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.”)
When the jury returns to a courtroom with a decision you may find yourself “hemmed in by the crowd,” Gavit warns. In such cases, correspondents should signal from the window to a trusty messenger across the street: “one, two or three motions of a handkerchief” to quickly relay the verdict of “guilty,” “not guilty,” or “jury disagrees.”
Along with routine, everyday murders, Gavit’s list of unwanted subjects found on the last page of the book, is exhaustive:
Do not send incest cases, elopements, seductions, infanticides, or scandals of any kind; injury or death of employees of railroads while coupling cars, switching, etc.; injury or single death by farming or other machinery, or by horses running away, or at railroad crossings, or on railroad tracks; ordinary suicides of persons known only in their city, town or county; death of old settlers or individuals, unless having at least a State reputation; single drownings; changes in the temperature, or about frost; snow, hail or rain, except where there is loss of life or great damage to property, or railroad trains are stopped and travel interrupted; announcement of candidates for office of any kind, except when called for; organization of political clubs, etc.; crop reports, or crop conditions; social events or marriages, unless ordered; base ball and foot ball games, horse or bicycle races, unless ordered; common accidents to man or beast; sporadic cases of infectious or contagious diseases, such as small-pox, diphtheria, etc., or of diseases which affect animals; petty crimes; movements of prize-fighters or their managers or trainers, unless ordered; libel suits, suits for infringement of patents, copyrights, trade marks, etc.; damage suits against individuals, firms or corporations for injury, death, etc .
The final item on that list, interestingly, is “editorials on political subjects.”
Gavit’s wit is sharp, and he has little patience for the reporter who fails to make his best effort. In a private letter dated April 3, 1915, Gavit, who was by then managing editor at the New York Evening Post (he also served as the AP’s Washington, DC, bureau chief from 1909 to 1911) roundly admonishes an underling, Harold Phelps Stokes, the paper’s Albany correspondent:
I don’t know when I have seen a bunch of newspaper correspondents so fast asleep as the bunch at Albany. Nobody, not even the correspondent of the Evening Post seems alive to his job.
Poor Stokes would later enjoy a long and successful career, including more than ten years at The New York Times, and he and Gavit would remain friends well into old age. But at the time of this letter, Stokes was a 28-year-old rookie who knew nothing about covering state politics. Gavit’s job was to whip him into shape:
Here is the rottenest Legislature that has been there in my time, yet the only newspaper writing that has been done about it, that amounts to three hurrahs, is in the editorials written by poorly-informed men in New York City. What I am looking for is some stuff from you worthy of at least a 51 head on the first page For God’s sake, go to it!