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Aug. 5, 2013, 1 p.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “The Reporter’s Trade” by Joseph and Stewart Alsop (1958)

“Obviously, a reporter cannot make a practice of reporting after working hours. If he does so, he will soon achieve the approximate popularity of an insurance agent who takes along a bundle of contracts to every party he goes to.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

The Reporter’s Trade by Joseph and Stewart Alsop

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The Reporter’s Trade has the feel of a Hardy Boys adventure, if instead of investigating small-town jewel thieves, Frank and Joe Hardy traveled to global capitals, attended state dinners, and had a creeping suspicion about the Communist threat.

Written in 1958 by sibling newspaper columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop, The Reporter’s Trade follows in the long tradition of journalism memoirs that mash-up biography and bibliography, with charming tales and a healthy dose of D.C. name-dropping.

The Alsop brothers were reporters and columnists from around the time of World War II until the 1970s, covering politics and Washington life as well as foreign affairs and national issues. Over their careers the brothers worked together and separately, writing for places such as The New York Herald Tribune and The Saturday Evening Post.

While The Reporter’s Trade devotes much of its time to recounting the duo’s reporting adventures and commentary on the postwar years, the Alsops also provide a dose of guidance on what it takes to be a journalist. “People speak of a newspaperman’s sources as though these sources were so many freely bubbling, always gushing springs. Yet the voluntary source is almost as rare as hen’s teeth,” they write.

But the Alsops’ book also speaks to the culture of Washington, D.C., and the relationships between journalists and those in power. The Reporter’s Trade offers a good reminder of why it’s nice to have an expanded universe of news options — from both those within and without the corridors (or dining tables) of power.

Obviously, a reporter cannot make a practice of reporting after working hours. If he does so, he will soon achieve the approximate popularity of an insurance agent who takes along a bundle of contracts to every party he goes to. Equally obviously, since men who are his friends are also men in government, the reporter must sometimes ask his friends for information or guidance. The rule is, however, that such questions are only put in a man’s office or at the luncheon table — the luncheon table being barbarously considered in Washington as a mere extension of the office.

And sometimes even this rule is not strict enough to solve the problem. Our two best friends in Washington happen to be men in rather sensitive positions, who could no doubt tell us many things of extreme interest. But we long ago decided that the price of retaining these particular friends was never trying to discuss with them any matters within the area of their official responsibility, in office hours or out of office hours; we have never done so. Fortunately, our two friends have other topics besides the familiar Washington triad, gossip, politics, and real estate; so conversation rarely lags despite the impossibility of talking about our friends’ work.

In the Washington correspondent’s life, hospitality is another problem that perhaps needs touching on. We come from a tribe that has an almost pathological fondness for giving parties, and we both enjoy being hospitable ourselves. In political Washington, moreover, you cannot just ask your close personal friends to your tbale. There is a strong touch of the zoo in Washington life, and everyone in Washington likes to see the lions, who also like to be seen.

Washington dinner-giving is not quite so formula-ridden as it was in the old days before the war, when a prospective host or hostess would begin by asking, “who shall I have for the Ambassador, who for the Supreme Court Justice, who for the Senator?” because one-of-each was a necessary ingredient in the recipe for a successful dinner. But even today, your dinner will please everyone more if there is a lion or two to roar away at the head of the table. Even your closest friends will be a little disappointed without lions. And it is also useful to a reporter to feed the lions, if they consent to be fed.

POSTED     Aug. 5, 2013, 1 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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