Writing Glossary

What is Gonzo Journalism?

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Written By Sikandar Riaz

Hunter S. Thompson, a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, was known for his wild and unconventional reporting style.

His work, which often involved heavy drug use and subjective observations, became known as “gonzo journalism.”

In this article, we’ll explore what exactly is gonzo journalism and three ways it is used in modern media.

We’ll be covering the following topics in this guide:

What is Gonzo Journalism?

Gonzo journalism is defined as a style of journalism that relays facts in a subjective manner, often infused with humor, sarcasm, or critiquing of society and culture. Where traditional journalism takes objectivity as its north star in reporting any story, gonzo journalism is unrestrained by such high objective standards.

Journalism has always been about telling facts in an unbiased and objective way, almost like a third-person observer.

But around the 1960s New Journalism, sometimes called Gonzo journalism, was born.

Gonzo journalism runs counter to the most widely accepted notion about journalism: objectivity. It is a subjective form of journalism that focuses on the personal opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the reporter covering a story.

“Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long.”  — Hunter S. Thompson

Writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, etc., are said to have popularized the style.

Instead of being boxed in by editorial policy and guidelines of the newspapers, gonzo journalists explore a more creative yet non-fiction style of writing that aims to infuse reporting with human emotions.

A gonzo piece of journalism is supposed to stir emotions by putting us in the reporter’s shoes and letting us see the world through their eyes.

seeing through their eyes

Editors who work with gonzo journalists know better than to touch up the piece too much for fear of losing the reporter’s voice as that is vital to the story itself. A gonzo piece gives us a first-person narrative seeped into the reporter’s subjective reality.

The personality of the writer shines through in gonzo journalism pieces, the feelings that they go through, the things they care about, and their raw opinions, all matter in a gonzo journalism story.

What is Gonzo Journalism Used For?

Gonzo journalism takes us through a subjective reality — the reality of the reporter. We experience, feel, hear, and see whatever the reporter experiences, feels, hears, and sees.

Gonzo-style journalism is used as a strong critique of societal issues, political satire, or just a humorous take on events.

A bland reporting of objective facts doesn’t suit some writers or reporters who want to express more than strict editorial guidelines may allow.

Hence, the use of gonzo journalism is a valuable tool to get your two cents across while also relaying facts. In gonzo journalism, the reporter, rather than being detached, helps to add value and personality to the story through the first-person narration.

Gonzo Journalism Examples

Here is a list of famous examples of gonzo journalism that broke away from the norms of traditional journalism:

1. Tom Wolfe

Oftentimes known as the pioneer of gonzo journalism along with Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe wrote a sarcastic piece about the New Yorker, Tiny Mummies, which launched him as the irreverent leader of the gonzo journalism movement. He called his style of gonzo journalism the “hyperbolic style”.

2. Hunter S. Thompson

Without a doubt, the most well-known gonzo journalist on this list.

Hunter S. Thompson had a unique style of making the story as much about himself, at the center of the action, as it was about the event he was sent to report on.

This is brilliantly portrayed in his first-ever gonzo piece ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, which you can read here.

Other awesome writings by this great of the gonzo journalism world are: Hells Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

3. Joan Didion

Joan Didion is another stalwart of the gonzo or new journalism era of the 1960s and 70s.

Unlike Thompson, Joan Didion kept a respectable distance from what she was reporting and focused on laying the scene in front of the readers in a way that conveyed a feeling of sharing in the experience. “Slouching Towards Bethlem” is Joan Didion’s classic gonzo reporting on the hippy culture of the 1960s.

4. Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone Articles

Matt Taibbi’s work for Rolling Stone magazine often employs gonzo elements.

His articles on topics like politics, finance, and social issues blend personal observations, humor, and a critical perspective.

Taibbi’s immersive approach to reporting brings a unique and sometimes irreverent voice to his subjects.

5. Vice Media

Vice, an alternative media company, often employs a gonzo-style approach in its reporting.

Their documentaries and articles cover a wide range of topics, from travel to drug use to conflict zones, often with a first-person perspective that adds a personal and sometimes sensationalized element to the stories.

6. Michael Moore’s Documentaries

While primarily a filmmaker, Michael Moore’s documentaries like “Roger & Me,” “Bowling for Columbine,” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” incorporate elements of gonzo journalism.

Moore inserts himself into the narrative and uses his experiences and emotions to highlight social and political issues.

7. Punk Zine “Please Kill Me”

This oral history of the punk rock scene, compiled by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, features interviews with various musicians, artists, and figures from the punk movement.

The candid and unfiltered nature of the interviews captures the essence of gonzo journalism by presenting the subjects’ perspectives in their own words.

Why is it Called Gonzo Journalism?

Today, the term ‘gonzo’ has come to be used for anything that is bizarre or unconventional, but the term was first coined by the Boston Globe’s Editor, Bill Cardoso, who claimed that it meant ‘last man standing’.

Bill Cardoso borrowed the Boston-Irish slang to describe Hunter S. Thompson’s first-person narrative reports where the writer would go on a never-ending drug and alcohol spree, getting himself into wild adventures along the way.

How to Write Gonzo Journalism?

Writing gonzo journalism involves adopting a unique approach that blends personal experience, subjectivity, and storytelling with the intent to convey a larger message or commentary.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to write gonzo journalism:

1. Choose a Subject

Select a topic that resonates with you and offers an opportunity for personal involvement.

It could be a social issue, an event, a subculture, or anything that piques your interest.

2. Immerse Yourself

Dive deep into your subject. Immerse yourself in the environment, talk to people involved, and experience the topic firsthand.

Gonzo journalism often thrives on the writer’s personal experiences and observations.

3. Create an Alter Ego

Consider creating a persona or alter ego to represent yourself in the story.

This character can allow you to freely express your opinions, emotions, and experiences without being bound by conventional journalistic objectivity.

4. Use First-Person Narrative

Write in the first person, putting yourself directly in the story. Describe your experiences, thoughts, and feelings as you interact with the subject matter.

Use vivid and descriptive language to bring the reader into the moment.

5. Blend Facts and Commentary

Incorporate facts and information about the subject, but don’t shy away from injecting your own commentary and opinions.

Gonzo journalism often blurs the line between reporting and opinion, so make your perspective a central element.

6. Employ Literary Techniques

Utilize literary techniques like humor, sarcasm, hyperbole, and metaphors to enhance your storytelling. These techniques can make your narrative engaging and memorable.

7. Capture Dialogue

Record conversations, quotes, and dialogue that capture the essence of the people and the situation. Direct quotes can add authenticity and personality to your piece.

8. Create a Narrative Arc

Structure your piece like a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Take the reader on a journey through your experiences and insights, building tension and resolution.

9. Reflect on Larger Themes

Gonzo journalism often aims to convey larger themes, critiques, or social commentary. Reflect on how your personal experiences tie into broader issues, ideologies, or cultural phenomena.

10. Edit and Refine

After writing your initial draft, review and edit your work. Ensure that your storytelling is compelling, your voice is distinct, and your message is coherent. While gonzo journalism allows for subjectivity, maintaining clarity is still crucial.

11. Consider Ethical Concerns

Keep in mind the ethical considerations of writing in a subjective and sometimes exaggerated manner. Be transparent about any creative liberties you’ve taken and avoid deliberately misleading your audience.

12. Engage Your Audience

Gonzo journalism often evokes strong reactions from readers. Use your unique perspective and storytelling to provoke thought, laughter, or even outrage, depending on your intended impact.

Brief History of Gonzo Journalism

Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ was the first-ever acknowledged piece of gonzo journalism.

Published in 1970, the article is supposed to be about the Kentucky Derby but goes into vivid detail about Hunter S. Thompson’s drunken misadventures along with his British colleague.

Hunter S. Thompson’s had a disdain for objective journalism and considered it to be the reason behind the decadence of politics.

He believed in straight talk and his writing includes critical commentary of the society and politics of his times.

Tom Wolfe was a contemporary of Hunter S. Thompson and is equally regarded to be the founding father of the gonzo genre of journalism.

Tom Wolfe took matters further by inventing a style of journalism that straddled between objective reporting and fictional creativity.

Gonzo journalism has come a long way since the time of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. It is now regarded as the go-to style for some internet-based magazines, like The Vice.

To further explore the history of Gonzo Journalism, we also recommend this video by Today I Found Out:

Gonzo Journalism vs Traditional Journalism?

Journalism majors are taught that objectivity is the heart of journalism and that a good story is always based on objective facts that can be confirmed by anyone. But gonzo journalism isn’t like traditional journalism.

Shunning traditional journalism’s principles, gonzo journalists do not just report the story, they become the story.

While reporting on the notorious bikers gang, Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson infiltrated and reported events from inside the gang, with great risk to his own life.

Instead of being objective observers, gonzo journalists often are the protagonists of their own stories.

Gonzo journalism became a part of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s that upended set standards of objectivity in the world of 20th Century journalism.

It has lived on through the powerful writings of its pioneers and adopters. And it is through the power of this kind of writing that it still lives on as a credible style of reporting.

How is gonzo journalism different from normal journalism?

Gonzo journalism differs from traditional journalism as it focuses on the subjective experience of the writer, rather than objective reporting of facts. It is often characterized by a highly personal writing style, use of humor and exaggeration, and an immersive approach to reporting.

Where does the term gonzo journalism come from?

The term “gonzo journalism” was first used by journalist Bill Cardoso to describe the unconventional and subjective style of writing used by his friend and fellow journalist Hunter S. Thompson in the 1970s. The term “gonzo” was borrowed from the Irish-American slang meaning “crazy” or “eccentric”.

Does gonzo journalism still exist?

Yes, gonzo journalism still exists, and its influence can be seen in various forms of journalism and non-fiction writing. However, its use is less widespread than it was in the 1960s and 70s when it first emerged.