Posts about journalism

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.

Even older than me

Don’t know whether this is a new survey but Carnegie says the average age of a newspaper reader is 55 and one cable news channels average age just plummeted to 59. It used too be, it was just the trees that died.

Head. Sand. Insert.

Speaking of Garfield, he speaks on On The Media with overly quoted newspaper industry analyst John Morton, who acts as if there’s nothing strategically broken with the business he covers… because, one presumes, he still wants a business to cover.

BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the Internet. Newspapers are losing readers to online sources. They’re also losing classified advertising, the most profitable part of their business, to online outfits like Craigslist and so forth. Is there anyone who’s getting that figured out and do you have any idea how that’s going to play out?

JOHN MORTON: Well, let me make a couple of observations. One is that the newspapers’ problems with circulation began long before there was an Internet. It’s been exacerbated by the Internet. It’s retail, it’s gone south. But, so far, the Internet has not become such a powerful force that you can attribute any decline in the newspaper business to it. But clearly, you know, the Internet is only going to get to be a bigger and bigger factor, and newspapers probably made a big mistake in the beginning when they adopted the assumption that everybody expects everything on the Internet to be free.

Oh, that fairy tale again.

Next time you see John Morton quoted — and you will — take him not just with a grain but with a whole box of Morton’s Salt.

Damnit: Journalism is an act, not a person

There is real danger in the proposed federal shield law. They would exclude bloggers. But forget bloggers. They would exclude citizens who commit acts of journalism. That is one side of the peril. The other side is that they will certify “professional journalists” by one definition or another and then have the power to decertify them.

“As to who is a reporter, this will be a subject of debate as this bill goes farther along,” [Sen. Richard Lugar] said in response to a question from Washington Post Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman. “Are bloggers journalists or some of the commercial businesses that you here would probably not consider real journalists? Probably not, but how do you determine who will be included in this bill?”

According to the first draft of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2005, the “covered person” protected by the bill’s terms includes “any entity that disseminates information by print, broadcast, cable, satellite, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means and that publishes a newspaper, book, magazine, or other periodical in print or electronic form; operates a radio or television station (or network of such stations), cable system, or satellite carrier, or channel or programming service for any such station, network, system, or carrier; or operates a news agency or wire service.” The legislation also covers employees, contractors or other persons who “gathers, edits, photographs, records, prepares, or disseminates news or information for any such entity.”

A key reason some journalists oppose the popular federal shield proposal is fear that giving Congress the power to define who is and isn’t a journalist could lead effectively to the licensing of journalists.

Journalism must be defined by the act, not the person.

Yahoo’s news

Xeni Jardin takes on Yahoo’s news ethics in an LA Times opinion piece, first on their behavior in China and then — as I did — arguing that by hiring Kevin Sites to cover wars, they are turning news into entertainment, they are going just for the bloody bits.

But what’s really behind this is the same question raised by Bill Keller of the NY Times, below, and sloughed off by Terry Semel of Yahoo last week:

Is Yahoo in the news business? Xeni says yes and so their behavior is journalistically unethical. Keller seems to say no because news is just a boutique to them. Semel says no because he doesn’t want to be in trouble.

We all get in trouble if we define journalism too narrowly, especially when the medium that Yahoo depends upon opens up journalism to all, to anyone who finds out information and now can inform the world. If we try to limit the defniition, then we’ll find government trying to limit rights and protections to the few — with the power to take it away from them. If we try to limit the definition, then some people will try to argue that they don’t have to worry about ethics and trust. Funny, people said that’s why we have to worry about bloggers. But it seems we have to worry about big, new media companies, instead.