7 Great Books Set in the Newsroom That We Love

7 Great Books Set in the Newsroom That We Love

Sunday, 12 September, 2021

There’s no denying that the internet and 24-hour cable news changed the landscape of journalism. But the old-time, intrepid reporters — with clacking typewriters and clandestine meetings for tips — laid the foundation for all that was to come.

Now the newsroom is anywhere a curious person can point a mobile phone camera — but we need dogged journalists determined to dig for the real story more than ever.

The newsroom — the bullpen of a print newspaper, a mobile unit, a TV studio, or a website hub — is a (melo)dramatic setting for stories of all kinds. And reporters, past and present, make for very compelling protagonists.

Here are seven books set in the newsroom that took us behind-the-scenes of journalism, including two gripping nonfiction works, a novel about a real-life underground newspaper, a thriller set in cable news, a swashbuckling tale of 19th-century girl reporters, and two atmospheric Scandi-noir mysteries.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Newsroom: From Clacking Typewriters to Viral Video.


The Ventriloquists - E.R. Ramzipoor

The Ventriloquists
> E.R. Ramzipoor

World War II novels rarely have happy endings. But this triumphant mashup of heist story, workplace drama, war saga, and spy tale comes close.

Here’s the setup, a lesser-known true story from the Belgian resistance: It’s 1943. Brussels is occupied by the Nazis, and they’ve co-opted Le Soir, the country’s most popular paper, as a mouthpiece for their propaganda. A Nazi bigwig has been tasked with swaying public opinion against the Allies. He hunts down and captures a group of underground journalists and gives them an ultimatum: They will write anti-Allies propaganda for Le Soir, and in exchange, he won’t kill them immediately.

So far, so Nazi.

But then the mischief begins. Our ragtag group of writers, editors, and other rabblerousing types decide to fill the pages of their newspaper with satirical articles and photos that mock Hitler. Sure, these will probably be the last pieces they ever write, but their literary shenanigans will return power to the Belgians via the gift of laughter.

Our wily, cynical journalists effectively become double agents. We follow their escapades — often dangerous, sometimes sweet, always exciting — as time ticks down and the tension ramps up.

The kicker? All of this is true.

E.R. Ramzipoor deftly blends real-life heroes with fictional characters. We meet a young orphan who’s a delightful agent of chaos; a charming, jaded journalist; a bordello madame and smuggler with a secret, and various other troublemakers who use their gifts for thinking and writing to fight the Nazis. They’re basically nerd spies, and it’s glorious. {more}

Aubrion tossed me a few coins. I unbundled a stack of Le Soir from the pile at my feet, handing him a copy. Handling fresh newspapers, still warm and wet from the mouth of the presses, is a holy thing. I felt this as I passed the papers to Aubrion, and I could see that he felt it too: he unfolded Le Soir with a hunger that bordered on indecency. — E.R. Ramzipoor

Catch and Kill - Ronan Farrow

Catch and Kill
> Ronan Farrow

If you’re interested in how power is wielded to shape reality, this intensely researched and reported book is for you. An exposé of serial abusers, particularly the sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, it’s also an eye-opening examination of how easy it is for people in power to control the story. And how a determined journalist can stop them.

As you might expect, this book is a dark ride. It documents a shameful laundry list of violence, intimidation, espionage, and legal wrangling, all performed in service of covering up Weinstein’s decades-long abuse of women in Hollywood.

That author Ronan Farrow was able to navigate this morass of intrigue and creepy details is something of a miracle; he’s uniquely suited to the task. As the son of actress Mia Farrow and (now-notorious) director Woody Allen, he knows what scandal looks like from the inside. He’s also wealthy enough to pursue the story when he’s fired by NBC, and he holds a legal degree, so he knows how to argue the fine points with those who try to stop him.

Along the way, we’re given a behind-the-scenes look at NBC studios, The New Yorker, and the National Enquirer. We also see the nitty-gritty of how work gets done in this age of near-instant communication and constant connectedness. {more}

You know, the press is as much part of our democracy as Congress or the executive branch or the judicial branch. It has to keep things in check. And when the powerful control the press, or make the press useless, if the people can’t trust the press, the people lose. And the powerful can do what they want. — Ronan Farrow

Necessary People - Anna Pitoniak

Necessary People
> Anna Pitoniak

This unputdownable novel is a twisty workplace thriller set in KCN, a New York City cable news network. There’s a thoughtful examination of classism, ambition, and female competition tucked into this BFFs-to-frenemies tale — and it’s whoop-out-loud bananas in a very satisfying way.

The story swirls around two young upstarts: Stella and Violet. Opposites attract, and the two become fast friends at college. Stella is rich, blonde, and beautiful; she does as she pleases all the time. Her privilege and wealth have eliminated any need for thinking about consequences or other people. Empathy, shmempathy.

By the time graduation rolls around, Violet has grown weary of this pattern. So she heads for the bright lights of Manhattan to begin her career at a cable news network while Stella flits around the world, party-girl style. Violet’s dreams are coming true until Stella returns and decides that working at KCN looks like fun. Soon, she’s wrangled her way into a job, and the almost-sisters turn to rivals with gloriously messy, can’t-look-away results.

Anna Pitoniak has written an escapist read that captures the spirit of a modern TV newsroom and features stressed-out people making entertainingly bad decisions. Melodramatic and suspenseful, it feels close enough to the truth of our 24-hour news cycle to also be gloriously uncomfortable. {more}

The demands were obvious to us — we knew exactly what people liked to watch, and what they didn’t. The ratings bore that out, every single week. The audience liked clean takeaways. They liked black-and-white, heroes and villains. They liked the truth, but only kind of; they liked the truth packaged in a way to make them feel better about their own lives. Too much murkiness, and they are reminded of their own murk: their own mistakes, their own shortcomings, the times they, too, misbehaved and mistreated others. Those stories didn’t rate well. If you wanted people to watch, if you wanted to win the demo and get the blockbuster numbers that your bosses demanded, you needed a story with a good ending. — Anna Pitoniak

Merchants of Truth - Jill Abramson

Merchants of Truth
> Jill Abramson

This book is a detailed look at how news — and facts — have changed over the last 20 years with the rise of digital media. Through riveting prose and audacious quotes from key players, this zippy (and sobering) read takes a deep dive into the state of four major news outlets: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and Vice.

Author Jill Abramson is the former executive editor of The New York Times and is now a Harvard journalism lecturer. She knows where the bodies are buried, and she applies her decades of experience to analyze the rise of digital news outlets like Buzzfeed — and how they almost meant the demise of venerated institutions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

As you might expect, she can tell a story, so this thing is a page-turner with juicy quotes and remarkable statistics: ‘The amount of digital data produced worldwide in 2006 alone was three million times the material of all the books ever written.’ After reading this book, you might pause for just a moment before you click the share button. {more}

It encouraged the public’s expectation that news be relayed in real time, upending the traditional newspaper schedule that for over a century had served as the de facto circadian rhythm of the profession. As important, it meant journalists would be armed with the power tools of the newsroom—word processors, internet hookups, cameras and video equipment—no matter where they were when news broke. The old, diurnal news cycle gave way to the 24/7 news cycle in a world in which people got updates constantly (and, to a degree, passively) from their smartphones, as if staying informed via an IV drip. — ChaJill Abramsonrlotte

[_Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around

the World_ - Matthew Goodman](/books/eighty_days_goodman)

Eighty Days
> Matthew Goodman

This is a rip-roaring adventure story about two young women journalists who traveled solo around the world in 1889 — when neither being a journalist nor traveling alone was a respectable or safe thing for a lady to do. Prepare for pure, uncut moxie.

Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days is a fantasy adventure starring the (privileged, white, male) Phileas Fogg. In 1889, a young lady reporter Miss Nellie Bly, armed with determination and one traveling bag (measuring just 16 by 7 inches), set out to loop the globe and make history.

Unbeknownst to her, an equally gifted and perhaps, more gentile young lady, one Elizabeth Bisland, also embarked on a jaunt around the globe. The race was afoot!

These two women traveled 28,000 miles — on steamships, trains, carriages, sedan chairs, rickshaws, gharrys, and sampans — to return home forever changed by their experiences. And the world of journalism was changed along with them.

This tremendously entertaining book recaps their amazing separate-yet-shared exploits.

Author Matthew Goodman puts his detailed research to good use, creating cliffhangers and the urgency of an ever-ticking clock, pressing the girls forward as they navigate wildly unfamiliar and exotic territory. He also transports us into 19th-century journalism, rife with spectacle, one-uppery, backroom deals, and legitimate concerns surrounding women trying to break into a man’s world. {more}

On the surface the two women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, were about as different as could be: one woman a Northerner, the other from the South; one a scrappy, hard-driving crusader, the other priding herself on her gentility; one seeking out the most sensational of news stories, the other preferring novels and poetry and disdaining much newspaper writing as ‘a wild, crooked, shrieking hodge-podge,’ a ‘caricature of life.’ Elizabeth Bisland hosted tea parties; Nellie Bly was known to frequent O’Rourke’s saloon on the Bowery. But each of them was acutely conscious of the unequal position of women in America. Each had grown up without much money and had come to New York to make a place for herself in big-city journalism, achieving a hard-won success in what was still, unquestionably, a man’s world. More than anything else, of course, the two women were to be linked forever by unique shared experience: partners, in a sense, in a vast project that for months would captivate the United States, and much of the world besides. Bly and Bisland raced around the globe on the most powerful and modern forms of transportation yet created, the oceangoing steamship and the steam railroad… They traveled through a world defined by custom and deformed by class, in every country they visited, and even on the ships and trains they used to get there. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were not only racing around the world; they were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age. — Matthew Goodman

Black River - Will Dean

Black River
> Will Dean

Intrepid reporter Tuva Moodyson has been living in southern Sweden for four months, far away from her dark past in the forests and secrets of northern Gavrik. Then she receives shocking news that shakes her new and tremulous foundation: her best friend Tammy is missing.

Tuva rushes back to the place she definitely doesn’t want to be — at the height of Midsommar celebrations — to help lead the search for her lost friend. But it seems that someone else doesn’t want Tammy to be found; the search effort is routinely, cruelly sabotaged. And thanks to the bright light of the longest day of the year, day and night blend into one long, surreal horror.

While Midsommar revelers celebrate around her — with food and maypoles and aquavit and life — Tuva is trapped in her feelings of fear and regret as Tammy’s whereabouts remain unknown. Tuva slowly realizes, perhaps too late, that the things she needs the most might have been in Gavrik all along. {more}

Utgard forest is overwhelming. Bigger than ever. Dark and summer-full; undergrowth exploding outward and upward, brambles and nettles creeping out from the forest fringes. I drive for fifteen minutes, and Utgard forest is the constant shade on the right-hand side of the road. I pass the narrow entrance to Mossen village — nothing good’s ever come out of that place — and I drive on. — Will Dean

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson, Reg Keeland (translator)

This grindingly suspenseful novel is an adroit combination of locked-room mystery, character study, political thriller, and family saga that begins in the 1990s and reaches back through time to the 1960s and WWII.

When we meet our antihero journalist Mikael Blomkvist, he’s just lost a libel case and will soon be reporting to jail for three months. At loose ends until his sentence starts, he’s offered a somewhat sinister lifeline by the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden — the Vangers. Forty years ago, Henrik Vanger’s beloved niece disappeared, and he wants Mikael to use his investigative journalistic skills to dig into the case.

To solve the decades-old mystery, Mikael is forced to get to know the siblings in the Vanger family, and they are terrible: damaged, inconsistent, ruthless, wildly intelligent, and shut off from the rest of the world by their estate and their privilege.

Then Lisbeth Salander, punk hacker and a talented investigator in her own right, enters the picture. When she and Mikael team up, they uncover secrets galore, unintentionally set off emotional bombs that rock the Vangers, put themselves in shocking danger, and ultimately, discover what really happened on that summer day in the ’60s. {more}

Much stronger boys in her class soon learned that it could be quite unpleasant to fight with that skinny girl. Unlike other girls in the class, she never backed down, and she would not for a second hesitate to use her fists or any weapon at hand to protect herself. She went around with the attitude that she would rather be beaten to death than take any shit. — Stieg Larsson

Top image courtesy of ThisisEngineering RAEng/Unsplash.

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