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Selling a dream? Hardly

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If you graduated — or are about to — with an undergraduate journalism degree this year, you got screwed.

Weaving together the collected wisdom of philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, the naivete of Romenesko-trounced intern Krystal Grow, the we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’ J-schools alarmism of Michael Lewis, mediabistro’s Greg Lindsay tells young J grads that they wasted $30,000 a year on tuition.

Says Lindsay, billed by mediabistro as a freelance writer in Brooklyn who writes about the media:

You thought you were buying a set of skills, credentials, and quality time with the placement office. And you did. But your professors also sold you a mindset, a worldview, an ideology—one in which newspapers are God’s work, bloggers are pagans, and your career trajectory is a long, steep, but ultimately meritocratic climb to a heavenly desk at The New York Times or 60 Minutes.

Taking a page from Bourdieu’s “On Television,” Lindsay argues that it’s just a corporate get-what-you-can-while-you-can chase like any other: just as every media outlet competes for readers, viewers, and advertisers, every journalist competes on a personal level for professional respect, greater responsibilities, a better title, a better salary, etc. This should be eye-rollingly obvious—it’s office politics, people—but was never discussed in my two years of j-school, unless I count my professors’ curt dismissals. Why?

He accuses the journalism professoriate — which, you might note, contains a great many people who have actually had jobs as journalists — of selling young, snot-nosed, wet-behind-the-ears journalistic whippersnappers a sordid bill of goods.

Lindsay houses his argument (and, to some extent, rightly so) in journalism’s relevance:

Because journalism as we know it and j-schools are themselves caught up in a larger struggle for relevance. Newspapers are facing a permanent decline in readers and prominence. Not one of the broadcast news anchors you grew up with will be behind the desk tonight. You are the only hope for the future they’ve got; they’re desperate to make believers out of you.

He says young J-wannabees have unknowingly sided with “the establishment” by deciding to attend J school because journalism writ large has become a shill for anything “mainstream.” On the other side of the coin, he says, are the bloggers, who shall inherit the earth — Because the reality is that the rebellion is more fun.


I’m glad Lindsay wrote the piece. Frankly, it’s a well-placed nettle in the often sensitive skin of J schools. His view needs some visibility.

But much of it is misguided and misaimed.

He accuses J profs like me of selling a shining but unrealistic vision of journalism, and particularly newspapers, as a vehicle for saving the world.

I don’t want to serve on a faculty whose profs sell that vision — and only that vision. True, journalism profs may have a idealistic view of journalism’s potential for social, economic, political and cultural change, but many of us have worked in newsrooms. Believe me, we know office — and corporate — politics.

Journalism is a day-to-day profession with its good and its bad like any other. Forget the visions of saving the world — people in newsrooms want to earn more money to pay the mortgage, dentist bills for the kids’ braces and that damn $30,000-plus yearly tuition. So, yes, they want to get more stories on the front page, because the front page means visibility, and it is the visible (and they’re not always the most competent) who earn promotions and raises.

That does tend to bring ego into the newsroom. That does tend to influence story selection. But does that color journalists an unfortunate shade of yellow? Hardly. Journalists have personal and professional goals like anyone else in any other discipline.

If Lindsay wants a whipping boy, let him tilt at the windmill of corporate profiteering that reduces the number of working journalists and induces fear among the remaining that they might be the next victims out the door. That will drive all the sins that he argues result from J profs selling a sham of a dream.

That said, his viewpoint is important. That’s because J profs have a fundamental problem in their teaching. As I said, many of us have long careers in newsrooms.

So the question we ask ourselves is this: Should I teach them how it really is in a newsroom? Or should I teach them how it ought to be in a newsroom? Lindsay’s essay, despite its use of blogging as a diversion from the real issues, forces us to re-examine that problem.

Would I like my students to use journalism to save the world? Sure. Many of these kids have highly developed social consciences, and that sell appeals to them. But I’d also like them to have a realistic view of the business.

Richard Benedetto, White House and national political correspondent for USA Today, spoke to my classes this semester. He told them he never looked at his job as a world-saving search for truth. He saw his job, he said, as providing readers with the most accurate, comprehensive facts possible within an appropriate context.

As my newsroom godfather, the late Neil L. Perry, once told me: “Just give me the facts. If you want truth, find it on your own time.”

Not all professors would agree with my POV, let alone a few deans I know. But most of us won’t sugarcoat the profession.

Teaching J students about the realities of the profession (hey, what about rates of divorce and alcoholism, kiddies?) is just as important as teaching appropriate professional knowledge, aptitudes and values.

The U.S. has several hundred journalism schools. Many, if not most, require internship hours. Our students here often surpass the 400 hours of required internships. They see realities beyond the cozy protection of the classroom.

As a proposed solution to the ills he sees, Lindsay raises Lewis’ point about abolishing J schools altogether. I agree — in part. If I ruled the world, I’d abolish undergraduate degrees in journalism. That’s not because I don’t believe in journalism instruction. I’d rather wait until undergraduates knew more about science, history, economics, environmentalism, political science, racial justice and how to read a damn map let alone calculate a percentage. They arrive as freshmen with too little knowledge with which to apply the skills I teach.

Lindsay’s essay, unfortunately, has too many threads wound too loosely to fully address here. There’s his crudely drawn distinction between blogging and “MSM” newspapering in both value and function. There’s his overly intent focus on those paragons of journalism instruction — Harvard and Columbia. (Frankly, neither of those places represents the “mainstream” of journalism instruction.)

But he passes over too quickly one more salient point: Journalism schools teach more than journalism. They teach public relations and advertising as well. He does point out that a “healthy percentage” of J-schoolers will opt for other careers presumably, he suggests, for the better money.

Only about one of every eight J-schoolers actually become journalists. If us J profs are selling an overly idealistic dream about the role of journalism in America, then we’re doing a lousy job, because seven-eights of our students didn’t buy it.

Lindsay’s correct to point out that this is ultimately about the relevance of journalism — how its practiced and by whom under what circumstances — given so much recent social and technological change. I hope he writes more on that thread.

Flawed it is, but Lindsay’s piece is worth the read.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 24, 2005 at 3:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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