cover image Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine that Rewrote America

Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine that Rewrote America

Stephanie Gorton. Ecco, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-279664-6

Socially conscious journalism and colorful personalities stimulate each other in this meandering portrait of a Progressive Era magazine. Journalist Gorton recounts the heyday of McClure’s (roughly 1893 to 1906), which gained a then-massive circulation exceeding 400,000 for its fiction by legends including Willa Cather and Robert Louis Stevenson and its investigative reporting on strikes, business monopolies, racial lynchings, municipal corruption, and other controversies. President Theodore Roosevelt celebrated the magazine’s reformist zeal, then denounced its “muckraking” after the magazine’s reporting made trouble for him. Gorton’s narrative revolves around biographies of Ida Tarbell, a pioneering female journalist whose sensational exposé of Standard Oil sparked antitrust action, and founder Samuel Sidney McClure, a brilliant manic-depressive with a gift for spotting great writers and sowing chaos with grandiose schemes. (McClure’s was crippled when a plan to start a second publication—and perhaps an insurance company, bank, mail-order university, and company town to boot—provoked mass resignations.) Gorton wants to capture an evanescent group alchemy of journalism at McClure’s, with McClure inspiring and supporting Tarbell’s investigations and Tarbell stabilizing the erratic McClure, but her case for a unique McClure’s culture that wouldn’t flourish under steadier management is unconvincing. The result is a miscellany of profiles and anecdotes, some more revealing than others, without a unifying theme. (Feb.)