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Journalism and the vow of poverty

When I chose not to go to law school and into politics (insert punchline here) but instead headed toward journalism, I knew I wasn’t doing it to get rich (though I was paid well, once I put on a suit).

Connie Schultz, a Plain Dealer columnist, acts as if journalists take a vow of poverty, which is an extension of another popular perspective inside the news nunnery: the belief that journalism isn’t or shouldn’t be a business (a canon brought out every time a newspaper lays off journalists or points out that classified, retail, and circulation revenue are frittering fast). Says Schultz:

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time with journalism students whose hand-wringing professors still believe something other than salary should be the divining rod for choosing a career.

They are professors who’ve dedicated their lives to training future journalists. They are increasingly alarmed by what they see and don’t want to become targets for saying so.

“We’re losing so many hard-news students to public relations, advertising and marketing,” one professor told me. “They just want to make money.”

His concern echoes through the hallways of other colleges I’ve visited.

“They want to keep the baby-boomer lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed,” said a professor at a school that boasts a boatload of Pulitzer Prize winners among its alumni. “The thought of starting out at $25,000 or $30,000 to expose corruption and champion the underdog just doesn’t do it for them. They have no interest.”

One journalism professor told me that hordes of women are opting for the softer — and more lucrative — career in public relations.

“A lot of them want to be event planners,’ ” she said. She nodded at my raised eyebrows.

“Seriously,” she said. “They want to plan parties.”

These are professors at large and not-so-large schools who care deeply about the mission of journalism at a time when our critics far outnumber our champions. Too many of their students neither love newspapers nor even read them. They worry that the values we old poops hold dear in this profession hold little appeal for the many budding journalists who’d rather shill than grill.

“I don’t mean to overstate this, but I worry about the future of democracy,” one retired professor told me. “If our journalists don’t challenge the abuse of power, who will?”

Oh, come now. Don’t blame the students’ lack of enthusiasm for newspapers on their greed. Blame it instead, perhaps, on the growing irrelevance of newspapers to the students…. that and growing distrust for newspapers in the public… that and growing opportunities outside the shackles of old media.

Let’s also not continue to treat journalism as a high priesthood in the too-honored tradition of Murrow-worshipers. That haughty separation is just what has gotten the business in trouble… that and refusing to acknowledge it is a business, which damned well should be under the market pressures of serving its public or going out of business.

One of the courses I plan to teach at CUNY’s new Graduate School of Journalism will invite students to invent and reinvent the products of journalism — perhaps even helping them to start businesses when they graduate — and make more than they could as starting reporters.

Or they can help develop new products inside companies. At the recent Museum of Television & Radio Media Center confab with bloggers and mogulmen, everyone complained that there is no product development inside their companies. The work on the future is happening outside. Well, one way to make it happen within is to start thinking — and rewarding — entrepreneurially. That means investing in the future by stopping the inefficiencies of the past. So perhaps we shouldn’t have so many cheap reporters and editors and executives whose job it is to recreate the same news everyone else has. Perhaps we should have fewer such people who do unique work well. And perhaps we should be starting new products and new, yes, businesses to invest in the future. From the curriculum I wrote. The class has many goals:

• It demonstrates to students that, for the first time since William Randolph Hearst, young journalists can think and act like entrepreneurs. Thanks to the tools and distribution of online, they can start their own products and businesses today.
• It readies them to work in new-product development for any media company: a skill that is ever-more in demand.
• It encourages them to think out side the box – the newspaper box or TV box – to take a leadership role in reinventing and reinvigorating news for their generation.
• It helps them to recognize and work with the business realities of journalism today.

The students will be expected to develop an idea for a new property with one key requirement: It must be journalistic. The product may involve reporting by professionals or citizens; it may involve packaging and editing; it may involve interactivity; it may involve print or broadcast components.

All of which is better than going into PR, which I never understood anyway.

Congrats

CUNY’s new Graduate School of Journalism, my perch starting next year, just got a $4 million grant to fund scholarships.

In the academe

A personal announcement: I’ve accepted an appointment to join the faculty of the new graduate school of journalism at the City University of New York, heading up the new media program.

There’s a brief story about this in The Times here with a good punch line for a lead:

For some old-school journalists, blogging is the worst thing to hit the print medium since, well, journalism school. They may want to avert their eyes today, when Stephen B. Shepard, dean of the new Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, is to name Jeff Jarvis director of the new-media program and associate professor.

When I left my full-time, besuited job in mainstream media in June, this was my goal: I knew I wanted to work in the future of media and I believe there’s no better place to do that than among the young people who will be media tomorrow. I don’t want to teach them so much as learn from them as they invent the ways that journalism can use this powerful new thing, this unmedium, that we’ve only begun to explore to gather and share news. I hope we have an environment that fosters creativity and learning as it teaches skills and standards (and I hope I find less haughty ways to say that). One more-practical notion: I plan plan to webcast the courses I teach — not so we can teach the world but so the world can teach us, so we can restart the relationship of these journalists with the public they’ll serve.

Over recent months, I have been writing the new-media curriculum in collaboration with faculty from various CUNY campuses, Dean Shepard, Judy Watson of CUNY, and our mutual friend, Merrill Brown. I’ll work with CUNY in the coming months but don’t start working there until next year. The first class enters in the fall of 2006. Being able to work with Steve Shepard, the recently retired editor of Business Week, is one great draw of this opportunity; the other is the chance to help in the creation of a brand new school.

I will continue to work as editor of a new news startup, still in stealth; more on that soon. And I’m consulting now for The New York Times Company at About.com. Oh, and I better get moving on that book: Publish or perish, you know.

One more thing: Here’s fair warning that I’ll be coming after many of you to come speak with our students about how you view news in media new and old, and also will be asking you to interact with students via webcasts and your blogs, turning you all into journalism professors with me.

: The beginnings of the school’s web site are here. And if you’re interested in applying, email admissions@journalism.cuny.edu