While formal news reporting can be traced all the way back to the late 1500s, the media revolutions of the last 200 years have seen journalism expand across several different branches and approaches. And gonzo journalism is one of them.
If you’ve never heard of it before, we’re here to help. In this post, we’ll define gonzo journalism and outline the rise of the gonzo journalism movement, along with showing you how you can get started writing gonzo stories of your own.
What Is Gonzo Journalism?
Before we dive into its history, let’s take a look at how we define gonzo journalism.
In traditional journalism, the goal is often to be as unbiased as possible. The writer gathers facts and quotes from various sources and puts together their story based on these, rarely with any mention of themselves as part of the reporting. This kind of objective journalism essentially uses the writer as the middleman, passing on the information from the source to the reader.
On the other hand, gonzo journalism is the opposite of objective journalism, where the writer inserts themself into the story and is usually playing the part of the protagonist or main character. The reporting is both a mix of hard facts and the experience of the writer from a first-person perspective. Social critique and satire are often featured in gonzo stories, as everything about the piece is coming from the writer’s own narrative.
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The History of Gonzo Journalism
Where did the name “gonzo journalism” come from? Gonzo, meaning “last man standing” in South Boston Irish slang, was first used by editor of The Boston Globe Bill Cardoso in 1970, to describe the satirical social commentary of Hunter S. Thompson.
Its classic no-nonsense, first-person style developed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” article is generally considered to be the first true gonzo news report. This form of writing led to the development of the new journalism movement in the latter decades of the 20th century and is considered to be a heavy influence on the webzine genre of writing.
Hunter S. Thompson
Trivia time: Gonzo journalism was popularized by which American writer? That’s right, it was Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson is widely thought of as the individual who invented gonzo journalism with his stream of consciousness style writing and critical takes on American politics. He famously believed that there was no true objectivity in journalism and attempts to do so had left American politics corrupt and unchecked.
Like Thompson, Tom Wolfe is considered to be a founding father of new journalism and the gonzo journalism movement. His work “The New Journalism” highlighted notable writers Joan Didion, Truman Capote, and Terry Southern, all of whom were known for straying from the accepted, objective journalism style of the time.
Lester Bangs was a notable American music journalist with frequent bylines in Rolling Stone magazine and was considered to be one of the greatest rock music critics of all time. Bangs’ subject matter naturally allowed for a gonzo style approach, as much of his writing featured his own first-person perspectives of rock concerts and studio sessions with some of the world’s most famous musicians.
Famous Examples of Gonzo Journalism
When you’re trying to understand “what is gonzo writing?” and “is this story a good gonzo journalism example?”, look for clues about the writer’s thoughts and feelings coming up in the story, as opposed to them simply reporting what’s happening around them. Vice Media is a well-known outlet that uses gonzo and immersion-style journalism.
To help you get a feel for this type of writing, here are a couple of the best examples of gonzo journalism.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson
Although a work of fiction, Thompson’s 1972 novel expertly blends both fact and fictional narrative to create a satirical critique of 1960s drug and counterculture. Thompson was inspired by several trips that he had made to Las Vegas with an attorney and activist, which he reported on for a two-part series in Rolling Stone. It was later adapted into a novel and a 1998 film starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro.
“Keystone XL Would Destroy Our Native Lands” by Dallas Goldtooth
Reporting on the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, Dallas Goldtooth’s work has been featured in international publications such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and the Los Angeles Times. His immersive journalism is heavily focused on advocacy for Native American and First Nations’ peoples in the US and Canada, providing us with insight as a modern gonzo journalism example.
How to Write a Gonzo Journalism Story Yourself
Step 1: Find an Experience That Makes You Excited
The most interesting writing from a first-person perspective is one that draws in the reader and makes them feel like they’re right there with you. The best way to do that? Get excited! After all, gonzo journalism is all about how you felt in that situation. Choose an event or experience that lights you up and that you can’t wait to write about.
Step 2: Listen Before Writing
The best journalists are some of the best listeners, and that still applies when you’re learning how to write gonzo stories of your own. Talking to sources and immersing yourself into a social group is a great place to start, but taking the time to listen to the atmosphere is just as important. Observation is a key part of this, so make sure you’re spending a good amount of time listening before you get down to the writing part.
Step 3: Take Copious Notes
Your notes will be your best friend when it comes to writing up your gonzo journalism story. We humans have notoriously bad memories for details, but it’s these pieces of information and experiences that will interest your reader the most. Even if you think something is irrelevant, make a note of it to reflect on later. Snapping a few quick photos on your phone can also help as a visual trigger later on. You never know what might be useful for your final draft.
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