What is Amateur Journalism?


This question likely has as many answers as there are amateur journalists. Let me begin by quoting Truman J. Spencer from his book, The History of Amateur Journalism, published by the Fossils and Sheldon Wesson, writing in 1940:


AMATEUR JOURNALISM forms a unique phase in the history of American youth. It is not greatly known to the general public; its numbers are relatively few in comparison with the millions of people in the nation. Yet from its ranks have come professional journalists, editors, authors, publishers, scientists, inventors, governors, Senators, judges, ambassadors, lawyers, bankers, clergymen, educators, and men and women in almost every walk of life. And all these in after years have felt the influence of their experience in amateur journalism in the younger and formative period of life.


A description of the institution in its physical aspects is simple. It has been best expressed, perhaps, by Finlay Grant, who, when a boy in far-off Nova Scotia, published an amateur paper called the Boys' Folio. Mr. Grant, who later became President of the National association of amateur journalists, wrote: "Amateur journalism is an institution of youth who edit, publish, print, or contribute to, miniature journals as a means of self-improvement, as a pleasing pastime, and for the advancement of their own peculiar institutions."


These small papers, often printed on amateur presses by the editors themselves, are exchanged by their publishers with like papers issued in every State in the Union. Every year into a thousand different homes and families these products of youthful minds and skill enter, and provide wholesome entertainment and broadening vision. Amateur journalism forms thus a vast literary society, whose members express their opinions, and comment, criticize, or commend the work of one another's pen and press. Editors and authors, poets, story writers and essayists strive for literary awards, or seek official position in the various State and national associations, thus gaining experience in organization life and parliamentary practice. Amateur journalism has been called a means of mutual intellectual culture. It is often described as "a miniature world of letters,” a description both accurate and comprehensive.


As its name indicates, these papers are not published for financial gain. The word amateur comes from amator, the lover. James M. Beck, in later life Congressman and Solicitor-General of the United States, when an amateur journalist in his youth said: "The love of literature, and not the love of lucre, is the sine qua non, the essential characteristic of the amateur journalist. In our acceptation of the term the idea of youth is unquestionably implied. An amateur journalist I would define as a young person who pursues literature, not as a profession, but for the pleasure of so doing." The impelling motives in amateur journalism are fun, glory and intellectual improvement.


Will L. Wright, editor of an amateur paper published in 1879 in Cairo, Ill., called the Egyptian Star and President of the National association of amateur journalists, once wrote: "The true objects of amateur journalism are to cultivate a taste for pure and wholesome literature, to broaden the intellectual powers, to give one a practical knowledge of the world, and to teach one to think and act for himself."

Maintained and directed entirely by the youth of America, with no aid or supervision from outside, amateur journalism is thus unlike any school or compulsory system of learning. Its whole action is voluntary and spontaneous. It is this which makes it unique among those institutions which seek to train youth in the way of life and literature. As amateur athletics develop the body, amateur journalism shapes the mind. Charles K. Farley, one of the leading poets and story-writers of amateur journalism, wrote: "Amateur journalism will be a study for the psychologist and historian of the future. It came into existence hand-in-hand with the great American game of baseball, one a brain stimulus, and the other a muscle developer."


Amateur journalism received its greatest impetus from the invention of the inexpensive small printing press in 1869, but it was not born then. Its historians have long endeavored to fix upon a date for its birth, but they have searched in vain. For it is impossible to tell when amateur journalism was born, because it never was born, but, like Topsy, simply "growed." No one man, nor any one set of men, ever sat down and gave birth to amateur journalism. It sprang from those irresistible yearnings which are found in all intelligent young persons for the enlargement of their mental vision and the strengthening of their brains. It was a growth and came to its highest development by slow and constantly working evolutionary stages. It was not the froth of an idle enthusiasm thrown up to serve the purpose of the passing hour, but was the outcome of a need existing in young minds.


Edward A. Grozier, editor and owner of Boston's noted newspaper, the Post, said: "Amateur journalism is a training school where the best faculties of the growing mind are called into play, where crudeness of thought and expression is pruned, where a taste for belles-1ettres is cultivated, where excellence or indication thereof is gladly received, and where enthusiasm and emulation are universal. It is the best of schools for the training of newspaper men." The following paragraph is taken from the Inland Printer: "Some experienced newspaper men claim that of all the numerous 'Schools of Journalism' amateur journalism comprehends the most practical. These junior editors are savage critics, and the careless youth is shamed into doing his best. Those who started from a whim and wished to indulge a fad are swiftly driven out. A remark which, uttered by father or teacher, would scarce be heeded stings sorely when emanating from a chap about his own age. It is in this respect that amateur journalism is so valuable."


Charlotte Porter, editor of the magazine Poet Lore and of the forty-volume "First Folio Edition" of Shakespeare, has written: "The world has already felt, although it is not always thoughtful enough to see and acknowledge, the good of associations for the furtherance of literary and spiritual influences independently of their market value. Such associations as that of amateur journalists seem to be incident to democratic tendencies and, I am ready to believe, may not fail to be of genuine service to the world."


As a pendant to these views from outside may be quoted the glowing words of one who himself has been a typical amateur journalist, Herbert D. Smart who, when a boy among the rugged, firm-set mountains of New Hampshire, published an amateur paper called the Granite State Echo, recalling those youthful days said: "Where the firelight glows in memory, when the last rays of the setting sun fade in the West, and darkness falls where the skies are bending over the brightly lighted homes of our boyhood, the placid stream and tangled wildwood, there lingers the spirit of the past; there hover the ghosts of yesterdays when in our sacred attic sanctum, by the uncertain light of the kerosene lamp we played at publishing the (to us) greatest paper in the world. We hear again the voices of those boyhood friends; and the answering echoes awaken pleasant memories of the past. In imagination we see a monument dedicated to the memory of those halcyon days, a memorial no chisel can carve, no mortal architect can design; and we reach out to lay a wreath, the rosemary of remembrance, where still memory weaves the blissful dreams of long ago."

This concludes the quote from Mr. Spencer.


Amateur journalism has changed somewhat from the “halcyon days” of the latter part of the XIXth century. It has fragmented and multiplied; the average age of the practitioner has grown greater. Many amateur journalists today are keeping alive the ancient art of the letterpress; many have embraced the computer and can be found madly propagating on the internet. A notable offshoot from the main vine of aj is science fiction and fantasy fandom, with its own traditions of amateur journals and political intriguing.


Amateur journalism is communication; verbal, visual, and aural. We’re a pretty diverse and exciting group!


Back to Amateur Journalism page


The History of the National Amateur Press Association


A Brief History of Early Amateur Journalism, State by State