphia Times and St. Louis Globe-Democrat, an "all-round newspaper hustler and bon mot builder"? Or J.V. "Felix" Cracraft, a reporter described as "eccentric, loose-jointed, peculiar, but with a large heart in the right place"?

There's Charles S. Albert of the New York World, once the fastest telegraph operator in the country: "Eventually he had telegrapher's paralysis, and became traveling correspondent for the United Press." And Addison B. Atkins, whose colleagues regarded him as "the best-dressed man in the corps." And the Pittsburg Post's Maurice Splain: "He is a connoisseur on etching, and will travel a long distance to view something novel in that line."

Even better are the photographs: a florid assortment of handlebar mustaches, bushy sideburns, derby hats, homburgs, wing collars, cravats -- all with the same unsmiling face, as if each writer had been afflicted with indigestion when the shutter was snapped.

Yes, fashions have changed. But really, things aren't so very different. Under the heading "The Correspondent's Qualifications," McKenzie wrote:

"The man who would perform the best services for his newspaper must . . . have a reputation for discretion in the handling and treatment of news and caution in keeping faith with all who impart secret information to him in advance."

I recognized you, too: "The public usually find a criticism upon or a scandal about a public man more interesting reading than fulsome praise, which soon becomes tiresome."

Lots of people like to criticize journalists these days, but in the past few weeks -- with this newspaper's reporting on conditions at Walter Reed -- we've seen how necessary they are, how sacred is their duty.

Or as McKenzie wrote a century ago: "Without the searchlight of publicity, turned on at full power and wisely directed by the gentlemen of the press, it is not too much to say without fear of being accused of exaggeration, that public life in Washington would be more venal than patriotic Americans would care to admit as possible."

It would have been interesting to rub elbows with those correspondents. Even so, McKenzie noted that Washington's journalism fraternity of 1903 wasn't quite as interesting as it once had been, back in the 1870s and 1880s, before "the delightful Bohemian life" had passed away.

"The passing of the Bohemian is certainly in many ways a great loss," he lamented. The newer generation was just as smart, he admitted, "but the personal side of journalism, with its ample sentiment and color, is gone, and the men who make newspapers what they are have been swallowed up in the general impersonal waste-basket of modern newspaperdom."

He never saw my etchings.

Little Orphan St. Annie's

I'm indebted to Burtonsville's Kathleen Ann O'Leary for the loan of the book. She came across it while researching a history she's writing of St. Ann's Infant Asylum, now called St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home and located in Hyattsville.

"The Post, the journalists -- all those people are part of the back story," said Kathleen.

My e-mail:kellyj@washpost.com

© 2007 The Washington Post Company