Tuesday, December 13, 2005

an observation on my trade

So, I work at a newspaper.

I saw this Steve Klein piece at Poynter (poynter.org/column.asp?id=71&aid=93527), in which he tackles the changing face of print journalism. He makes good points, a lot of them. We do need to change how we do business. But I don't think that journalism schools are the best place to look for tomorrow's pathfinders.

I can agree, from the safety of the armchair, that a good journalism school is a place where the hardened vets can instill in young journos certain values that we all hold dear. And no doubt Klein's simple trio of journalism basics - having an ethical compass, knowing your audience and clarity in communication (yegods, he doesn't use consistent bullets) - can be handed down in such places.

But after 11 years of hanging around newspapers, I have to say our system is broken. What do we really get from journalism schools? A mixed bag. Sometimes you get gems, other times you get plagiarists. Worst of all, you (OK, I) often get people who got into journalism in part because they "don't like numbers," people who will tell you: "hey, you know about science, right? I have a question" - people who aren't epistemologists. I hate to say it Minnesota, but I think journalism programs tend to attract these non-detectives, and what could possibly be worse? Even if all you want to write are god damn features, you need to be a detective, a news hound.

And that's first, not second.

Look: Who really broke the story of Oregon's former governor being a fundamentally awful human being? Not the Statesman Journal and not the Oregonian, but Willamette Week. In other words, not the establishment - with its horde of dyed-in-the-wool journos, but the upstart, with its trader-turned-writer.

What's that say about the establishment? Not much, but what could you expect from a machine that believes the best way to go forward is to select its front-line workers on the basis of a decision they made when they were in their late teens or early 20s.

Good reporters don't learn the craft in college. Hell, they don't even learn AP style there. They learn it on the job.

If you want better or better yet transformed print journalism, make the case to newspapers that they need to become the J school, that they need to invest (and I do mean that literally) in assignment editors who are teachers, not just middle-management thugs charged with squeezing an ever-smaller collection of turnips for the daily blood.

Make the case that the responsibility for journalism's future lies with the executives whose companies stand to go broke if they don't figure out how to change with the times.

That being a journalist is a career-long learning process that doesn't end when the W-2s are filled out but requires a long-term commitment from management AND employee.

Enough of this. Time to swim.

No comments: