In Praise of Personal Journalism

Throwing off the shackles of the conventional press

I arrived at The Village Voice in 1958 in urgent need of a wide-ranging forum because for years I had been typed by editors as only knowing about jazz. No pay was offered me then, but I was promised that I could write about anything I wanted to. Soon I was immersed in a "newspaper culture" I'd never experienced before. Many of the "assignments" were self-propelled, and the writing had to be in your own voice if you could find it. (This came to be known later as "personal journalism.")

Jack Newfield, who first became known through The Village Voice , used to say that co-founder and first editor in chief Dan Wolf "orchestrated the obsessions of his writers." We were indeed a passionately opinionated motley lot. Dan Wolf prided himself on not hiring anyone with experience as a professional journalist. He wanted writers who hadn't been conditioned to the rules and restraints of the conventional press.

There was no party line at the Voice. Dan Wolf hardly ever wrote an editorial. And members of the staff continually differed with one another, not only in the small confines of the office but continually in its pages.

A gathering of Voice writers in 1967: From left: Howard Smith, Deborah Jowitt, Michael Zwerin, Joe Flaherty, John Perreault, Dan List, Margot Hentoff, Michael Harrington, Nat Hentoff, Carmen Moore, Ross Wetzsteon, Jonas Mekas
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
A gathering of Voice writers in 1967: From left: Howard Smith, Deborah Jowitt, Michael Zwerin, Joe Flaherty, John Perreault, Dan List, Margot Hentoff, Michael Harrington, Nat Hentoff, Carmen Moore, Ross Wetzsteon, Jonas Mekas

For one of many examples, in 1968, when Albert Shanker, head of the United Federation of Teachers, closed down the entire school system in a fierce dispute with the black leadership of the Ocean Hill–Brownsville school district, there was constant warfare in our pages among the regular writers—and from many contributors on both sides.

I wrote many pieces in support of "community control," and not only in Ocean Hill–Brownsville. (I didn't realize then that "community" leaders could be as incompetent as administrators from the Department of Education.) Among those supporting the UFT was Michael Harrington, whose book The Other America had helped the Kennedy administration "discover" poverty. Mike and I were friends, but you couldn't tell that from the way we wrote about each other in the Voice.

Around that time, I was invited to speak at Harvard to the Nieman fellows, highly regarded professional journalists chosen to spend a year in Cambridge, where they could take any courses they wanted. During my talk, a professor auditing the session said to me in exasperation: "What I can't stand about the Voice is that I have no idea of what its editorial policy is. There's no clean line."

"That," I told him, "is the Voice's policy—to have no party line." This didn't mean there were no times when there was a common stand among these battling writers. I don't remember a single piece supporting the Vietnam War.

Furthermore, back then there was no line between "objective" reporting and being part of the story you were writing about. That was especially true during the Vietnam War, when some of us were active participants in marches, teach-ins, and even civil disobedience. I was in a crowd trying to obstruct an induction center.

One morning, I got a call from a young reporter, one of our best, Don McNeill, who was covering an anti-war demonstration at Grand Central Terminal that the police tried to break up by force, including smashing heads. Our reporter, who had been clubbed, said hurriedly to me on the phone, "Should I put in the story that I've got blood on my shirt, or is that putting myself too much into the story?"

"That's your lead," I told him. I doubt that anyone on the New York Times news desk ever got such a call from a reporter in the field.

The part of the Voice "culture" in those years that encouraged its regular writers to assault one another in the paper was often infuriating to the targets. I'm surprised, in retrospect, there were no fistfights—that I knew of. But this internecine warfare seemed to delight readers, who could take sides, like in a boxing match.

Moreover, readers who actually wanted to get into the ring with us were invited, through a regular Voice feature, Press of Freedom—which I dearly wish was back in the paper. Anyone, known or unknown, could send in a response, in that section, either to Voice writers or to contributors to Press of Freedom.

We also had, and still have, a lively letters-to-the-editor section; but there was more space and more attention paid to the free-for-alls back in the days of Press of Freedom.

I seldom admitted to myself at the time that being a regularly targeted staff writer—in the pages of my own paper—made for more accurate reporting. Some of the sharply pointed factual corrections to what I'd written were sufficiently embarrassing to make me more careful. (We didn't have, in the early years, as persistently demanding a fact-checking department as we do now. As a former staff writer for more than 25 years at The New Yorker, with its legendary fact checkers, I can attest that the current Voice checkers are just as rigorous.) But back in the early days here, the toughest fact checkers were, in our pages, the other writers— and the readers who wrote for Press of Freedom.

Years before the advent of the Internet, the Voice grew in size, as did the range of its readers: Far above 14th Street, beyond the city, it became evident that the paper had established "a community of consciousness." (The phrase was that of my wife, Margot, a former Voice writer and editor.)

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