... smart and engaging ... Gorton offers the magazine’s storied history in rich detail, but also delves deeply into the lives and characters of Tarbell, McClure and others, including Lincoln Steffens. Rather than arguing that McClure’s was great just because of the individual talents of its staff, Gorton seeks to also locate the magazine in a particular historical moment, one that bears great resemblances to our own. She succeeds admirably ... Gorton provides readers with a rich context for understanding the historical and cultural milieu in which the McClure’s staff moved. But she adds the personal histories of McClure and Tarbell as a means of understanding how the ideas that became huge stories took root in each of them.
All great editors have an eye for talent. After reading Citizen Reporters, I’m convinced that McClure had the greatest eye of all time ... Ms. Gorton appropriately and deftly structures her book as a dual biography ... doesn’t start auspiciously. There’s both a preface and a prologue, which is a little throat-cleary. Writing about the 1870s, she refers to Cornell as being in the Ivy League, a term that didn’t exist till the 1930s. Worst of all, she takes two separate occurrences and presents them as one composite scene. That isn’t an acceptable thing to do, least of all in a book about journalism, and her editor should have laid down the law ... However, as the book proceeds, one feels her gaining authority as a writer, and when she gets into the story proper, Citizen Reporters is solid, well-crafted and readable. It should be noted that much of the book traverses familiar ground, and Ms. Gorton’s notes cite many previous works. But she has also discovered letters and manuscripts from her subjects and effectively quotes them in the service of nuanced character portraits. Happily, none of her portraits are fuller than those of her principals, McClure and his creative other half, Tarbell.
[Gorton] explores the clash and interplay of talents that created an entity greater than the sum of its parts, absorbed in an endeavor as important now as it was then: molding coherent narratives that help readers—surrounded by a cacophony of daily stories—grasp the changes they are living through.