Thursday, March 12, 2009

Journalistic uncertainty

Today I taught my last class of the term, and, as is my custom, I invited questions on anything having to do with journalism.

One caught me flat-footed.

“If you were a student now, would you go into journalism?”

Dramatic pause.

I stared at the floor, looked up and smiled. “I’m not sure what it means to ‘go into journalism’ anymore. It’s not clear what journalism is becoming.”

Nor is it clear what it means to inform, or be informed, at least through journalism.

As a member of the pre-Internet generation, I have some idea of what it once meant. It seems like only yesterday that it had to do with newspapers and magazines and reading. I left it to editors to direct my attention to what was important, and each day I would sidle up to the journalism trough and partake of the news.

Today I don’t see all that much sidling or partaking. In an age of Twitter, blogs and Facebook, I’m not sure whether there is even a particular hunger for the news, at least the news as I understand it.

Gossip, trivia and opinion, yes; but not the news.

What constitutes journalism today? For a few more months, before newspapers vanish entirely, it may still be defined by “the Press” and its editors.

What then?

Like so many others, I believe a new, sustainable journalism model has yet to emerge, and it probably won’t until we are faced with the utter absence of newspapers. At that point, someone, some organization, some foundation or some cooperative will see the need for reliable sources of information on-line. The skills of newspaper reporting will be handed down to on-line journalists.

Alas, how they will be paid remains a mystery.

So, after a false start or two, I told my inquiring student that future journalists must be fully immersed in the changes taking place in communication. They must be flexible and prepared for the next Internet. If journalists are messengers and the medium is the message, then we must be masters of media and not let media master us.

Personally, I’ve had it easy because I am ending my journalism career at the end of a long, stable journalism era. The next generation of journalists will live through many eras thanks to changing technology. That’s a given. And each succeeding era will be shorter.

So the journalist embarking on a career today has a much more complex task than learning how to report and write. The job is more challenging, risky and exciting.

I saw the student who asked the question later in the day and asked him what he plans to do now that he has taken my journalism class.

“I’m thinking of teaching,” he said.

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2 Comments:

Blogger wheels said...

I just watched Jon Stewart interview Jim Cramer, the CNBC Mad Money guy, and Jon talked at great length about how much he feels the cable news industry, and their so-called "journalists" are at least partially culpable for our current economic crisis. It's another extension, of course, of his continuing satire and critique of the cable news industry's complete lack of integrity and its "entertainment first" mentality.

Part of the problem for journalists, like scientists or lawyers, etc, is that their paychecks tend to come from people who are expecting a specified result from their professional endeavors. A journalist will always be able to trace the source of his/her paycheck back to advertisers and, to a far lesser extent nowadays, readers/viewers.

So my questions:
1. Is journalism really that different now from how it was before the onset of internet and cable news, given the similarity in the source of its funding? Or is it just worse?
2. Is there any hope for the future of journalism?

Also, two more queries:
1. your thoughts on the stadium issue?
2. your thoughts on the PPS budget?

Thanks
Andy

6:18 PM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

Andy:

Cable isn't any worse than other forms of the media. It is simply the most visible and ubiquitous and, hence, most influential.

One industry that has gotten off scot-free is advertising that for years celebrated and "normalized" a lavish, totally unaffordable lifestype. The public bought it — on now-unsecured credit.

Back to media's reliance on and selling out to corporate advertising. It's the old story of paying the piper and calling the tune. One mitigating factor is that when a lot of differing folks are paying, no single voice is strong enough to call the tune. What the "sponsors" really want is a tune played that attracts a large or lucrative audience. Never mind what the lyrics are.

Journalism falls short for several reasons — dependence on advertising is just one of them. Competition is another. Audiences that want to be entertained, not informed, is another. Media that by their nature appeal to emotion, not reason or logic is another. (I refer you to Neil Postman's excellent "Amusing Ourselves to Death.") A public relations industry that is highly skilled at manipulating media and, hence, their audiences.

Is there hope for journalism? A better question might be — Is there hope for an informed and even enlightened public. That's the goal of journalism (and education). I think the answer is yes, but.... We need to make media literacy (and critical thinking) part of every child's education. The public needs to hunger for, and demand, information that helps individuals, families, communities, nations and communities of nations. I believe that the public can use the Internet as a medium to serve that purpose. The information is there; public must want it and find it — and may have to pay for it.

The Paulson deal: As is, there's a $15 million hole to fill. It should not be filled with the taxpayers' money. The Urban Renewal District ploy was outrageous. Tax increment financing is a shell game. Kudos to Ted Wheeler for calling the city on it.

I am not tracking the school district's budgetary problems. Andy, you're the expert. I'd love to hear your insights.

11:08 PM  

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