How journalism began: the witch and the writer

Dateline: Thu 02 Apr 2020

Gannett, which owns the Indianapolis Star and USA Today, plus 100 daily papers and 1,000 weeklies, made news a few days ago by announcing pay cuts and furloughs for its journalists.

Those making $38,000 salary or more will give up one week of work/pay in April, May and June. Gannett blames a decline in advertising dollars for its decision, but it's hardly a new news story: Gannett has a well-documented history of being the chain gang in town that slashes salaries, breaks up the Guild and fires people without cause.

This is lamentable, but don't cry for journalists, America.

Those who have stayed the course, hanging in there as reporters, editors, photographers, graphic designers, copy editors, etc., know the drill: You don't join a newspaper to make big bucks.

And, those who are called to the craft are responding to an impulse that runs deep in the human spirit.

People like to tell and hear stories -- mostly oral tradition for centuries, but also poetry and prose.

Then came 1587, when some enterprising and curious soul took the quest to a new level.

Of course, it began with a business model: A prominent banking firm in Germany, the house of Fugger, started distributing newsletters. It was a good move. The Fuggers had international connections. They were priivy to insider information about politics and various scandals of the day. 

So when a midwife named Walpurga Hausmanin was accused of practicing witchcraft for 30 years, in Dillingen, Germany, somebody saw the hook:  this was, in today's jargon, a reader, a Page 1 story, one that would run "above the fold."

All the elements were there: "the evil and lustful confessions of a midnight sorceress,"  sex, the death of innocent children, the destruction of cattle, pigs and geese, a Catholic feast day, torture, and execution.

Do you think the guy who wrote the story -- preserved in a museum in Vienna -- made a pot of gold ducats? Do you think he even cared?

I suspect not. I think he took whatever the Fugger bosses doled out, drank some beers and sallied forth, ear to the ground, nose in the air, looking for the next big story.

Source: A Treasury of Great Reporting, published in 1949, edited by Louis L. Snyder and Richard B. Morris, who reminded us "Journalism is literature in a hurry."

 

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