Twenty-five years ago, I read a book published 104 years ago. It contributed mightily to my education as an investigative journalist. Beyond that contribution to my personal education, the book invented contemporary investigative journalism more than anything else ever published.
The 800-page book, with its title masking the fierce exposé tone and devastating evidence, is “The History of the Standard Oil Company.” The author is Ida M. (for Minerva) Tarbell. The genesis of the book was a series of articles by Tarbell in McClure’s Magazine. The eponymous owner, S.S. (for Samuel Sidney) McClure, also played a huge role in the development of what in the opening decade of the 20th century lacked a name, but today goes by “investigative reporting.”
If the past is prologue (which I believe is true without qualification), and if history is a good teacher (which I believe is sometimes true, depending on the mindset of the pupil), then Tarbell (1857-1944) and McClure (1857-1949) offer vital, timely lessons for investigative journalism circa 2008.
The Tarbell-McClure Connection
Tarbell grew up amidst the oil fields of rural northwestern Pennsylvania. (For readers lacking in their oil history, the first U.S. well began gushing oil in 1859, near Titusville, Pennsylvania.) But despite her deep and broad knowledge of the fledgling oil industry, she never expected to write about it.
During an era when women rarely attended college, Tarbell did, and graduated. She failed, at least by her standards, in a brief career as a schoolteacher. In her late 20’s, knowing she did not want to marry or mother children but otherwise unsure how to fulfill her intense desire to make the world a better place, Tarbell fell into a job proofreading an educational magazine called The Chautauquan, based in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the same town where she had attended Allegheny College. The editor gave her opportunities to report and write; Tarbell excelled in those roles. After a decade, she left the magazine to freelance in Paris, France.
As for McClure, he arrived from Ireland as a schoolboy, accompanying his widowed mother and his siblings. Impoverished, he managed to barely avoid starvation until graduation from high school. At the urging of an uncle, McClure moved to Galesburg, Illinois, where odd jobs allowed him to earn tuition for Knox College. Ending up on the East Coast after graduation, McClure located employment at a bicycling magazine that taught him the business side, then in the early 1890’s started his own general-interest magazine, a risky venture made all the more treacherous by a national economic downturn. Over and over, it appeared the magazine would descend into bankruptcy, but McClure’s clever managing of the budget plus outstanding editorial content staved off failure.
McClure happened to see some of Tarbell’s freelancing from Paris, finding himself so impressed that he traveled there to meet her. She started freelancing for his magazine, a few years later leaving France to join the staff in New York City. During the last half of the 1890’s, she achieved renown by carrying out two assignments dreamed up by McClure—serialized biographies of two deceased, controversial, famous men—Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln.
By 1900, McClure realized that his magazine must tackle one of the most difficult topics around—corporate giantism and rapacity in the form of “trusts” (think of the word “antitrust”). The Standard Oil Company, founded and controlled by John D. Rockefeller, represented the biggest, most infamous trust of all. McClure asked Tarbell to write a proposal for tackling the topic. She did, and the rest, pun and cliché both intended, is history.
Essential Historical Lessons
Superb editorial content gets attention and sells magazines. McClure intuited that well-researched, well-written accounts of Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln would increase circulation. He was right; the circulation of the magazine shot up measurably with each installment of the lives of Bonaparte and Lincoln. The serialization of Standard Oil’s rise, thanks in large part to the brilliant and often predatory tactics of John D. Rockefeller, resulted in massive circulation gains, too. Those circulation gains meant McClure could appeal more convincingly to lenders, investors and potential advertisers.
Time spent reporting pays dividends and leads to uncovering the truth. McClure, while sometimes expressing impatience at Tarbell’s pace, nonetheless understood that for his reporter to turn up new, compelling material, she would need time. Lots of time. Perhaps no journalist had spoken these words as of 1900, but McClure perhaps heard them in his mind: “Time equals truth.” (I first heard that formulation from Robert Caro, author of remarkable journalistic biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson.) Tarbell spent time in archives seeking personal correspondence, visited out-of-the-way towns to interview women and men never before approached by a journalist, queried government agencies for documents, and entered courthouses to track down litigation. She accomplished her remarkable research during an era when long-distance travel was slow, without the aid of photocopy machines, audio tape recorders, the Internet, or digital cameras.
strong>Support from editors and publishers is vital. No topic is too large or too risky if editors and publishers will support their reporters’ quest for information with resources and time. Imagine how appreciative contemporary readers would be if more magazines, newspapers, broadcast networks and stations, and cable outlets and Web sites (posting original content), had reporters delving into Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Microsoft, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and other ridiculously powerful, nearly unchecked institutions. McClure wanted to earn enough money to keep his magazine afloat and pay himself a large enough salary to support his family while also paying his staff well, which is exactly what he did. Never did he place the maximizing of profit ahead of sound journalism in the public interest.
The time equals truth formulation can still work. It is vital to develop lots more publishers who subscribe to the notion.
A PERSONAL NOTE
Plenty is wrong with book publishing in general. Still, lots of publishing houses are willing to advance money to journalists who say they will deliver a book manuscript on a vital topic for society. That is what happened with my book at W.W. Norton, where Robert Weil, among others, acquires books on searing topics every year, risking the company’s cash. Norton, not so incidentally, is one of the few major book publishers that has remained independent of corporate giantism. Because my book advance would not sustain me for the number of years I needed—I am either plodding or thorough, depending on the perspective—I supplemented the advance with a generous grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, presided over by journalist/administrator Peggy Engel. —S.W.
Steve Weinberg is the author of seven nonfiction books, including his most recent, “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller,” published by W.W. Norton in early 2008. He is a former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., and teaches magazine journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.