The Associated Press has always maintained that its first Stylebook - the essential reference bible for professional journalists - was published in 1953. “Sixty pages,” they say, “stapled together.”
But this isn’t exactly true.
Actually, there were hundreds of pocket-sized “circulars” distributed to correspondents for at least a half a century before that. Some focused on writing style, others on “rules and regulations.” There was even one about how to file telephone reports. It’s unclear how many of these pamphlets were actually seen by reporters in the field, however, or how closely their scattered guidelines were followed.
So an enterprising correspondent named John Palmer Gavit, who covered the state capitol at Albany from 1902 to 1909, decided to take matters into his own hands. His richly detailed publication, The Reporter’s Manual: A Handbook for Newspaper Men, was begun in the early 1890s and took 12 years to complete. It was finished in 1903, one year before Gavit was named Albany bureau chief, and is now the earliest known and most complete guidebook for reporters; a book so forgotten that even the AP’s own archivists hadn’t heard of it.
Gavit’s work is a forgotten bit of history that reveals much about early “newspapermen” and how they saw their place in the world. Like the modern Stylebook, it offers dictionary-style entries on what topics journalists should and should not cover, why, and how. His advice is for the “all-round, general utility chap,” he says. The lone reporter freshly “flung out into deep water to sink or swim as best he may, with little comfort or counsel from his elders.” His aim is to offer guidance to the overwrought correspondent who must, “for 365 days in the year find news in the passing crowd, scoops on the street corners, copy in everything.”
The manual’s introduction is written by fellow AP reporter George Edward Graham, who was best known for documenting the Spanish-American war from aboard the USS Brooklyn.
“Mr. Gavit has filled a long-felt want in issuing this little book of instruction,” Graham writes. “In the last ten years there have been written less than five books on newspaper work,” and all of these “of a voluminous character and rather bewildering.”
“Could I have had such a book at hand in my ‘cub’ newspaper days,” Graham continues, giving Gavit’s work undeniable credibility, “my progress would have been far more rapid [than] struggling alone day by day with many blunders and bitter experiences.”
In reading the manual, one is struck by how little the basics of good journalism have changed.
There are but two Golden Rules: “Never betray a confidence” and “never deliberately pervert or misrepresent facts.”
Accuracy is more important being “brilliant and elegant,” and there is even an entry for “Mare’s Nest,” which begins with the simple words, “Keep cool.” For even the most “thrilling rumor” will usually dissolve under investigation, writes Gavit, and the reporter who keeps his head at such times will avoid “eating crow” tomorrow.
He advises reporters to have a telephone, “in your house if you can,” and “at least one friend in every neighborhood, and among each class and nationality of people (e.g. miners, railroad men, college students).” Correspondents also need a blank book, he says, with the names of “local officers, justice of the peace, coroner, postmaster, station agent, ministers, lawyers, undertakers, doctors, teachers and others upon whom you may call in a pinch.” This list is like a “mine of diamonds . The man or woman whom you met two years ago and forgot, but whose name is in your book, may be the very one who will save the day. Not one, but twenty, first class scoops were the fruit of this absurdly obvious device.”
And what may have been a striking precursor to the indispensible AP Daybook, Gavit advises reporters to keep a “Date-Book” of important events. “Every fellow has his own ideas as to the system of preserving and classifying material,” he writes. “Suit yourself on this point, but have some system.” In the absence of a paper, the enterprising reporter will use “his cuffs, shirt bosom, the fly-leaf from a book, a box cover, piece of board or shingle.”
But for all its similarities to newsgathering principles of today, the 1904 book also reveals how radically our cultural norms have shifted. In Gavit’s time, murders were to be covered only briefly, “unless accompanied by unusual circumstances.” A prescient tip for local television stations everywhere. Rapes and abortions on the other hand, were not wanted news at all “except when the victim of the latter is well-known and dies, or the perpetrator of the former is pursued and lynched by a mob.” (Interestingly, by 1911, a much briefer “circular” had eliminated Gavit’s reference to lynching and mentions only a “mob.”)