The First Draft of History?

James Altucher told an interviewer that he doesn’t read a newspaper because it is, in his phrase, “the first draft of history.” I remember hearing that and thinking the idea had heft; news stories change as more facts are learned, so, yeah, why should a person spend time (and money) with an unfinished product?

But like a lot of things I once nodded in agreement to, my thinking has changed on this. I have a daily newspaper subscription now. Here are a few reason I’m finding the first draft of history a worthwhile investment.

There is no final draft.

“First draft” applies an unhelpful standard to journalistic work, the same way that “scientific” does when used on Biblical writing. Yes, news writing employs editors who force multiple drafts from reporters, but those edits are chasing a standard concerned with accuracy and verifiability, not finality. It’s about what we know now and not what may ultimately be known some time in the future.

Newspapers contain more than news. There is also feature and opinion.

There is no final draft.

Reporters are artists. Engaging the work of artists at every stage is rewarding. To follow the writing of one reporter on one story over several new developments is beneficial, because good reporters model how to claim clearly what is without doubt now, as well as what we don’t know yet, what we thought we knew, and what may never be known. It is healthy to have a grasp of the difference between those things.

The first draft of news reporting is public. It contributes to a shared understanding of reality. If facts are wrong, the public can challenge them. That’s worthwhile.

There is no final draft.

Seriously, read a newspaper.


2 thoughts on “The First Draft of History?

  1. I’m a devoted newspaper reader, a blogger (too) and a former editor who hopes to go back to that title. The fun of finding stories on pages next to ones I wanted, and having the “found” stories be fascinating, is being lost in this age of looking up exactly what we want. I heard “first draft of history” in writing classes — and in history classes, too, when journalism was held up for use. (Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from London in 1940, for example, still move me to tears — and, I hope, to better writing. Once again, Rocky, many thanks!

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