Degrees of journalism

Jack Shafer is one of those reliably irritable writers who gets it right more times than not (his crusade against Bill Moyers was one of those times that are not, but other than that, I can’t think of any others right now). He’s the prototypical cranky journo, and the world is better for it.

Right now, I tend to think Shafer is absolutely right about the future of journalism, and the fact that the downturn of today could portend a rise tomorrow. To wit:

Let me say it another way: The barriers of entry into the journalism business have been battered down, making it easier than ever to enter the profession. That will read as small consolation to the journalists who have had their publications shot out from under them—the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Ann Arbor News (come July 23), and magazines too numerous to tally. But please notice that I’m not saying there has never been a more lucrative or prestigious time to become a journalist. The cash and status associated with the profession are fairly recent. Until the early 1970s or thereabouts, the average journalist made an average salary (if that), and his societal standing was modest.

If the downside of the battered-down barriers to entry is less pay and lower status, the potential upside is that a flood of new entrants into the field could portend a journalistic renaissance.

This hardly aids journos of my generation and the Millennials. Our bosses, most of them Baby Boomers, sold us a bill of goods that said we needed more and more college degrees to be “real” journalists, even though many of them didn’t have Master’s degrees when they entered the field. This isn’t exactly what Shafer is saying in his recent Slate column, but it got me thinking.

To me, this touches on something Laurie at Punk Rock HR wrote about recently regarding MBAs in the work world in general, and what Jimmy Breslin has long said about the reporting world in particular — why the hell do you need a Master’s to be a journalist, or for that matter, a degree from a Journalism school when you should be learning about history, literature and the like in school (with a healthy re-up of grammar lessons, but I’m hardly one to call the kettle black on that one), and learning the how-to’s of journalism as a cub reporter under the tutelage of a seasoned veteran? It’s real-life experience that matters, and that makes good writing.

Breslin once wrote, in defense of journalistic “knowledge by wandering around”:

… The reporters all have at least one degree from a good college and can speak at least one other language, but they have been brought up on television and they stare at the computer terminal with the passivity of someone watching a situation comedy. The verbs become so passive that the sentences seem to stop for a commercial. … Newspaper managements love the new fashion of news reporters, however, because they cause no trouble. They go to some exercise place at lunch and after work they go right home to dinner. It is so much better for marriages, and calmness at work. Their children might be the first generation in a news family to have a somewhat normal life.

And since words for a newspaper come from nervous energy and not propriety, the readers get robbed and the news reporters never live.

Once, when there were newspaper bars, there always was somebody with a real memory who could tell anecdotes that make you smell the people and the room they are in. As you listen the curiosity rises.

Which is the missing emotion. … You take these emotions, curiosity, whim, wandering around, out of a day’s work and you have a corporation of zombies giving you an array of facts and details not worth space in a wastebasket.

Pete Hamill, in his 1998 book News is a Verb said this (with a nod and footnote to Doug Underwood’s When MBAs Rule the Newsroom):

In addition, more newspapers are now in the hands of faceless chains or individual amateurs: both seem to believe that the abstract management techniques of other businesses — cereals, real estate, parking lots — can be applied without penalty to newspapers. Licensed by publishers, MBAs have been granted positions of power in many newsrooms. These men and women, who have never been reporters, depend upon polling and focus groups to shape the news package. They are responsible for the endless meetings, with their charts and abstractions, that consume so much time that was once used by editors to inspire and instruct the young and push the seasoned veterans to better stories. They slice and pare and trim in the name of the holy bottom line, extol the virtues of “reader-driven” journalism, and in the process witlessly reduce the possibilities for long-range growth.

(Ironically, “‘reader-driven’ journalism” became the accepted norm (witness the rise of blogs and citizen reporting, as Shafer discusses), and in many ways for the better, but, I believe, as much as technology allowed blogs and the like to rise, newspapers aided and abetted this rise through their own ineptness, and have continued to fail to find a way to make being an authoritative voice online profitable, perhaps largely because they’ve failed to be that authoritative and trusted voice. But this is a topic for a future post.)

Journalism, as Hunter S. Thompson famously said, “is not a profession or a trade.” He continued on to say (midway through the fifth ’graf at this link) exactly what he thought journalism is, but I digress. Needless to say, that zoo-cage full of winos emptied out with the buttoned-down journos and especially their management of the last two decades, but the news business has only become worse.

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One Comment on “Degrees of journalism”

  1. Bill says:

    I agree with Jack Shafer on this point as well. People always see disaster where there is change, and indeed this change has been major and carries a large price tag for those struggling within the world of professional journalism. Ultimately, however, I think this is the opening of a far more energized, creative and pluralistic journalism world. There are some great interviews with top journalists about the future of journalism at http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69 which I have found useful on these subjects.


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