The Woman Who Made Modern Journalism
The Atlantic|January - February 2020
Ida Tarbell helped pioneer reportorial methods and investigative ambitions that are as potent today as ever.
Liza Mundy

Once upon a time, during a period of great technological innovation but also great economic inequality, journalism was striving to define its role in a fractious democracy. Divisions between conservatives and progressives were stark—and angry—and social anxiety about racial injustice and the rise of women was acute. The behemoth size of some corporations stirred alarm. So did the plight of workers with few protections. At the helm of the government was a president with a bully pulpit, ready to upend things. It was one of those rare moments, in the words of the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, of “transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.”

If that sounds familiar and ominous, take heart. I’m describing the turn of the 20th century, a time when those striving journalists were defining the bedrock reporting principles we now take for granted— developing their field on the fly, and triumphantly. In the process, they confirmed what a potent force their vocation could be. To revisit investigative journalism being born and magazines thriving more than 100 years ago is to be reminded that dizzying change in technology and the media—the refrain of our digital era—is by no means unique to our moment. Nor is it the whole story. The standards, methods, and collaborative ambitions that fueled the 20th-century journalistic upsurge don’t look quaint at all: They remain as crucial as ever in the effort to hold power accountable.

Back when modern journalism was defining itself—before objectivity was a reportorial byword, before off the record and on background were terms of the trade, and before narrative nonfiction was common parlance—one of the leading practitioners of the bold new form of inquiry was Ida Tarbell. A tall woman in a long dress, her brown hair piled high, she might be seen regularly entering the doors of the Standard Oil offices in New York City as the century began. Tarbell was meeting with what we would call a “source.” Her interlocutor was a forceful man with a nickname—Henry “Hell Hound” Rogers—right out of central casting. Tarbell was writing a series on Standard Oil and the rapacious practices of its founder, John D. Rockefeller. Rogers’s job was to guide her reporting— as we might say, to “spin” her.

But Tarbell was not to be spun. When he gave her a glass of milk, she insisted on paying. When he pressed to know who had told her something, she refused to say. When she ran some near-finished copy by him—what would today qualify as fact-checking— she refused to let him make changes beyond offering corrections. All of these were guidelines she developed alongside her editor, S. S. McClure, and her colleagues at his eponymous magazine, McClure’s. The upshot was one of the seminal early examples of what is now​ known as long-form investigative reporting. Tarbell might have won a Pulitzer, except that journalism prizes also were not yet a thing. “Woman Does Marvelous Work!” was one of many rapturous headlines.

Tarbell’s 19-part Standard Oil series began in McClure’s in November 1902, and the celebrated January 1903 issue—which featured the third installment of the series, a piece on labor unrest among coal miners by Ray Stannard Baker, and an exposé by Lincoln Steffens on municipal corruption—sold out on newsstands in days. (The magazine also had about 400,000 subscribers.) Tarbell became so famous that she was recognized everywhere. McClure, a manic genius, had assembled what an editor of The Atlantic, Ellery Sedgwick, later called “the most brilliant staff ever gathered by a New York periodical” at precisely the time when magazines enjoyed top status as the mass medium of the moment; newspapers tended to be sensational and partisan, and radio had not quite arrived. Among the first-ever magazine staff writers, McClure’s team grasped that when laying a complicated topic before readers, narrative pacing and a strong writerly voice are invaluable. So are facts, facts, and more facts; vivid characters; and a central conflict.

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