Preface – “San Juan, Winter of 1958”

19 04 2009

As I’ve blogged before, I’m currently writing up my PhD, an intertextual account of print journalists writing business news. In the run-up to actually submitting (late June) and defending (late August), the plan is to post chapters, extracts and other drafts here. Below is the preface (with some minor changes). Comments are deeply appreciated!

Preface (draft version, revised 19 April 2009)

Long before he coined the phrase gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson worked as a sportswriter for El Sportivo, the Caribbean’s bowling tabloid answer to Sports Illustrated. After the magazine’s demise, Thompson returned to the US in the early 1960s and fictionalized his island adventures in The Rum Diary, a sweaty tale of lust, journalism and heavy drinking. Set in the post-war boomtown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thompson’s protagonist and narrator is Paul Kemp, a 30 year old journalist who feels that time and women keep passing him by.

Puerto Rico was a backwater and the Daily News was staffed mainly by ill-tempered wandering rabble. They moved erratically, on the winds of rumor and opportunity, all over Europe, Latin America and the Far East — wherever there were English-language newspapers, jumping from one to another, looking always for the big break, the crucial assignment, the rich heiress or the fat job at the far end of the next plane ticket.

In a sense I was one of them — more competent than some and more stable than others — and in the years that I carried that ragged banner I was seldom unemployed. Sometimes I worked for three newspapers at once. I wrote ad copy for new casinos and bowling alleys. I was a consultant for the cockfighting syndicate, an utterly corrupt high-end restaurant critic, a yachting photographer and a routine victim of police brutality. It was a greedy life and I was good at it. I made some interesting friends, had enough money to get around, and learned a lot about the world that I could never have learned in any other way.

( “San Juan, Winter of 1958” – The Rum Diary)

In the early summer of 2003, right after I had a completed a postgraduate course in journalism, I had the good fortune of reading The Rum Diary the way it is supposed to be read: clad in swimming trunks, shades and a sun hat, stretched out on a Caribbean beach, a gentle breeze taking the sting out of the afternoon heat. The restless journalistic lifestyle that Thompson so vividly captures – fiercely independent reporters boozing and carousing at all hours but still making deadlines – sparked an enduring sympathy for the “vagrant journalists” and “ill-tempered wandering rabble” at the San Juan Daily News. Of course, I found neither during my time as a professional stranger, a seeker by any other name, at a Dutch language newspaper on the not-so-tropical outskirts of Brussels, Belgium.

Instead, over a six month period that began in the fall of 2006 and formally ended in the spring of 2007, I met a different breed of journalists in all. Economic journalists to be precise. The economics newsdesk was inhabited by a group of seasoned beat reporters, financially and technologically literate, networked and multilingual, some more ambitious than others, quick to underscore their role as news generators but slow to acknowledge their role as news processors. With a few exceptions they were middle-aged, full-time, indefinitely contracted but above all genuine news professionals who epitomized the journalistic establishment of the Flemish liberal press: articulate in professional ideologies (“we report the news, other people make it”) and master narratives (“90% of all press releases are useless”), aware of their position atop the newsroom food chain yet weary of another round of cost-saving operations, knowledgeable of the massive changes afoot in the news industry yet conveniently indifferent to the efforts and presence of their own online newsdesk, award-winning and experienced yet unassuming and easygoing, intent on getting to the story yet increasingly newsdesk-bound, allergic to corporate spin yet keen to let sources lead the dance.

To my surprise, the newsroom staff I observed moved to a remarkably similar beat, not at all professionally deviant from the routines, norms and rituals that newsroom ethnographers à la Gaye Tuchman and Herbert Gans first described in the 1970s. For instance, the operation of the newsdesk was organized around temporal routines such as the newsroom diary and editorial conferences and sustained a division of labor into news beats (finance, ICT, energy, labor, monetary policy, etc.), a reliance on elite or otherwise trustworthy news sources (government officials, company announcements, press agency copy) and, when prompted, an orientation towards shared values of objectivity, impartiality and factuality.

Even though my research site was obviously no match for Thompson’s slimy caricature of the San Juan Daily News, there are other ways in which I identify with The Rum Diary. Like the novel, which was written in the early 1960s but remained unpublished until 1998, long after Thompson had become a (counter)cultural icon in the US, this book has experienced a long birth. While taking far less time to see the light of day, writing up my research has been an arduous process, driven in part by stagefreight, procrastination, indecisiveness and frustration over failing to grasp theoretically and analytically what seemed so self-explanatory to the reporters in the field.

Next, the genealogy of The Rum Diary forces attention to its conceptual history, its coming about. As I already mentioned, Thompson wrote the book shortly after he had returned from Puerto Rico. There, working as a makeshift journalist, he made friends with other – dare I say – vagrant journalists, some of whom worked at the English-language daily The San Juan Star. It is not difficult to see where Thompson got his inspiration from. However, it is the way in which Thompson brings this historical and conceptual dimension to life and how he makes it speak to broader social issues – capitalism, alcoholism, journalism – that makes The Rum Diary such a page turner. Secretly, I hope that my account of intertextuality, i.e. the way news articles are linked to news sources, how these texts shift across contexts of production and what they reveal about the materiality, creativity and agency involved in news production, is equally appealing to the reader.

Lastly, in his embattled prose style which Thompson later proclaimed gonzo journalism, I see an uncanny resemblance to the ethnographic voice. Put briefly, gonzo is a form of participatory journalism, in which the journalist is an intricate part of the story, placing him or her

and the quest for information as the focal point. Notes, snatches from other articles, transcribed interviews, verbatim telephone conversations, telegrams – these are all elements of a piece of gonzo journalism.

(McKeen 1991: 36, cited in Franklin et al 2005: 95)

While the etymology of the word ‘gonzo’ remains uncertain (see Hirst 2004), it shares some of the hallmark features of ethnography: the classic model of participant observation is not so much different from Thompson’s long-term encounters with foreign correspondents; the worlds that ethnographies describe are as chaotic as Thompson’s Caribbean odyssey; the subjective, self-reflexive epistemology of ethnographic knowledge construction parallels Thompson’s unhinged style of first-person narration and ethnography’s critical potential is mirrored in The Rum Diary‘s critique of American colonization.

So without further ado, I present my personal brand of gonzo scholarship: eclectic in substance yet academic in form but perhaps a bit deviant from the norm. While my account lacks the linguistic prowess and adjective-defying characters of The Rum Diary, I too “made some interesting friends” – both in the field and in the academy – and “learned a lot about the world that I could never have learned in any other way.”

Tom Van Hout
Overmere-Donk, April 2009

References:

Franklin, Bob (2005). Gonzo Journalism. In Bob Franklin, Martin Hamer, Mark Hanna, Marie Kinsey and John E. Richardson (eds.), Key Concepts in Journalism Studies 95. London: Sage.
Hirst, Martin (2004). What is Gonzo? The etymology of an urban legend. University of Queensland Eprint. Accessed 10 April 2009, http://eprint.uq.edu.au/archive/00000776/


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